To effectively understand contemporary American agricultural fairs, one must examine the historical context from which these fairs originated. Following the American Revolution, the relative alienation from Europe forced American farmers to develop independently their own technologies and methods for agricultural production. Efforts to improve agricultural efficiency also fostered the development of agricultural societies and associations whose mission served to disseminate and display agricultural technologies and practices. In particular, these associations afforded farmers who operated small holdings opportunities to exhibit and view displays of livestock and produce in which theory had been transformed into practice. Farmers could win premiums in competitions in the areas that interested them. Organizers gave prizes for sheep shearing and plowing trials. Sheepshearing contests were especially important because of nationalistic and commercial implications. The raising of fine wool for cloth implied domestic self-sufficiency and the beginnings of a competitive trade base for agriculturalists. While all of these early efforts petered out, they functioned as fore-runners to the present-day county fairs.
Agricultural societies eventually began to spread from New England to the South and Midwest by the 1820s. Even though the agricultural societies attempted to serve the interests of all social levels for their constituents, it was still a small group of gentlemen farmers who organized and benefited most from the events. Few travelers' accounts or journals of this period name agricultural shows as rural amusement or as significant agricultural endeavors. Many farmers with small holdings still lacked markets and were concerned with breaking ground and surviving the next several seasons rather than with improving production and the quality of goods. Consequently, agricultural organization declined to some extent between 1825 and 1840 as European settlement expanded. Public money that had been allotted to aid the formation of the agricultural societies was often withdrawn for lack of interest.
The scarcity of labor following the Civil War and the expanding industrial sector of the economy conferred more importance on agricultural fairs than they had enjoyed in the 1840s. Leslie Prosterman noted that at the fairs, farmers could find labor-saving devices and means by which they could improve the quality and yield of their products to feed the increasing numbers of factory workers and city dwellers. With the development of a larger population and a more complex agricultural-industrial economy, the need also grew for institutionalized social organization. W. J. Gates argued that the agricultural fairs of the turn of the century, "which reached a dispersed rural population whose isolation was ordinarily difficult to penetrate, provided a unique opportunity to apprise the farmers and their wives of current social concerns and efforts to accomplish change. . . . Socialization in consequence of a shared experience, annually renewed, offset rural isolation and contributed to a sense of community," (p. 277). The agricultural fairs supplied information and examples illustrating new agricultural practices while they presented an arena for social gatherings and interaction. Thus, the establishment of social and economic codes of judgment and behavior was assured to those who lived on isolated farms.
The Development of the Modern Fair
The type of farming practiced during different periods also affected the look of the county fair. Through the late nineteenth century and until the latter half of the 1930s, farming from the Mid-Atlantic region to the Midwest was very diversified. From the 1940s on, farms in those regions became much more specialized. This change in farming was also reflected in changes to county fairs. From the 1940s to the 1970s, county fairs suffered a decline in participation. Fair organizers cited the rise in specialization, laziness, lack of community spirit, television, and the automobile's dominance in society as the main reasons. Prosterman suggested that this specialization diminished the number of potential exhibits because the soybean farmer bought milk and vegetables and meat at the grocery store; tilled and harvested with machines, not horses and oxen; and bought household items at the shopping center. She also felt that laziness and lack of community spirit were often attributed to the popularity of television and the resultant ability to be entertained in one's own armchair at home. She suggested, however, that the automobile has had the opposite effect, conveying people farther away to urban centers, where they saw more crowds, ingested a greater volume of information, and viewed more sophisticated entertainment than the county fairs could present.
During that same three-decade time period (1940s to 1970s), a final factor affecting county fairs was the shrinking population of rural America, as changes in agribusiness allowed for fewer farmers running larger farms. This meant that fewer rural participants were available to work in fairs.
Since the 1970s, fairs have experienced a renaissance and become a major social and economic event for rural communities of all sizes, typically lasting between seven to ten days. With the growing use of the fair as a local central gathering place, entertainment played a larger role in the fair's avowed purpose, acting as a draw and a moneymaker. In response, exhibits grew more numerous, and so did casual visitors. Fair managers formed cooperative associations with other fairs to establish policies concerning carnivals, date setting, sharing certain traveling exhibits, common problems, and standardized rules of conduct.
It used be that agriculturalists would come to the fair and make a whole day of it. At modern fairs, they came for shorter periods to fulfill many specific objectives, leaving once those objectives were fulfilled. Fairs also became increasingly oriented toward youth. Urban groups became more involved in fairs after the 1960s, mirroring the shift from agriculture to entertainment. Prosterman noted that periods of recession also appeared to help fairs—there was less money available to spend on expensive vacations, making a day at the fair seem more attractive, while neighbors seemed to care more about cementing community relations. W. J. Gates suggested the back-to-the-land movement and nostalgia, allied with economic constraints, led people to grow more vegetables, can more produce, make their own clothes, raise their prized animals, and present the results of their efforts at the fair.
The social-world configuration of contemporary fairs also helps to define the nature of leisure experiences enjoyed by the populations associated with the fair. For the most part, the various regions of the fair also spatially define these social worlds, which can be broken down into three distinct populations: agriculturists, casual visitors, and carnival and fair employees. Agricultural arenas and livestock halls typically lie on the fairground perimeter. As one ventures toward the center of the fairground, exhibit halls for both agriculture and other private industry become more populous. Finally, from the center of the fairground and often extending toward the outer perimeter opposite the agricultural arenas, a multitude of vendors, amusements, and carnival rides occupy the remaining areas of the fairground.
Fair Attendance: Who and Why
The occupants of these spatial contexts that define the social worlds consist primarily of three broadly defined groups. First and perhaps foremost, agriculture remains the focus of most fairs. As in years past, many attend the fair to view the latest trends in farming equipment, exhibit livestock and produce, and socialize with others whose living is or was intimately connected with the land. These people also often hold some administrative position within the fair association and volunteer their time to help stage the event. While agriculturalists will inevitably take in the variety of amusements, rides, games of chance, and food vendors, their primary motivation for attending lies in the camaraderie associated with their vocation and the desire to explore more efficient methods of agriculture. These preferences and behaviors are passed from generation to generation with the assistance of organizations such as 4-H. Many exhibitors have also become very specialized in their interests, and their passion for their exhibits could be considered a form of serious leisure; they have spent their lives refining their skills to produce the exhibit, be it craft, livestock, or produce.
Alternately, casual visitors are drawn to fairs for more hedonic reasons. These visitors typically have no commercial association with the fair. While agriculturalists are inclined to pass by "side shows" that have begun to encroach upon their agricultural interests, casual visitors are drawn to such shows; in fact, the shows often constitute the fair's major attraction to that group. In addition to the social interaction with other family and friends attending with them, casual visitors gain a full day of entertainment from the thrills of amusements, rides, and vendors offering sweet and rich treats.
The last social world is composed of the carnival operators and vendors (often referred to as "carnies"), whose attendance is driven by the prospect of economic gain. Members of this social world travel the nation from fair to fair, providing the amusements that sustain casual visitors.
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