By Terry Rogers
On July 20, the Delaware State Fair kicks off in Harrington, marking the 98th year the fair has been in operation. The fair has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1919.
The idea to create a fair in downstate Delaware started with a group of Harrington residents who were gathered in the Harrington railroad station around a potbelly stove. As the idea grew, many community-focused residents began attending meetings in an effort to create a fair in southern Delaware, quickly outgrowing the railroad station as the location for the meetings. Meetings were then moved to the Harrington Fire Company hall.
The desire was to have a fair or exposition that would promote and encourage agriculture as well as give residents of rural communities in Delaware a place for entertainment and a diversion from everyday life. On February 17, 1920, the group purchased 30 acres for $6,000, laying out the track and the Grandstand. Initially, the fair was known as the Kent and Sussex County Fair as the Delaware State Fair was a name used for a fair in Elsmere. The first Kent and Sussex County Fair opened on July 27, 1920. At the time, admission to the fair was 25 cents for children and 50 cents for adults. Each car was charged 25 cents for parking. The Big Motorcycle Race, harness racing and exhibits netted the fair a profit of $43.90 the first year, prompting organizers to immediately begin planning for the next year’s fair with a theme of “Bigger and Better Than Ever.”
The Kent and Sussex County Fair grew steadily but the Delaware State Fair in Elsmere closed in 1924. The Future Farmers of America became part of the fair in 1932. During the Great Depression, gross expenses for the fair had to be cut 20 percent, but many people used the fair as a distraction from the difficult economic times, flocking to see The Great Zacchini and the Human Cannonball.
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World War II caused the fair to close in 1942 and 1943, the first break in the fair’s run since it opened in 1920. When it reopened in 1944, admission was free for those who purchased War Bonds on the grounds during the fair. School bands played concerts every night of the fair, starting in 1950 and that tradition continued for many years. In 1953, the fair raised the admission price from $0.65 to $0.75 and grandstand prices rose to $1.
In 1955, $350,000 in new buildings were on the grounds when fairgoers attended and the first major entertainers, “The Mariners,” a TV and radio quartet, were booked. Attendance increased by 10 percent that year. The fair ran for a full week for the first time in 1961. That year, the singer Dion brought $1.75 for reserved, top-priced seats. A country music show featuring Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Tex Ritter, Kitty Wells as well as Johnny and Jack Wright was another popular concert that year.
The Delaware State Fair name was purchased in 1962. That year, a twister storm struck the fairgrounds. The storm blew away signs, collapsed tents and mangled the Ferris wheel. Despite the damage which amounted in the thousands, volunteers pitched in and repaired as much as they could so that the fair could continue.
The Demolition Derby was added in 1966 and an all-girl automobile thrill show was added in 1969. In 1986, a collapsed screen in a large water well pump and a failing pump in a small well caused the fair to run out of water. The Harrington Volunteer Fire Company used tankers to haul water for livestock while truck pumpers and fire hoses were used in a relay system to get water from the city of Harrington to the fairgrounds. The State Board of Health and the Delmarva Drilling Company, who worked around the clock, were able to establish water to the fair by Wednesday, just a few days after the start of the fair.
In 1993, the Delaware State Fair became the first inductee into the Delaware Tourism Hall of Fame for Outstanding Achievement in Annual Events, receiving a plaque from then-Governor Tom Carper. In 2004, to promote the fair’s theme “Once Upon a Time,” Pam and Paul Galyean won a fairytale wedding at the fair. They received a horse-drawn carriage and wedding ceremony under the Grandstand in the courtyard gazebo.
Today, the fair sits on nearly 300 acres and offers a wide variety of carnival rides and games as well as multiple concerts featuring renowned musicians, singers and comedy stars. It is also the site of several business enterprises, including the Harrington Raceway Casino and the Centre Ice Rink. The harness racing track on the fairgrounds is the oldest continuously operating harness racing track in the United States. The fairgrounds have been an important part of the Harrington community with a strong economic benefit to Harrington and the surrounding area. An impact study conducted in 1996 found that the fair brings in $4 million each year and over 200 local residents are hired as ushers, maintenance staff and ticket takers. Unlike the early years of the fair, the fairgrounds are now the site of year round events including horse shows, flea markets, antique car shows and more.
The Delaware State Fair runs from July 20 through the 29 on the fairgrounds located just south of Harrington on Route 13, promising to build on the theme of the second year to be “Bigger and Better Than Ever.”
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