The Delaware State Fair turns 100

The Delaware State Fair is, simply put, a 10-day summer institution for farmers and families.

In 2019, the fair is celebrating as never before. This year marks the century point for the late July exposition, marking 100 years of exhibits, concerts, food and carnival rides.

But this grand tradition started out small.

According to author Robin Brown’s just-published “Treasured Tradition,” a meticulously-researched, photo-filled celebration of its history, by 1919 the First State already was home to well-established agricultural fairs.

But a group of Harrington businessmen had something bigger in mind.

A fateful meeting

Meeting early in 1919 at the town railroad station to discuss a more localized fair, they decided “southern Delaware deserved one of its own,” Brown wrote.

No one kept records of who attended or exactly what was discussed, but the idea grew, forcing the planners to move meetings to Harrington’s town hall.

In April 1919, Sen. Charles D. Murphy successfully sponsored state legislation providing $5,000 in startup money for the fair, and on Jan. 31, 1920, a charter for the Kent and Sussex County Fair Inc., was filed in Dover.

A Harrington businessman, Murphy was one of the three men filing the agreement; he was corporation president until his death from a fall in 1928. The documentation listed $30,000 in capital, raised by selling 1,200 shares of stock at $25 each.

The first fair was July 27 through July 30, only six months later.

Adults were charged 50 cents for admission (equivalent to $6.40 today), children 25 cents. Although World War I ended two years earlier, the ticket price still carried a three-cent war tax, Brown said. Parking was another 25 cents, plus war tax.

A happy governor

As anticipation grew, local newspapers reported large crowds would be expected in part because Harrington was a junction of two busy rail lines.

Gov. John G. Townsend Jr., who had signed Murphy’s legislation, visited July 28 and was reportedly quite pleased with what he saw.

Underneath the fair’s 7,600-square-foot grandstand, an exhibition room held marvels: new automobiles, Victrolas and other modern electronic equipment. There was a large exhibit of canned fruits and vegetables, and workers at a child welfare booth weighed babies and offered tips to new parents.

Another display was filled with exhibits of chickens, hogs, horses and cows. There were races, as 123 horses took part during the Fair.

A big novelty was the opportunity for patrons to take a ride in a war surplus Curtiss biplane, with flights every half-hour.

Attendance July 29, 1920 was estimated at between 15,000 and 16,000. Although the high temperature for the day was in the mid-80s, several women reportedly passed out from the heat.

On a side note, a Maryland man was caught by a Prohibition agent as he was passing around a quart bottle of whiskey to a crowd gathered around his car. Whether he was selling liquor or giving away free samples isn’t recorded, but the agent apparently let him go after confiscating the booze.

When all the accounting was finished, the directors reported a $43.90 profit.

According to the Wilmington Morning News, the fair’s directors were “more than delighted with this first year’s experience and hope to have a larger and better fair next year.”

Planning started immediately for 1921, which would be one day longer and feature fireworks and automobile racing.

Still going strong

The fair has expanded and operated continuously since 1919, with the exception of two World War II years, 1942 and 1943. The grounds housed German prisoners of war during the latter part of the conflict.

Officially rechristened the Delaware State Fair in January 1962, the fair today continues as the premier venue for young farmers and 4H members to show off their crops and prize livestock.

Now encompassing 300 acres and with attendance reaching almost 300,000 in 2018, the fair is a place to meet, enjoy the carnival rides, view prize-winning arts and crafts, sample unusual foods, attend concerts and shows, and have a good time.

Not too bad for an idea born around a pot-belly stove in Harrington’s train station.