Delaware State Fair celebrates 100-year history

Doug Poore, curator of the museum in Harrington, shows off vintage ribbons from the Delaware State Fair, which celebrates its centennial history this year. (Delaware State News photo by Jennifer Antonik)

One hundred years of family fun is about to hit the stage in Harrington as the Delaware State Fair celebrates its centennial year.

The founders of the Delaware State Fair, then known as the Kent and Sussex Fair, knew something big was in store for the state when they sat down together around a pot belly stove in 1919 to brainstorm the first statewide fair, according to Assistant General Manager and Director of Marketing Danny Aguilar.

The goal was to celebrate the agricultural community as well as provide a family friendly event.

Years later, the Delaware State Fair has maintained its connection with agriculture and added many new aspects to offer the best possible experience.

It is now 10 days long featuring concerts every night, fireworks, a full carnival of rides for children of all ages and more. This year, the Budweiser Clydesdales will be onsite for passersby to view during nine of the 10 days.

“The locals will tell you of how much the fair is a family event that takes them back to when they were kids. When I was young, every morning starting July 1, even though my mother told us not to, we would run out and see if the fair train was there yet. And, of course, it wasn’t. But it wouldn’t be long,” said Doug Poore, curator of the Harrington Museum. “Now, it’s a lot different, but it’s still just as exciting. And the camping: There’s a waiting list for the camping area inside the fence. Those folks are just waiting for someone to decide they’re done with fair camping so they can get in. It’s crazy out there.”

In honor of the anniversary, Delaware State Fair published a video with interviews from people who remember some of the fair’s earliest days. They also teamed up with the Delaware Public Archives for an exhibit and author robin brown, who published a book entitled Treasured Tradition: Delaware State Fair Centennial – 100 years of family fun.

This undated photo shows folks enjoying the midway at the Delaware State Fair. (Submitted photo/Delaware State Fair)

“Well, the history says that they’re a group of guys, Harringtonians, that sit around, congregated around the old train station a lot. And, one thing led to another and I guess given the agriculture in the area and the interest in those guys, they conversely decided to start a fair. And they proceeded to do that acquiring a little bit of acreage where the present fair exists and then growing out from that as more people got interested and they established a board of directors and got shareholders involved. But it did grow out of that idea from around the old train station,” General Manager from 1992-2008 and Fair Director Dennis Hazzard said in the video.

The Greater Harrington Historical Society has also had an exhibit of their own for many years inside its museum on Fleming Street, honoring the impact of that fateful meeting.

“The fair has meant a lot to Harrington and I can remember many years going there as a child and every business in the town of Harrington closed at 1 o’clock during fair week so employees could go out to the fair. It was a social gathering back in the ’50s and ’60s. Women did not wear shorts and jeans like we do today. And it is fun to go out there and sit and talk and visit with people that you sometimes don’t see but year to year at the fair. It means a lot to the community of Harrington,” Director of the Greater Harrington Historical Society Viva Poore said in the centennial video.

Shortly after the fair’s inception as the Kent and Sussex Fair, automobile racing was introduced in 1921, according to fair officials. The tradition continues today.

The idea of parades at the fair began in 1924 when it was decided that an agricultural parade and pageant should be held.

With tradition in mind, a parade of champions will be held on the last day of this year’s fair at 6 p.m. featuring the grand and reserve winners. “The parading of livestock… This is something that hasn’t been done in quite some time, since probably the ’20s or ’30s,” Mr. Aguilar said.

The first several decades of the fair included variety and vaudeville shows as entertainment until 1957 when the Grandstand “made its debut,” according to Mr. Aguilar in the commemorative video.

James E. Strates of the James E. Strates Shows smokes his cigar during the Delaware State Fair in 1978. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The fair even hired its first headlining act, The Mariners. The gospel group made up of four men were the first official act to grace the new stage.

Later on, the ’60s proved transformative for the Kent and Sussex Fair when the organization purchased the “Delaware State Fair” name from a group previously running a different fair in the Elsmere area, according to the Hagley Museum in Wilmington.

Soon after, an official camping area was established at the fair in 1967 as its success continued to grow. Attractions grew, as well, many of which arrived via train drawing crowds from all over.

“It was very convenient. They would pull up in the train yard there in Harrington and unload by truck. Some of the things would come off the rail car and go off the truck and over to the fair grounds. It was quite a… I mean people used to come in and watch the train unload. It was like the circus train coming to town years ago. It was quite an event. I believe it was either a 25 or 30 car train that would pull up into Harrington,” Mr. Hazzard said in the video with a smile.

Hundreds pack the Delaware State Fair in this undated photo. (Submitted photo/Delaware State Fair.)

Despite 100 years’ worth of changes at the Delaware State Fair, tradition and fellowship remain the same with a family-friendly atmosphere.

Fair officials will celebrate the occasion with fair goers by distributing 3,000 free butterscotch treats daily, for a total of 30,000 throughout the week, instead of giving out birthday cake since everyone is on the go. They will also celebrate the centennial year with $5 admissions on opening day, Thursday, July 18.

And in full Delaware State Fair fashion, eight out of 10 nights this year will end in a spectacular display of fireworks with an extravaganza show Saturday, July 27 to bid adieu to 100 years of family fun and hello to years to come.

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