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History Lesson: Icons of the Ohio State Fair

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: Icons of the Ohio State Fair
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The Ohio State Fair is now in full swing and there is seemingly something for everyone. For the foodie, there is Honey tasting from 9:00 – 5:00 at the DiSalle Center. For the Art Lover, there are guided talks of Ohio State Fair award-winning artwork at 11:00 and 3:00 at the Cox Fine Arts Center. For the animal lover, you can milk a cow from noon until 4:00 at the OVMA Center. Of course, the history lovers can always visit the Columbus Historical Society exhibitions showcasing vintage images of our fair city located in the Antiques and Collectibles Pavilion near the OHIO gate.

Michael Sullivan. Courtesy CML.

But if you are like me, the fair boils down to making pilgrimages to some of the attractions that seem to have been here since the fair began. But as unlikely as it seems, the Butter Cow and the giant talking Smokey the Bear were not part of the first official Ohio State Fair held in Cincinnati in 1850. Many credit Franklinton pioneer Michael Sullivant for creating the idea of a State Fair.

According to C. La Von Shook, author of A History of the Ohio State Fair, members of the State Senate were slated to act upon a farm bill introduced to the legislature as “A Bill for the Encouragement of Agriculture” but in March of 1845 the committee voted 13-12 to post-pone any action on the bill. Agricultural leaders of Ohio were unhappy with this decision and decided to host a state agriculture convention in Columbus in the Senate Chambers from June 25-26.

La Von Shook writes the following:

Michael Sullivant, second-born son of Franklinton founder Lucas Sullivant was one of these farmers and his farm was very close to the Statehouse. Sullivant decided to drive 30 head of his Durham cattle to the Statehouse grounds during the convention. He also brought along a number of jacks and jennies. All of these animals were tethered about the Statehouse yard, making it take on the appearance of a show park. With the intended purpose to “entertain and enlighten” those attending the convention, Michael Sullivant had, in effect, originated a “state fair.”

(Please note that Jacks and Jennies are slang for male and female donkeys respectively and wouldn’t it be awesome to see a herd of cattle tied up around the Statehouse today!)

Map of the State Fair from 1851, courtesy C. La Von Shook.

His efforts were apparently successful for on February 27, 1846 the state senate passed the bill and a State Board of Agriculture was formed. This board decided to split the state up into 4 districts and these districts, in turn, were encouraged to consider organizing fairs to afford farmers education and informational opportunities.

Joseph Sullivant Medal, courtesy Robert Perrin.

This board helped to organize district fairs in Clinton County in 1847 and Xenia in 1848. These fairs held plough contests, cattle and horse shows, and showcased new farm implements such as hay cutters, seed planters, thrashers and even patent ladders from as far away as Buffalo, New York. The Ohio State Journal also noted that the ladies in attendance “decorated the melodeon with elegant specimens of needlework, ottoman covers, quilts and rugs.” Farmers from all corners of the state were in attendance at both of these fairs and the success was such that plans were soon under way for a State Fair to be held in 1849. This fair ultimately never came to pass as an Asiatic cholera epidemic was striking the countryside and the board decided to cancel the fair of 1849.

The first Ohio State Fair was then slated for September 11, 12 and 13 of 1850 but the Cholera epidemic was still raging (and actually claimed the life of Darius Lapham who was in charge of construction at the fairgrounds) and the decision was made to push the fair back to October 2, 3 and 4 with the hopes that the cooler weather would lessen the threat of the disease. The fair opened for judging of livestock and exhibits on the 2nd and to the public on the 3rd. Admission was 20 cents.

According to the Ohio Cultivator:

Numerous tents and booths with waving flags and streamers; the throngs of cheerful spectators; countless carriages, omnibuses and canal boats, all moving and swarming with people; the prancing of horses and lines of stately cattle – all combined to produce an effect on the minds of spectators not easily forgotten by such as never before attended an exhibition of the kind.

A State Fair Program from 1974, author's collection.

It’s probably good to bear in mind that this was long before the production of any World’s Fair or Amusement Park and much of this would have seemed a marvel to the Ohioans in attendance. There were no rides, butter cows or talking bears at this fair and the biggest attractions was a display of bells that the Ohio State Journal described as “composed of eight bells some of them three or four tons in weight, but are all played together with as little effort as upon an ordinary piano.”

Prizes were offered for best Dahlias, Livestock (Ohio or Foreign) Silk, Grapes, Apples and even essays. In some instances the award was actually a medal of merit that was designed by Michael Sullivant’s younger brother Joseph. It was available in silver and bronze and had an 1850 value of $3.00. In other cases the award may have been a silver pitcher, silver goblet or even a cash award of up to $50.00. The fair concluded with a grand ball at the fairgrounds that was attended by 2,000 people.

The committee then made the decision to keep the fair moving around the state to allow more people an opportunity to participate. From 1851-1873 the fair was held in 10 different cities across Ohio. Columbus (1851, 1855, 1864, 1865) Cleveland (1852, 1856, 1862, 1863) Dayton (1853, 1860, 1861, 1866, 1867) Newark (1854) Sandusky (1858) Zanesville (1859) Toledo (1868, 1869) Springfield (1870, 1871) and Mansfield (1872, 1873)

In 1873, the Board of Agriculture decided to hold the Fair in one city for a trial period of 5 years. Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus all organized committees to begin efforts to have the fair in their respected city. Columbus’ bid was organized around using the Franklin County Fairgrounds east of the Statehouse and west of Alum Creek. We know the area today as Franklin Park. Ultimately, the city of Columbus filed for a bond package of $20,000.00 to construct the buildings and railroad spurs necessary to host the Ohio State Fair. The city of Dayton made a similar proposal but did not include a railroad spur and on February 17, 1874 the board voted to allow Columbus to host the fair for the next 5 years.

Map of the State Fair in 1888, courtesy CML.

In addition to all of the agricultural displays, sideshows, hucksters and the early fore-runners of “Carnies” had started to appear at the fair much to the consternation of many agricultural purists. In 1880. The Ohio Farmer wrote of the Fair the following: “We were pleased to observe this was an agricultural exhibition with very few other attractions or clap trap, swindling devices admitted to the grounds. There were no gambling wheels, fat woman shows, or pool-selling stands.”

In 1886, the fair was moved once again with the main gate off of Woodward Avenue (known today as 11th Avenue) within Columbus to the site we now know as the Ohio Expositions Center. And in the space of just a few decades that tradition that this year turns 110 was born – the Butter Cow!

The first Butter cow was sculpted in 1903 by A T Shelton & Company. The Columbus Dispatch noted that “It is indeed a novel idea and so cleverly executed as to demonstrate the fact that there’s nothing slow about the Sunbury Creamery people. … visitors startle with amazement when they behold the big batch of butter moulded into animal form.”

Since those humble beginnings butter has been carved into the likeness of hockey players, astronauts, American flags, ballerinas, Jack Nicklaus, Woody Hayes, Darth Vader (who even survived a near melt-down when the refrigerated case lost power during an outage when sculpted in 1977!) The cow is sculpted out 1,000 pounds of butter and to put that into perspective, that’s enough to butter a loaf of bread 7 times the height of the LeVeque!

This year to celebrate the 50th birthday of the All-Ohio State Fair Youth Choir, there is also a Butter Choir! Courtesy UDCMH.

Apparently, the hog lobby wasn’t happy that the butter bovine was getting all of the attention and in 1934, a huge hog was sculpted from pure lard. This tradition only lasted until 1938 but it did give us versions of the three little pigs in lard as well as an 11 pig football team carved out of 200 pounds of lard in 1938.

I don’t have any evidence of the 14 and a half foot Smokey the Bear ever being carved out of butter or lard but the Ohio Department of Natural Resources unofficial mascot has been greeting guests for over 40 years. He is covered with over 15 yards of fur and his denim was replaced in 2004 to celebrate his 30th birthday. Two years ago, one of the volunteers who voices Smokey teased Ohio Senator Rob Portman who was visiting the Fair about dying his hair. The volunteer was swiftly dismissed but Senator Portman said he thought Smokey’s joke was funny and asked that they re-instate the dedicated volunteer.

Smokey the Bear seen in 1972, courtesy CML.

Another Fair icon, the O H I O gate was added in 1966 at a cost of $40,000.00. That gate lasted until 2002 when it was replaced with a more contemporary interpretation.

There is so much more that could be written about this staple of Central Ohio summer fun, but I will close with my own memory of being tapped as the “First Person at the Fair” in August of 1974. Channel 10 had a children’s show called “Luci’s Toyshop” and it was broadcast live from the fair. If you saw Luci and approached her and said “Hi Luci! I’m the first person at the fair!” you were tapped to be on her program.

Luci's Toy Shop, courtesy C. La Von Shook. Map of the Ohio State Fair Grounds in 1950, courtesy CML.

Loads of other 8 year olds were screaming “Hi Luci!” at the top of their lungs, but I somehow managed to get the rest of the sentence out to her and what prizes I won! I was given tickets to Holiday on Ice! Gift certificates to BBF! And the opportunity to meet Dragon, Witchy-poo and my favorite Mr. Tree live and in person.

Take some time out and visit the fair. You will be experiencing 163 years of Ohio and Columbus history!

The 2013 Ohio State Fair runs through August 4th. More information can be found at www.ohiostatefair.com.

Visit the Columbus Historical Society at COSI, 333 West Broad St., Columbus, Ohio. Their upcoming bus tours, Vintage + Vision continue August 17th, September 21st, and October 19th. Go on a journey through the past, present, and future of Columbus. Private tours also available. Join The Columbus Historical Society on October 3rd for the Savor the City gala, an evening honoring Columbus restaurants over 25, and new this year, performances by Vaud-Villities. More information at www.columbushistory.org.


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