Story and Photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributor
While most people are familiar with what a county fair is, few may realize why we have them. The Rockingham Fair Association, which hosts the annual county fair, just outside the city limits south of Harrisonburg, states it held its first fair in 1949, although other local organizations held fairs in various locations around the county prior to that date. The history of the county fair in America, however, began much earlier.
In Roman societies fairs were held as a holiday where work was suspended for its citizens. During the Middle Ages, a fair was an annual event where goods and livestock were sold or traded, drawing local crowds and travelers.
In the early 18th century, New Englander Elkanah Watson organized what is recognized as the first agriculture fair. According to the New York State Library, Watson “moved to a large farm he purchased near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he experimented with methods and procedures to improve cultivation and livestock breeding in America. For example, he introduced new breeds of livestock to this country, such as Merino sheep. To promote his many discoveries and prize breeds, he staged in 1810, in conjunction with his neighbors, the celebrated “cattle show” that evolved into an American institution known as the county fair. ”
The idea caught on and soon other regions began organizing their own county and state agricultural fairs. With the inception of the FFA agricultural education program in public schools and the USDA-administered 4-H youth clubs, these organizations worked to bring young people “into the fold” of new farming practices and technology.
The 4-H’s website states, “In the late 1800’s, researchers discovered adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural developments on university campuses, but found that young people were open to new thinking and would experiment with new ideas and share their experiences with adults. In this way, rural youth programs introduced new agriculture technology to communities.”
Thus a county fair was an annual venue to introduce new farming implements, plant and animal breeds, and new technology and techniques that would become important to rural life.
Out in front of the Farm Heritage Museum, Rockingham County Fair volunteer David Armentrout starts the engine on a 1915 Maytag clothes washing machine. “This would have been something that would have been on display at a fair,” he stated as he demonstrated how the motor turned the agitator on the wooden wash tub. Beside it was a 1930 Maytag model made out of metal that had optional butter churn and sausage grinder implements. Armentrout explained that in rural communities it was valuable to have a power unit that could perform multiple functions.
A community’s annual fair also provided a venue for fellowship with people who you might only see once a year (fittingly, following a year of pandemic and isolation, the theme of this year’s Rockingham County Fair is “Meet Me at the Fair”).
“It’s still that way,” said Sally Smith a volunteer in the homemaking department. “There are friends that I went to high school with that I only see at the fair each year.”
Smith, who helps in collecting entries for the homemaking contest categories, said they try to stay up to date on new trends and technologies.
“Canning has basically stayed the same for decades,” she explained, but in their baking categories they have had an influx of tarts and decorated cupcakes which are trendy to make these days. In the crafts categories fused glass and Lego constructions are gaining popularity and kids come to see the creations made by other kids.
“It’s friendly competition,” Smith said. Building on community involvement, prizes to homemaking winners are in the form of gift certificates from “local Mom-and-Pop shops” that match the category that was won. Smith said it’s this effort of supporting local vendors that makes the Rockingham County Fair unique.
“All of the food is prepared by volunteers in non-profit organizations,” she said, excluding the carnival food in the midway area. Local Ruritans, Kiwanis, Lions, FFA, 4-H and Young Farmers clubs offer a buffet of choices to fairgoers. Besides the usual hamburgers and hotdogs, some long-time local favorites are still offered such as country ham sandwiches, white beans, pork tenderloin dinners, sausage gravy and biscuits and apple dumplings.
While showcasing and demonstrating new trends and technologies is part of the purpose of a county fair, fair organizers felt it was valuable to have traditional craftsmen demonstrate some of these skills and trades.
Tiny pieces of fabric are precisely hand-stitched together with needle and thread as Josephine Millett demonstrates hand-piecing a quilt square. The intricate patterns are too small to be stitched on a sewing machine, Millet explains. Having known how to sew since she was 13, Millett said it has been an invaluable skill.
“I sewed my own clothes. I was a tall girl, so if I wanted a dress to fit, I had to sew it.”
“One of the joys of quilting is that it’s portable. You can do it in front of the T.V. or take it to the waiting room at a doctor’s office.” Not being tethered to a sewing machine, Millett sits quietly at a table, showing a display of colorful quilt squares that she has made. She starts on a new one as people gather to watch her work inside the Exhibit Hall.
Behind the Farm Heritage Museum Alice Higgins demonstrates another traditional craft – chair caning. These chairs feature woven seats and/or backs made from different materials such as reeds to oat splints. The craft has been around for centuries, becoming especially popular in the Victorian era, for the light and airy nature of the furniture. A blacksmith and weaver also demonstrate trades that used to be prolific in many communities.
One of the biggest draws to the fair are the livestock competitions throughout the week. The livestock barns are filled with beef cattle, dairy cows, egg-laying chickens, fur-bearing rabbits, hogs, sheared sheep and goats. All animals are shown by FFA or 4-H members, some whose farms go back in their families for generations. Bringing your best livestock to the competition and market sale allowed fellow community members to see the skill of those who raised the animal and to showcase the pedigree of the farm’s stock.
While a number of different breeds of animals are raised now, a few breeds are remembered as being popular in the Valley. Verne Leininger, chair of the Rockingham County Fair’s poultry, pigeon and rabbit department, said that by looking at the old hatchery calendars in the fair’s Poultry Industries Museum you can see the chicken breeds that dominated the county. Calendars from the 1940s and 50s tended to advertise for Barred Rocks and New Hampshires. These dual purpose birds were traditionally good for egg-laying as well as being a meatier bird on the farm. As the commercial poultry industry began to flourish breeds were crossed and developed for specifically egg or meat production with fast maturation times.
In the U.S. the black Angus has become the dominant beef cattle breed. Today the majority of fields around Rockingham County are populated by herds of this all-black breed. Originating in Scotland as the “Aberdeen Angus”, the breed was introduced at a livestock exposition in Kansas City, Missouri in 1873. Cattle farmers valued the size and hardiness of the breed and it has become the staple source of beef in the U.S.
Traditionally, many Virginia farms would have raised English breeds, such as the red and white Herefords or the red Devons in the 1700s, but the Angus soon replaced them as the cattle of choice in the Valley and began to show up in the competitions at local fairs.
Though Angus dominate, other cattle breeds are still found locally. While you might not spot them in Rockingham County farm fields, they’re hard to miss at the fair, like the line of black and white Belted Galloways, that look like panda bears as they lounge in the sawdust of the cattle barns.
“It was a childhood dream of mine,” Erin Seal said of starting a herd of the black cattle with their iconic white-belted middle. Seal said she remembers seeing the Scottish breed at a Gaelic festival in Virginia as a child. While smaller and slower maturing than the Angus, the Galloways are a hardy breed that can subsist on undergrowth and can clean out a field, Seal explained. Being able to forage on a variety of brush means they can survive with less supplemental feed. At her farm in Elkton, she now has about 21 in the herd and brought six to the fair this week.
Just as Elkanah Watson introduced the Merino sheep in Massachusetts, Seal hopes to spark an interest in local farms with the heritage breed. The smaller-statured cattle can make for an idea choice for smaller farms, keeping their furry coat to withstand colder winters.
As the number of farms and farmers decrease across the country, county fairs take on an even greater importance. Displays of corn stalks, baled hay, ripe tomatoes and brillantly-colored flowers at the fair spark conversations between grandparents and grandchildren about hay-making and gardening. Ribbons hanging beside a home-canned jar of peas, or on the halter of a cow, show fellow community members the hard work put forth to nurture a seed into a crop or raise an animal to maturity. In Rockingham County, the fair is still serving its original purpose – to connect, educate and celebrate those in the agricultural community with those who consume their products.
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