100 years of Delaware State Fair tradition honored

Christine Oakley of Felton using her phone to snap a picture of a carousel horse on display at the Delaware Public Archives as part of the Delaware State fair exhibit. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Honoring its proud tradition, while not being afraid to move forward with the changing times, is what keeps the Delaware State Fair an annual must-see event every summer in the heat of Harrington.

R. Ronald Draper, president of the Delaware State Fair, said those are the biggest reasons why the Delaware State Fair will be celebrating its milestone 100th anniversary when the gates open and the midway comes alive with dazzling lights, an earful of sounds and mouth-watering culinary sensations from Thursday, July 18, until Saturday, July 27, this year.

With 86 days remaining until the start of this year’s Delaware State Fair, the Delaware Public Archives in Dover got a jumpstart on the state fair’s upcoming centennial celebration on Tuesday afternoon when it opened a new exhibition called “The Delaware State Fair: A Century of Family Fun.”

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Delaware Public Archives and the Delaware State Fair and highlights artifacts, historical documents and photographs related to the 100 years of fair operations in the First State.

“This is a great occasion for the Delaware State Fair,” Mr. Draper said. “It’s hard to believe that this is our 100th anniversary. I’ve said it before and I will continue to say this, I wish that the founders of the Delaware State Fair would be able to come back today and see the Delaware State Fair and how it’s progressed over the years.

Delaware State Fair board of directors president R. Ronald Draper poses with a carousel horse presented to the administration in 2002 by former Dover resident “Little Richard” Thomas to commemorate his 50th anniversary and the fair’s longest-running vendor.

“We’re very, very proud of the fact that we have continued to keep the tradition and what Delaware State Fair was founded on, but at the same time we’ve been able to progress and move forward as times have changed in this country.”

Fittingly, visitors to the opening of the state fair exhibition were presented with fans upon entering the Public Archives building on Tuesday – an homage to the hot, sticky weather that routinely greets guests at the Delaware State Fairgrounds each July.

They were also given a booklet from the first annual Kent and Sussex County Fair, which the event was known as until it officially became the Delaware State Fair in 1962.

The reproduced booklet featured categories such as horse racing, motorcycle races, poultry, cattle, vegetable garden exhibits, culinary treats and more. There was one stipulation — any of the food products in competitions had to be homemade.

Stephen M. Marz, director and state archivist for the Delaware Public Archives, said it was nice that the archives were able to recognize a happy event that takes place in the state every year.

A few of the Delaware State Fair artifacts on display at the Public Archives.

“We’re here to celebrate an event that makes us glad that we call Delaware our home,” Mr. Marz said. “We’re going to unveil an exhibition that celebrates the 100th anniversary of what has become known as the Delaware State Fair.

“We have historical photos, we have documents, we have artifacts that tell the story of those 100 years, and on display you’ll be able to see them, and I hope you are able to review a memory and certainly a smile.”

The exhibit, free to visitors, sits just inside the main entrance to the Delaware Public Archives building at 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

It features items such as a carousel horse, coins from the 50th anniversary of the fair in 1969, buttons, a myriad of photos of families and animals, exhibitor signs, award ribbons of several different colors, a judge’s gavel, old-time ticket reel, a hand-operated switchboard from the early 1900s, an autographed guitar from all of the musicians who played at the fair in 2011 and several other items.

“Of special note, this was just completed this weekend, we have a video now of the Kent and Sussex Fair from 1947,” Mr. Marz said. “It runs about 10 minutes and it’s going to loop over and over again. We had seen that it was in our vaults, it was 16-millimeter, kind of fragile, and I said, ‘I want that up there.’ We have to show that.”

The film shows past livestock competitions, old race cars slinging dirt around the raceway, acrobatic roller skaters and many other of the events that took place back at that time.

“I think this is wonderful,” Harrington native Jeanie DeLeo said. “I grew up in Harrington and my family’s been involved with the fair since its beginning, and I’m on the Fair Board, so this is quite a tribute to a longstanding institution in our state. I think they’ve done a wonderful job assembling all the information and video. It shows the tradition that the state fair is.

“I like all of it. Each (state fair) has its own favorite memories and it’s just a wonderful experience that brings the whole community – and state – together. I think it’s just a wonderful organization.”

Mr. Marz got a lesson in what the Delaware State Fair means to former Sen. Gary Simpson a couple of years ago.

“Two years ago, I got a call from my friend Senator Simpson,” said Mr. Marz. “After some pleasantries and niceties, ‘How do you do?,’ and all that, he said to me that he was a member of the 100th Anniversary Committee for the Delaware State Fair — and then he said, ‘Guess what? You’re going to be a member, too.’

“The good Senator further said, ‘You’re going to enjoy being on that committee as you would enjoy your past visits to the state fair.’ Then, I had to admit at that point, I’d never been to the Delaware State Fair. Senator Simpson, after a long pause, said, ‘Well, that’s going to change.’ And it certainly did.”

In fact, Mr. Marz became attached to a goat at last year’s state fair and fell in love with the whole atmosphere of the event.

“Since then, I have realized what I have been missing and each year as the saying goes, it is better than the last,” Mr. Marz said. “See a memory, share a memory and be certain to visit the Delaware State Fair and make a memory.”

There are 100 years’ worth of those memories now on display at the Delaware Public Archives.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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