In 1886 a group of local businessmen, farmers, and community leaders banded together to form the Shenandoah County Agricultural Society. This organization was designed to promote the area’s agricultural, commercial, and industrial products to locals and visitors.
The following year the Agricultural Society’s first fair opened for four days in October. Activities were held on the site of the current fairgrounds. Amenities included a grandstand, exhibit hall, and horse racing track. Construction had been supervised by George Rye, a local saddle maker, political leaders, amateur engineer, and Vice President of the society.
Individuals visiting this event came by horse, wagon, or train. A special railroad stop was created just below the grounds and a passenger hack carried visitors the remaining way. Many of these visitors, and locals from more rural areas, stayed in town or camped overnight to take in the festivities. Unlike today, most people brought food from home and the organizers noted the grounds had ample picnic space.
Entertainment included horse races, novelties such as female bareback riders, agricultural exhibits, and displays of new technologies including steam powered tractors.
Another major part of this first fair was its barroom. On September 16, 1887 the Shenandoah Herald noted this attraction was located near the fair’s main entrance and had been widely utilized by many visitors to the fair. The presence of this bar and its location near the entrance was assailed by many in the community, including the Herald’s editor who noted women and children waiting to enter the grounds were forced to witness “unmentionable scenes” when they passed the barroom. They recommended the fair discontinued the sale of alcohol on site or at least move the bar to a different location.
Whether the agreed to the request or not is uncertain, but we do know the Agricultural Society advertised they would be selling liquor at the 1887 fair and beyond.
Despite the wide array of activities and apparent popularity of the fair it did not prove to be a success. The Agricultural Society disbanded sometime in the early 20th century and the land was sold to a local farmer.
However, this was not the end of the Shenandoah County Fair. In 1916 a new group of individuals banded together to create the current Shenandoah County Fair Association. They were motivated by a desire to reconstitute the fair, to display the county’s wares, and an advertisement from the property’s owners who were contemplating plowing over the horse track unless a new group was formed. This organization issued 420 shares of stock and held their first meeting on December 1, 1916. Early the next year they acquired the 25 acre plot originally owned by the agricultural society.
This group’s first fair opened in October of 1917. Most of the events were very similar to the previous attraction. However, the automobile joined the horse and train as means of transportation and the fair association had to convince Shenandoah County’s Board of Supervisors to improve what is now Fairground Road so cars could access the grounds. Guests paid .50 cents for daily admission and $1.00 for a week pass. Most businesses closed during the event and large crowds flocked to the grounds.
Alcohol was also prohibited since Virginia had enacted state wide prohibition in January of 1916. However, it would return after the end of prohibition. A December 1, 1951 report indicated the fair made $436 that year from its beer concession. A beer garden remains a part of the current fair.
Ever since this the fair association has continued to host this event annually, except from 1942-1944 when the fair was cancelled due to the Second World War.
The grounds currently includes approximately 68 acres filled with food stands, the original grandstands, a horse track, exhibit buildings, and livestock barns.
Entertainment has varied over the years. High-wire acts, lions taming, and even automobile races have occurred. The so called “hoochie shows” featuring dancing girls were an extremely popular attraction through the 1990s. Alcohol has also been served on the grounds at various times and in various ways, both officially and unofficially. Beer gardens are offered at most contemporary concerts.
Today, the event is more family oriented and includes children’s games, concerts, horse racing, monster truck shows, and a rodeo. Food, served by community groups and local businesses, is now available on the grounds. Agricultural exhibits, livestock shows, and other displays also continue during the 9 day fair.
The Truban Archives at the Shenandoah County Library maintains a large collection of items related to the Shenandoah County Fair. For more information on it go to countylib.org/2015-0028
|Shenandoah County Fair Midway||tif / 347.72 kB||Download|
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|Nickle Pitch at the Shenandoah County Fair||tif / 415.93 kB||Download|
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