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Festive Fairs Flourish, Fanning Farming’s Flame

Crowds at the 1919 Delaware State Fair hagley

Crowds at 1919 Delaware State Fair, Elsmere Fairgrounds

Delaware’s tradition of agricultural fairs dates to 1763 when farmers and businessmen gathered in Dover to sell livestock and market merchandise. Throughout the 1800s, similar events were organized in Odessa, Wilmington, Laurel, Middletown, and Bridgeville. These fairs provided a platform for farmers to learn about the latest technology, and showcase their best livestock, farm equipment, and needlework. 

Fairview Park’s Notable Fair

Dover’s Fairview Park played host to a notable fair during the mid-19th century that garnered great success. However, the inaugural 1855 expo faced pushback. “God forbid that it’s like should ever be seen again,” complained a letter to the editor in the Wilmington Daily Republican. The writer vehemently criticized the fair management’s lackadaisical attitude towards under-the-table gambling operations. Despite some minor objections, the annual Dover event flourished and eventually became the largest fair in the state. 

The gathering had assumed the title of the Delaware State Fair by 1896, marking its standing in the region. Fairview Park came alive for a full week from September 21-26 that year, marking the occasion’s 19th anniversary. An 1897 advertisement presented the fair as a “clean, vigorous, dignified, and comprehensive exposition.” The Pennsylvania Railroad offered special excursion tickets, departing from various depots in Maryland, and across Delaware. Nevertheless, the good times were about to stop rolling. 

poster promoting 1923 Kent & Sussex County Fair in Harrington, DE
Delaware Public Archives

 Looming public concerns of tuberculosis overshadowed the 1900 fair. This led the state to withhold its annual funding indefinitely. The Dover Golf Club took advantage of the pause and purchased the Fairview Park grounds and built a course there. 

Delaware’s public had no state fair to attend between 1901-1910. “Ten years ago, when a State Fair on its last leg begged the Legislature for a saving pittance, the aristocrats fought it off,” stated a disgusted letter to the editor in a 1907 edition of the Wilmington Evening Journal. “Since that time the State has exhibited discreditably at one fair in another State, and now at another, and spent more money on them than a home fair would have cost her.” 

During the years without a state fair, Wilmington’s Brandywine Springs Agricultural Fair served as a significant local alternative. That group reincorporated as Delaware State Fair Association, Inc. (DSFA) and revived the Delaware State Fair name.  They relocated the fairgrounds in 1910 to the city’s Wawaset Park in search of a wider audience. 

Six years later, in 1916, the DSFA learned that Du Pont planned to buy Wawaset Park intending to develop the land into a residential community. Anticipating possible disruption to the fair, the DSFA promptly acquired an alternative parcel of land in early 1917. This new land in the adjacent town of Elsmere hosted a new fairground that included a racetrack for horses, cars, and motorcycles. That year’s September fair on the new grounds was notably well-attended, with a single-day head count of 25,000 people.  

Community Spirit in Kent and Sussex Counties

Residents of Kent and Sussex counties, meanwhile, felt the need for their own fair that would serve them more equitably. In 1919, a group of Harrington harness racing businessmen formulated plans. They incorporated the Kent and Sussex County Fair Association, Inc. (KSCFA) on January 12, 1920. 

The KSCFA acquired a 30-acre plot in Harrington, financed by issuing 1,200 shares at $25 each. Their mission: to foster agriculture and entertain rural communities. The inaugural fair, held from July 27-30, 1920, drew a diverse crowd with tickets priced at 25 cents for children and 50 cents for adults. 

The two fairs thrived side by side for several years. The DSFA in Wilmington persisted with its annual September event at the new Elsmere location until 1928. In that year, the Delaware State Fair Association, Inc. relocated to Harrington, merging with the Kent and Sussex County Fair. This combination marked the genesis of the Delaware State Fair as we know it today. 

Man with sheep at 1920 Delaware State Fair
1920 Delaware State Fair. Hagley Museum & Library

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