Yesterday my family visited a local treasure, the York Fair - the oldest fair in the United States. First held in 1765, the Fair began before the country was founded, and it survived through a civil war, two World Wars, Vietnam and 9/11. According the fair website, "A charter to hold that fair was granted to the people of York by Thomas Penn, son of William Penn in recognition of “the flourishing state to which the town hath arrived through their industry."
A lot has changed over the years, reflecting changing times and tastes. At first it was a two-day agricultural market on the town commons. Then in 1853 the Agricultural Association was formed, the fair expanded, and it found its own dedicated location. During the Civil War, starting with the firing on Fort Sumter, wounded Union Soldiers were treated on the fairgrounds. The hospitals were made permanent enough that injured soldiers displaced the fair until 1865.
The only other interruption in the fair was due to health issues. The fair remained open after the outbreak of World War I, but was not held in 1918 due to an influenza outbreak that killed 166 people in York.
The York Fair is no longer on the hospital site - it expanded from its original two days to a ten-day event, with national musical acts performing on its Grandstand. The York County Agricultural Association has built several exhibition halls and an exhibition arena, which houses farm animal competitions during the fair and a variety of other events throughout the year.
Over the years the York Fair has changed to meet changing tastes, in some years adding features like strong men, dancing girls, a freak show, horse races, games, a battle of the local bands, and fundraising booths for a variety of community organizations. And of course we can't forget the food - much of it comprised of something delicious deep fried or coated with something sugary.
When families take their children to the fair today, they can ride rides, build bug houses or bird houses at the Home Depot children's workshop, buy trinkets, or they can take the more traditional tour of the original agricultural offerings. Community members submit items ranging from knitted afghans to jellies and pies, from hornet's nests to giant pumpkins - all with the goal of receiving a coveted blue ribbon or Grand Champion designation from the judges.
Until this year we hadn't been to the fair in a couple of years. Like most local treasures, we natives tend to take it for granted. But every now and then, like this year, people like me rediscover its history, its charm, and its recognition of a very special segment of our local economy.