Photos, top to bottom: Elks Fair, 1902 from the Collection of Glass Negatives (2007ua012); “a county fair”, 1947-1959 from the Shropshire collection (79PA110); Agricultural fair displays, undated from Louis Edward Nollau F Series photographic print collection (1998UA001)
Each summer, county fairs spring up around Kentucky in small-town and rural communities. County fairs began as educational events for showcasing the latest and most successful agricultural methods and provided social interaction for isolated farmers and their families. In 1857, the New York Times dispatched a correspondent to Lexington for the Eighth Annual Fair sponsored by the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical Association after a disappointing showing by Lexington farmers at the National Agricultural Fair in Louisville. He found that the rivalry between Lexington and Louisville made many stock breeders reluctant to enter their best stock there, but their own fair was a different matter. Come “see a County Fair as is a Fair!” he encourages New Yorkers, writing about picnics under the trees and the livestock patiently curried and rubbed with cloths until they “take on a gloss that gives back the sunlight like a glass window”.
The fair wasn’t solely educational even then, as the correspondent also notes the “somewhat unwise … exhibition of fat women”, bearded ladies and giants to entertain the crowds between events. The popularity of gambling in Lexington also impressed him, as he “never saw so much betting at a horse-race as is done here upon the chances of cattle, horses, sheep, colts, calves or anything else brought in for examination.”
The midway games and rides have gradually overshadowed the agricultural events in popularity, but organizations like 4-H, FFA (Future Farmers of America), extension services, and state and university agricultural departments help maintain a significant agricultural presence at the county fair.