Indiana at 200 (47): The State Fair
by Andrea Neal
Not much has changed since the first Indiana State Fair in October 1852. Farmers showed off their finest specimens of cows, hogs, horses and chickens. A “Mechanics Hall” displayed the newest reapers and plows. Corn growers competed for a silver cup for the heartiest ears. And right outside the main entrance, a vaudeville act performed under a big tent three times a day.
In 1851, the Indiana General Assembly established a State Board of Agriculture to encourage Indiana farming. The board promptly made a decision that has benefited Hoosiers ever since: An annual state fair would be held to demonstrate the latest farm equipment and to advance knowledge about soil, crops and livestock.
The Indiana Farmer, a weekly newspaper, reported on the inaugural fair in its Nov. 1, 1852, edition.
“Well reader, here we are at Indianapolis to witness one of the most interesting exhibitions ever made in the state,” wrote a farmer/reporter identified as L. Bellman. “What a mass of people! And what a confusion of sound. The merry laugh is almost unheard in this neighing of horses, and braying of mules and Jacks, and lowing of cattle, and bleating of sheep and grunting of hogs.”
From the get-go, the fair featured a lot more than farm animals. Although the term “freak” show is verboten today, it was a marketing ploy then. That very first fair advertised a “Giant” and “Giantess” and a two-headed calf.
And the fair expanded. In 1853, farmers exhibited squash as big as sheep, the largest weighing 185 pounds. In 1854, organizers threw a grand agricultural ball. In 1916, fair attendees rode a 2,000-foot-high speed-roller coaster for the first time.
In the 1920s, the fair became the showplace for young Hoosiers enrolled in 4-H, an agricultural-education program. Harness racing, the high school marching band and “the world’s largest boar” title were added along the way.
The fair’s most momentous occasion ironically had nothing to do with agriculture but with a rock group that hailed from Liverpool, England. The Beatles performed two sold-out shows for 30,000 screaming fans on Sept. 3, 1964, generating global headlines. Indianapolis was the band’s 10th stop in a 24-city tour, the only one at a state fair.
Indiana claims the sixth-oldest fair in the country. The first was in New York in 1841, but credit for the idea goes back to a Massachusetts farmer named Elkanah Watson, who staged a “cattle show” in 1810 to demonstrate new breeds of livestock. The idea evolved into county agricultural societies with annual fairs, which grew into the state fairs we know today.
Until 1892, the fair rotated from city to city — places easily accessible by road, canal or rail. Some of the earliest fairs took place in Lafayette, Madison, New Albany, Fort Wayne and Terre Haute.
When it became clear that only Indianapolis could draw large enough crowds to be profitable, the capital city was chosen as a permanent site and land was acquired at 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway. In 1990, the fairgrounds became a year-round event venue that hosted conferences, concerts and exhibitions. The duration of the fair has grown, too, from five days in 1852 to 17 days since 2009.
Note to readers: This is one in a series of essays that leads to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directions: The Indiana State Fairgrounds is located at the corner of East 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway in Indianapolis.