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Pennsylvania is home to well over 100 county and local fairs, but you won’t find any of them in Philadelphia.
Sure, there are a couple nearby. Last week Chester County hosted the 73rd annual Goshen Country Fair, and next week the Middletown Grange Fair lands in Bucks. But none the city can claim as its own. No place for Philadelphians to see livestock, be judged on the merits of their pie-baking, and eat ridiculous-but-delicious fried food, all in the same day.
This is not a huge surprise. While Philly does love a good culinary monstrosity (said in the most loving way possible), the city isn’t exactly known for its agriculture.
What might be a surprise: Philly hosted its own county fair as recently as the 2000s.
History turns up evidence of at least two different annual events: one in the 1910s and ’20s held in the Somerton section of Northeast Philly — then known as Byberry Township, and another in Fairmount Park that ran from the ’90s through the turn of the millennium.
It’s unclear why either of the events stopped happening, but newspapers of the time did chronicle tons of highlights as they happened, from horse racing and airplane stunts to cooking contests and chicken tic-tac-toe.
“[T]he fair is an attempt to bring the country to the inner city,” Inquirer staff writer Marc Schogol wrote about the Fairmount Park fair in 1992, “and to bring people from all over together to have a good time.”
‘The best fair ever in the history of Pennsylvania’
Officially called the Philadelphia County Fair, the event that started in 1912 reportedly drew tens of thousands of attendees each year.
Usually held in September, it featured horse racing, farm machinery, agricultural displays, and a handful of oddities fairgoers weren’t particularly likely to see anywhere else. You got all this and more for your 25-cent admission fee.
The fairgrounds were on the south side of Byberry Road, west of the Short Line Railroad and behind the old Somerton firehouse, per the book “Historical Northeast Philadelphia: Stories and Memories.” They spanned 100 acres and had a half-mile racetrack, grandstands, and two big buildings.
A special train was even run to bring fairgoers from Reading Terminal to the event, a 1921 ad for the fair noted.
Patty McCarthy, a Northeast Philly resident who said she’s been researching local history through old newspapers, maps, property records for two decades, became interested in learning about the county fair a few years ago because of how close it was to her neighborhood.
In her research, she found that horse racing was considered its main selling point.
“The other things are fine, people enjoy the day, they like having the cotton candy and all that,” McCarthy told Billy Penn. “But it’s the racing they really come to see.”
The Philadelphia County Fair at Byberry actually wasn’t the first, she said — precursors happened in Old Point Breeze, and on the private land of wealthy Northeast Philadelphian Edward Morrell. But the one at the Byberry fairgrounds stuck, continuing well into the 1920s.
It did involve more than equestrian events. A 1912 ad mentions an exhibition of “Ladies’ Art and Fancy Work.” A 1919 Inquirer news item teases a daily vaudeville show “with balloon ascensions and airplane flights.” A 1922 photo depicts a 103-pound prize pumpkin. There was a Ferris wheel at the grounds, too.
Oh, and there was also a British Air Forces captain who did airplane stunts, offered rides, and topped it all off by racing an automobile around the track, according to a 1921 news blurb (it doesn’t note who won).
“It’s just every year, the new thing,” McCarthy said. “‘Come one, come all! You can see this! You’ve never seen this before!’”
And people really loved it. “At the close of the day’s festivities, the children unanimously agreed that it was the best fair ever in the history of Philadelphia,” The Inquirer wrote in 1921.
News mentions of the Philadelphia County Fair gradually petered out in the mid to late 1920s. Why’d it die out? A variety of factors, McCarthy suggested: The city was becoming less agrarian, cars became more popular, and folks were able to travel further away for entertainment and leisure.
In 1929, the fairgrounds site was sold for $85,000 to an unnamed buyer.
“The death knell of the Byberry Fair Grounds as the scene of Philadelphia county’s annual fair and a place where lovers of racing were wont to gather,” the Inquirer wrote, “was sounded yesterday when the historic old landmark in the northeast section went under the ‘hammer.’”
‘A bit of country you can get to on… SEPTA’
When the idea of a Philadelphia County Fair was resurrected in the 1990s, it looked pretty different from the Northeast Philly affair.
Held in West Fairmount Park beginning in 1992, the fair featured pig races, farm animal exhibits, baked goods competitions, double-dutch contests, rides, food, concerts, hypnotists, BMX shows, and many more odds and ends. In the words of Schogol, the Inquirer writer: “It’s a bit of country you can get to on… SEPTA.”
The event charged $5 for admission and lasted for about a week in early June each year. It drew considerable crowds — around 200,000 people came to the fair in 2004, according to an article by Inquirer staff writer Michael Klein.
Some activities were exciting mostly because of how unfamiliar they were to the non-agrarian residents of Philadelphia, like milking a goat or learning how to bottle-feed baby calves.
Some less conventional things also took the spotlight. One year, educators from Penn State Extension taught crowds about the wonders of composting by creating a heap that generated enough heat to melt cheese. (Don’t worry, the pan with the cheese was covered before putting it over the pile of hot garbage.)
In 1996, fairgoers had the opportunity to taste an ostrich burger, and 2001’s fair featured a flock of particularly strategic chickens.
“The birds challenge fairgoers to a game of tic-tac-toe from inside a special cage, while opponents play from outside the cage by making choices (X or O) on an electronically-operated game board,” The Philadelphia Tribune reported. “The chickens are thus far undefeated.”
And apparently that’s just scratching the surface on avian talent. One Inquirer blurb about the fair previewed “Michelle Jordan & Denise Rodman, the basketball-playing chickens,” without offering further explanation.
Standard county fair contests also drew attention.
In 1994, the fair’s third year, one contestant in the Blue Ribbon Apple Pie Contest showed up with her entry before the fair even began and waited at the gates for officials to let her in. She ended up winning $200 for second place, per Tribune correspondent Stacey Wright.
The 29-year-old winner of the 1996 sweet potato pie contest caused some kerfuffle when she unabashedly admitted to using store-bought crust, taking top honors in a 65-contestant pool, Becky Batcha of the Philadelphia Daily News reported.
Sweet potato pie contests often drew a lot of entries, said Beverly Gruber, who said she ran the competitive exhibits in the early 2000s. She specifically remembers one year when the grand prize was $1,000.
“We had 128 pies entered,” Gruber said, “which I think is the record for anywhere, but who knows. Definitely in Pennsylvania it was.”
The whole thing was an effort put together by the Friends of Memorial Hall, a group created to help fund preservation and restoration of the last of the buildings originally constructed for the 1876 Centennial celebration in Philadelphia.
About $20,000 was reportedly raised during the fair’s first year — when it unfortunately rained 7 of 10 days. A decade later, documents show it raised between $8,000 and $12,000, according to Theresa Stuhlman, preservation and development administrator for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.
Some of the funds were used to maintain the 800-square-foot model of the 1876 Centennial exhibition grounds, Stuhlman said, which was then stored in the basement. Today, Memorial Hall is home to the Please Touch Museum, which has an exhibit that features the Centennial Model as its centerpiece. Ultimately, the restoration and renovation of Memorial Hall for it to house the museum took several years and $42 million.
A new lease for the building was signed in 2005 — and the 2004 edition of the Fairmount Park county fair appears to have been its last.