The Dutchess County Fair is a long standing tradition that goes back well over a century. We all know the drill, grab the kids or your friends, hop in the car and make your way to Rhinebeck. Maybe everyone has a routine that they follow when you get through the gates. Perhaps it’s heading right to the 4-H stand for their amazing shakes followed by checking out the sheep and cattle. Or you could be the kind that prefers heading straight to the rides and fairway to try your luck at some of the carnival games. What about checking out one of the musical acts or seeing the acrobats make incredible dives into a pool from far too high for any of us to attempt. Thinking about all of this makes me want August to come sooner rather than later. But did you know that the first several Dutchess County Fairs were held in October? And did you know that people didn’t go to Rhinebeck but rather to Washington Hallow and sometimes Poughkeepsie?
The fair originated from the Dutchess County Agriculture Society which was formed in 1842. The purpose of the society was and still is “to continue the development of agriculture, household manufactured items, and domestic produce.” With that mission in mind and the fact that the earliest fair took place in 1842, it should come as no surprise that the fair looked nothing like what it does today. The first fair was located in a field which is now the New York State Trooper barracks on the corner of Routes 44 and 82 in Pleasant Valley. Buildings had not yet been erected on the site so it was entirely an outdoor affair. The main focus was to showcase the superior livestock, harvests, experiments, and tools from farms throughout the county. Groups of committees were organized to judge the best of the contenders. “Premiums” were awarded to the best of the best and prizes varied from two or three dollars, to a diploma. That first year of the fair, $294 in premiums were awarded (which is about $9,000 today).
However, some folks were not always satisfied with the decisions made by the judges when it came to the quality of their livestock. For example, located within the Barclay Haviland collection here in the local history room is a fascinating letter written in 1850 to the Board of Managers of the Dutchess County Agricultural Society. In it, Mr. John Cotting of Rhinebeck makes it quite clear that his horse should have won highest premium in the previous year’s fair. He stated that his Bay yearling colt was “acknowledged universally to have been the finest one by far.” He went on to say “By some most unaccountable mistake the premium was awarded to a grey colt presented by Gen. Wyncoop which in fact had no more pretensions to superiority than I could have to the strength of Hercules.” His sense of entitlement on behalf of his horse was quite poetic when he proclaimed that “things which are Cesar’s should be rendered unto Cesar,” or in other words, his horse should be given the prize!
Besides farming categories, there was the addition of competitions for domestic manufactures with awards being offered for things like best woolen cloth, best specimen of oil painting, best flower arrangement, and best Daguerreotype (for those of you who don’t know, that’s the earliest form of a photograph). However, the most popular event by far in the early years of the fair was the plowing competition. Isaac Sands won it in 1846 for plowing a quarter-acre in 28 ½ minutes (I can’t even mow my quarter-acre yard that fast!). The 1850s and 60s saw real financial success for the fair, just after the Civil War the fair brought in $4,000 a year in income (that’s about $4 million today). Also by that time, the latest inventions gained popularity (just like today) like a dog machine for churning butter created by Stephen Armstrong, and even an early washing machine.
The fair did come to Poughkeepsie a few times during its early years and was located around the area of what is now Mill and Catherine Street. It did not make its home in Rhinebeck until after WW1. Rides and various other performances would not have been found in the early days of the fair, at least not until the turn of the 20th century and the advent of electricity. So when you go to the fair next year, imagine what it would be like if it was 1842 all over again. You could certainly watch the plowing, which is now known as the “antique tractor pull” and you can still see the livestock competitions, and the flower arrangements. And of course what would have been showcased as the latest invention in the 19th century is now located in the Century Museum Antique Village.
Be sure to check out, The Dutchess County Fair: portrait of an American tradition by Molly Ahearn – LH 974.733 Ahe