In the early days of our country, when we were still pretty much an undeveloped nation, state legislators wanted to improve agriculture in New York, so in 1819 they appropriated matching funds to help support county agricultural societies. Elkanah Watson, who'd proposed the law, began stumping the state to spread the word… the Johnny Appleseed […]

In the early days of our country, when we were still pretty much an undeveloped nation, state legislators wanted to improve agriculture in New York, so in 1819 they appropriated matching funds to help support county agricultural societies. Elkanah Watson, who'd proposed the law, began stumping the state to spread the word… the Johnny Appleseed of county fairs… and in Bath he found an eager crowd already waiting. They invited him to the courthouse, where the judge courteously adjourned and 'I found the court room and the gallery crowded, and the lawyers' seats preoccupied by ladies. Mr. Higgins [Bath Presbyterian minister] made an eloquent appeal to the throne of grace, appropriate to the occasion. It evidently softened the hearts of the audience and predisposed them to receive with favor my address. They immediately proceeded to organize and, what was more important, in one hour the whole sum requisite to secure the state bounty was pledged.'

*The goal was to improve agriculture. Fairs were a place for experts and salesmen to reach the isolated farm family. Competitions stirred people to improve practices, and to learn about better techniques from those who won the premiums. There were also, of course, entertainment and social benefits, especially in those days of difficult travel.

*Fairs and subsidies continued until about 1824, after which things apparently lay silent until 1841, when a new subsidy was passed, and a new agricultural society came to be, with founders having such prominent Steuben names as Cook, Bradford, Balcom, Magee, Waldo, Erwin, Robie, Potter, Hammond, and Campbell. They held their fairs in Bath 'upon the river flats, just east of Ark Street, and domestic manufactures and household goods were exhibited in the court house.' (The courthouse was in the same location as today, but it was an earlier structure.)

*But that fair petered out by 1844 or so, with loss of subsidy and amid bitter complaints that the judging was rigged in favor of wealthy farmers. But in 1853 farm folks formed a third Steuben County Agricultural Society, and this time they got it right. Starting in 1853 the fair has run without interruption, under the auspices of that same Ag Society. In 1854 they held the fair on the current site, and it's been there ever since " they bought the place (for $1200) in 1862.

*In 1863 they built the Fair House and the Gatehouse still so familiar to us today, and the driving track appeared about 1867. The 1869 map shows half-a-dozen buildings on site, and by 1873 the grandstand had been added. By 1901 Hammondsport routinely closed school during fair week, and merchants stood idle in their stores.

*In 1909 there were 29 structures, including numerous sheds, barns, and stables north of the grandstand and a 'w.c.,' or water closet (flush toilets).

*In 1867 Civil War General William Woods Averell of Cameron delivered an address, and in the 1890s teen-aged Glenn Curtiss raced bicycles on the track. Entertainers over the years included Grandpa Jones, Frank Fontaine, Bobby Vinton, and the Hoosier Hotshots.

*Sad to say, the fairground was used at least once, in the 1920s, for a Ku Klux Klan rally. In the wartime year of 1943, Bath folks staged a parade from the grounds, celebrating Bath's sesquicentennial.

*It's been a gigantic challenge for our current Ag Society to put on a fair every year " though the Civil War, two World Wars, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, the catastrophic flood years of 1935 and 1972, and the dramatic dwindling of the agricultural community. They deserve a round of prolonged applause from everyone in Steuben County.

*This year the fair runs from Tuesday, August 13 through Sunday, August 18. Be there! Join us! Enjoy our fair's bicentennial!