At the turn of the nineteenth century, modernization was changing the very landscape of America. Newfangled machines, modern inventions, unthinkable advances. And the field of all this innovation? It was in the field itself: agriculture.
Europe was pumping out new agricultural inventions faster than it was crops, and America was in a pickle. How were we to keep up with the European agricultural innovation as they plowed ahead? The answer lay not in labs or assembly lines, but in agricultural societies.
Much like competitors in Europe, and even Virginia and the Carolinas, farmers in Maryland wanted to keep up with the latest innovations in their vocation. In 1818, the state formed the Maryland Agricultural Society, a group and gathering for local farmers to share tricks of their trade and livestock, and to discuss the sustainability of agriculture in the region.
Those talks of sustainability brought to light a new kind of endeavor: livestock competitions. New Englanders were already hosting the conventions, lively shows where farmers got together to show off their finest animals: wooly sheep, horned bulls, prancing horses. They were entertaining, but also profitable, as townspeople would come from miles around to take in the sights. The income from the competitions and shows filtered back into the agricultural societies and trickled down into the fertile fields of agriculture itself.
In 1821, Marylanders took a cue from their northern neighbors and hosted the first Cattle Show and Fair just outside of Baltimore, inspiring a host of similar events around the state. Frederick’s farmers were one such inspired group: they formed their own agricultural society before the year was out, and hosted their own Cattle Show and Fair outside George Creager’s Tavern in the spring.
It was a hastily planned event, but no less successful because of it. Hosted directly between the planting of corn and the planting of tobacco, it was an ideal time for farmers to put down their pitchforks and join in the fun. And join they did, making the event an utter success. In its earliest representation, it was genuinely a livestock competition, and the premiums for winners were sizable. In total over $102 was distributed that first year, $15 to the best stallion alone.
Despite the absolute success of the first show, the Frederick County Agricultural Society struggled, sinking, for several years; events were cancelled and postponed until 1825, when it briefly reemerged, rebranded as the Cattle Show, Fair & Exhibition and Sale of Domestic Manufacturers. The event was held randomly over the next five years, until finally, the agricultural society disbanded and the fairgrounds shuttered for decades.
In 1849, the Frederick County Agricultural Society was reimagined as the Farmer’s Club, and in 1853 they resurrected the tradition of the fair. But this was not the wee gathering of decades past or a simple celebration of livestock—this was a fair for the ages. Thousands of people poured into the Frederick Barracks Grounds, which had been transformed. Stables, stalls, and pens lined the grounds and a shed was erected for displaying produce, but the real star of the show was in the center of the campus: a horse ring with a judge’s stand at its bullseye, intermittently inhabited by a joyous brass band. Spectators lined the horse ring constantly, noble ladies vying for viewing spots alongside humble farmers.
Unlike its predecessors, this time the Great Frederick Fair maintained its momentum. In its second year, the local B&O Railroad offered free round trip tickets to the fair for riders from Baltimore to Piedmont. Buoyed by the railroad and positive press from the previous year, the event erupted beyond anyone’s expectations. On the second day, an astounding 15,000 people filed in to see the sites and sample the wares of the Frederick Fair. And the success continued through the 1850’s, culminating with Frederick’s hosting of the Maryland State Fair in 1859.
Though the fair took a hiatus through the Civil War, it returned, larger than ever, in 1868. The Agricultural Society, reformed in 1867, had finally recognized the value of the Fair and invested in it—whole hog. They purchased a parcel of land, twenty-one acres, and built permanent buildings and a race track. The Great Frederick Fair was here to stay.
Some of the most notable dignitaries of the Civil War, including President Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman, attended the fair in its reopening year, drawing even more guests than ever. In the following years the fair only continued to grow and astound, with new features like carnival masquerades and special guests, including newspaperman Horace Greely, and, as always, innovations in farm equipment.
In 2017 the Frederick Fair will celebrate its 155th year. Though it’s grown over the years to include forty-four buildings over forty acres, midway carnival rides, performances by some of the biggest names in music and dozens of fried food booths, the core mission of the Frederick Fair remains the same: agricultural education. Even in the midst of all those bright lights and loud sounds, the simple sight of a healthy, vibrant farm animal, decked in blue ribbons, can still be the highlight of a day at the fair.
SEE MORE GREAT FREDERICK FAIR PHOTOS HERE