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How the Delaware State Fair got its start

neon delaware state fair sign

Today’s Delaware State Fair in Harrington is all cow roping, carnivals and cotton candy. A delight for casual attendees, hard work for exhibitors.

But few, if any, farmers at the Fair feel the pressure of their farm going under if they don’t attend. 

The ancestor fairs of this modern Kent County extravaganza started out as a desperate bid to prevent the local economy from collapsing.

They had animal judging and rope tricks, sure. But the first fairs’ main push was to educate sons of the soil in the state’s two lower counties about ‘progressive farming.’ 

By the mid-19th century Kent and Sussex County planters had watched their yields plummet year after year, and had no idea how to stop the freefall.

Fairview Park, Dover, DE. Site of Annual Exhibition of the Agricultural Society of Kent County.
Fairview Park, Dover, DE. Site of Annual Exhibition of the Agricultural Society of Kent County. Delaware Public Archives

Their great grandparents had been fortunate land grant recipients of thousands of acres, and so for the first generation or two, when a plot of land’s fertility wore out, the owners could simply move to the next plot over, never dealing with the need to replenish the soil. They didn’t view this maneuver as crop rotation, though that’s ultimately what it was. But as large plantations were sub-divided among following generations, thousands of acres became hundreds, then tens, of acres. Crop rotation without soil replenishment no longer worked.

New Castle County, adjacent to Philadelphia, benefited from new scientific discoveries as they spilled out of that burgeoning metropolis. And so farmers in Delaware’s northernmost county encountered the concept of adding nutrients back to the soil and rotating crops systematically a decade or two before their downstate brethren.

Delaware’s first annual exhibit of modern farm practices appeared in 1845 in New Castle County’s town of Odessa, sponsored by the Agricultural Society of St. Georges and Appoquinimink Hundred. The group changed this tongue-tying name to the New Castle Agricultural Society by 1851.

Milford businessman Peter F. Causey was elected Delaware governor in 1854. Concurrently the Delaware Railroad was busy extending its main trunk down the spine of Delmarva: it built a station at Farmington in 1855, Wyoming, Felton and Seaford in 1856, Delmar by 1859. 

Peter F. Causey
Peter F. Causey

Causey owned, among other businesses, a lime kiln, originally founded to manufacture that ingredient for use in plaster and mortar. But as the new railroads brought with them knowledge of updated farming techniques, such as adding lime to the soil to nourish it, the new governor saw both a business opportunity and a way to lift his downstate constituents out of a self-defeating cycle. 

Governor Peter F. Causey, then, is credited with spearheading the 1855 Legislature effort which passed a bill to incorporate an Agricultural Society of Kent County. The society immediately started plans for an early October fair, to be held in Dover. Lots of twists and turns were ahead before the Annual Exhibition of the Agricultural Society of Kent County became the Delaware State Fair, but that 1855 undertaking was the start.

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