Thursday, August 10, 2017


Our country fair is around the corner and even though I no longer show livestock (Cotswold sheep & llamas) or have the 4–H groups, we none the less participate in some way. Amazingly enough fairs started many years ago-  thousands in fact.

Old and New Testament references to fairs are mixed with allusions to commerce, trade, the marketplace, festivals, religious feasts and holy days.  Where and when the first fair was held is not known, however, evidence points to the existence of fairs as early as 500 BC.  

From the beginning, fairs were commercial in character, where merchants from distant countries would come together, bringing native wares to trade with one another. While it is not clearly explained in Ezekiel or in other biblical references, it is reasonable to assume that "fair" was the name given to the place at which early trading between foreign merchants was conducted.

Scripture records in the book of Ezekiel: "Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the kinds of riches with silver, iron, tin and lead, they traded in thy fairs." Ezekiel's account of the destruction of Tyre, supposedly written about 588 BC, describes Tyre as an important market and fair center.

It is clear that some sort of religious activity was companion to the commerce. The Latin world "feria" meaning holy day, is probably the root of the word "fair." Each feria was a day when large numbers of people would assemble for worship. Worship in those early days was centered around temples in great cities, including Ninevah, Athens, Rome and Mecca. These cities were also respected as the great commercial centers of the world. Fields adjacent to these temples were staked out for traders. Religious figures were placed about the fields in order to protect the traders and merchants.

During the early Christian era, the church took an active part in sponsoring fairs on feast days, and as a result, fairs came to be a source of revenue for the church. Possibly, our modern church bazaars possess some rudiments of these religious fairs.

This evolution which blended religion and commerce continued over time and moved into western Europe. Periodic gatherings brought together the producers of all types of commodities for the purpose of barter, exchange and sale. Entertainment and other forms of activity were later added to draw people, thus giving us  fairs as we know them today.

In 1765 the first American fair was presented in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Many small fairs were held during the early 1700's in French Canada while under French rule.

Later, Elkanah Watson, a New England patriot and farmer, earned the title, "Father of US agricultural fairs" by organizing the Berkshire Agricultural Society and creating an event known then as a Cattle Show in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in September 1811. It was more than just an exhibit of animals – it was a competition, with prize money ($70) paid for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine and sheep.

Painting of Watson by Cople

Watson worked diligently for many years helping communities organize their own agricultural societies and their respective shows (fairs). By 1819 most counties in New England had organized their own agricultural societies and the movement was spreading into the other states. The nineteenth century closed with almost every state and province having one or more agricultural fair or exhibition.

The core elements of those agricultural exhibitions fairs of the early 1800s  are at the heart of the agricultural fair in North America today.  Today, over 3,200 fairs are held in North America each year. They provide industrial exhibits, demonstrations and competition aimed at the advancement of livestock, horticulture and agriculture with special emphasis placed on educational activities such as 4-H, Future Farmers of America and similar youth development programs. While enjoying these high-minded pursuits, fair visitors are also able to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the richness and variety of what the world has to offer.

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