Trying to imagine Allentown without the Great Allentown Fair is like trying to imagine it without the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at Center Square, in short unthinkable. And as the date gets closer for the next fair at the end of August the office at the Fairgrounds is one continuous bustle.
Bill Albert, head of the Lehigh County Agricultural Society that runs the Fair could not be happier. "This fair is a long time community institution," says Albert who has served in a wide variety of volunteer posts in Lehigh County over many years, including heading up the county's 1976 Bicentennial effort. "Each year we do what we can to appeal to folks and at the same time keep those things that so many people know and expect to see."
Although many people today may go to the fair to enjoy the rides, it still has a purpose deeply rooted in local agriculture. The idea for the fair goes back to the early 1850s. All over Pennsylvania in that era, counties were trying to come up with ways to improve one of the state's major industries. The problem was how to get information about advances in farming to the farmers who seldom had time to keep themselves in the know.
It began in January of 1852, a month right out of a Currier and Ives print. "Sleighing around the county has been excellent," noted the Lehigh County Register and "sleighing parties have become a common sight." Thanks to this weather, what the newspaper called "a large and respectable" crowd of farmers gathered by sleigh on January 24, 1852 at William Leisenring's Public House in Egypt. Here they agreed to form the Lehigh County Agricultural Society. On February 3rd, 1852, the society's constitution, which included the responsibility for running a fair, was read and approved at the Lehigh County Courthouse.
The first fair was held Wednesday through Friday, September 29 to October 1, 1852. The location in Allentown was on a 3-acre lot bounded by Union, Walnut, S. 4th St. and Jordan Creek.
Admission was 12 ½ cents. To restrict admission to those who paid, an 8 foot canvas "wall" was erected and a ticket booth and small office were constructed. A temporary 80 by 30 foot building was erected to house an exhibit of "hair, silk and Worsted needle work," that the press noted, "did honor to the female exhibitors." Flowers, fruits and vegetables were also displayed. The press expressed disappointment at the poor showing of poultry, noting that for some reason the best fowl fanciers had decided not to participate.
There were no thrill rides but horse races and live stock were plentiful. A plowing match was the big attraction as several teams contested. Jacob J Ueberroth of Saucon won first prize, David Beisel of South Whitehall second and Charles Wittman of Saucon third.
The Allentown Brass Band, an ancestor of the Allentown Band of today, provided the music for attendees. Lest anyone forget the first fair's purpose, a Professor Dickerson of Philadelphia gave "a very scientific address" on the coming trends in agriculture, and local attorney George W. Foering spoke to farmers at the county courthouse. When all was said and done, an estimated crowd of 20,000 had attended and over $1,200 dollars had been collected. That convinced everyone that the fair was a good idea.
One thing agreed on was that a better site was needed so an area at 5th and Liberty Streets was selected as the fairgrounds. At that time in the mid 1850s, 5th and Liberty was on the fringe of the city. Buildings were erected and a proper race course constructed. A small part of the race course remains today in the Old Fairgrounds Neighborhood and is known as Fair Street. Except for 1862 when the property was used as a camping place by a local militia unit during the Civil War, a fair was held at the site every year until 1888.
Then, because its neighborhood was getting crowded and the fair needed to expand, it moved itself out to 17th and Chew Streets. This site, which is its current home today, provided a much bigger space for horse racing. Dan Patch, among the best known race horses of his day, was a popular draw to the race track.
By the dawn of the 20th century, the Great Allentown Fair had Ferris wheels and midway sideshows. Something called in "Deepest Darkest Russia" was a popular attraction as was a belly dancer, named after one who had appeared at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago as "Little Egypt." For many years after that "hoochy-kootchy girls," the stuff of farm boy dreams, became major midway items.
In 1909 air ship races were the rage. In 1910 Glenn Curtis flew his plane over the fairgrounds and became the first flight of a heavier-than-air craft over the Lehigh Valley. In 1923 auto polo, playing polo with automobiles, made a sensation.
The 1920s were also the start of the big shows with dancers and singing acts. George Hamid ran most of these showgirl-studded events into the 1950s. Guy Lombardo, the big band leader, appeared at the Fair in the late 1950s and began the trend of big-name music attractions that help make the Fair popular today.
But for those who just want to enjoy what the fair was made for, there are still the farm animals and the young people who raise them. With a track record that's over 150 years old, the Great Allentown Fair must still be doing something right. Waffles and ice cream, anyone?