LEHIGH COUNTY AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY HISTORY
On a wintery day in 1852 with snow blanketing the valley, leading citizens from the far reaches of Lehigh County ventured to the quaint hamlet of Egypt in Whitehall Township for a noble cause.
At this momentous gathering, the nonprofit Lehigh County Agricultural Society impassioned to reward the achievements of farmers, gardeners and homemakers, was born.
The annual exposition the founders of the Society created, supports agriculture, entertains the public, and has hosted millions of visitors in three centuries.
The Great Allentown Fair, the thrust of the Society’s mission, is ranked one of North America’s Top 50 fairs every year. Its 1852 successful debut on a four-acre tract in Allentown prompted the Society’s purchase of a 14-acre site just blocks north of the city’s downtown. There, harness racing boosted the appeal of the exposition known for showcasing livestock and produce, rides, games, food stands and entertainment from the wonderfully sublime to the hilariously ridiculous.
Outgrowing that location by 1889, the Society made a daring move to 46-acres west of 17th Street between Liberty and Chew streets to begin an era of remarkable contributions to the region’s renown and economic growth. From 1917-1919, the United States Army Ambulance Corps took over the fairgrounds to ready 20,000+ troops for World War I service marking another amazing use of the property.
The Allentown Fairgrounds is home to the Lehigh Valley’s largest trade show facility Agri~Plex, the beloved Fairgrounds Farmers Market, the nostalgic Ritz Barbecue restaurant, the historic Fairgrounds Hotel restaurant, the MainGate Nightclub, the Pines Dinner Theatre and of course, The Great Allentown Fair.
Over the decades, the Society has strived to be a model citizen opening its gates to thoroughfare traffic, emergency parking and disaster relief, while as a private property owner, paying real estate taxes that support its city, county and school district.
The original agricultural mission of the Lehigh County Agricultural Story continues to be filled by the annual operation of The Great Allentown Fair, but the magnitude of the entertainers that appear at the Martin H Ritter Grandstand increase the event’s national recognition.
CLICK HERE TO FIND THE ROSTER OF ARTISTS THAT HAVE PERFORMED ON THE GRANDSTAND’S HISTORIC STAGE
January 24, 1852 - Leading farmers and enterprising citizens traveled on horseback and in drawn carriages from the far reaches of the County of Lehigh. They proceeded to the public house of William Leisenring in the village of Egypt, Whitehall Township. There it was resolved, as the culmination of a series of meetings in 1850 and 1851, to form an agricultural society with its aim being “the improvement and advancement of agriculture, horticulture, livestock and the domestic and mechanical arts.” To fulfill this mission, gentlemen representing every municipality in the County were appointed to lead the planning of an exposition. This celebration of the harvest would award the achievements of farmers and homemakers while entertaining the public.
February 2, 1852 - The Lehigh County Commissioners formally recognized and chartered the Lehigh County Agricultural Society. The new Society quickly adopted a constitution and chose Allentown, the county seat with its population of 3,779, as the location for its first Fair.
Edward Kohler, Esq., of North Whitehall, was elected the first president of the Lehigh County Agricultural Society. A noteworthy relationship—Daniel Beisel, the acting president at the January 24, 1852 meeting where definite action was taken to form the Society, was the maternal great-grandfather of current Society President Martin H. Ritter. Daniel’s father George Beisel, Martin Ritter’s great great-grandfather, authored the original draft of the Society’s constitution.
October 6, 7 and 8, 1852 - the first “Lehigh County Agricultural Fair” operated on a five-acre plot east of south Fourth Street, between Walnut and Union streets. Admission into the grounds was 25-cents. The Fair opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 6 p.m.
1889 - 1909
The “Great” Allentown Fair, as it was dubbed in 1889 when it moved from what now is fondly referred to as the Old Fairgrounds to its larger location on 17th and Chew streets, was about to enjoy its most celebrated period of growth and evolution. History would be made on the new half-mile racetrack that was renowned as one of the best in the country for the sulkies and the trotters. Beautiful exhibition buildings did justice to the bounteous displays of agriculture, horticulture, domestics and fine arts.
February 5, 1889 - Society officers were authorized to sell the old fairgrounds at public sale to the highest bidder. The sale of the property divided into plots garnered $35,000. The old grounds, known for its chirping blackbirds that inhabited the shade trees, were given over to the expanding Allentown neighborhoods of neatly aligned row and twin homes.
April 4, 1889 - the Society purchased 37 acres from Solomon Griesemer, S. D. Lehr, and Catharine Newhart situated in South Whitehall Township, just west of Allentown’s city limits.
The new Fairgrounds was located on 17th Street between Chew and Liberty streets. It boasted a lush tree-dotted grove on its east side, and had room for a half-mile track, a large grandstand, numerous exhibition buildings and stables the Society desired.
Spring 1889 - work began immediately to ready the new grounds for its first Fair. Many structures were transferred from the old grounds and re-erected on the new, including Mechanics Hall, Floral Hall, the beer stand and the livestock shelters.
The Great Allentown Fair responded to the increased sophistication of its fairgoers introducing night shows and more intriguing exhibits. The nation was evolving from agricultural to industrial. The roaring ‘20s evaporated into the hard times ‘30s, but the Fair retained its popularity throughout the era.
In 1910, the first airplane circled the Allentown Fair when officials engaged pilot Glen Curtis to fly his bi-plane, similar to the Wright machine, daily around the racetrack. In 1914, the Fair featured an airplane show for the first time.
A new steel, brick and concrete Grandstand, an architectural masterpiece, was completed in 1911 as a testament to the Fair’s enormous success. It seated 7,070 spectators. It cost the Society $100,000 to build. The subway under the racetrack, which is the vehicle tunnel entrance off of Liberty Street, was also constructed.
Children were forbidden to attend the 1916 Allentown Fair. Infantile Paralysis (Polio) epidemic took its toll on the population and the festivities at the Fair.
Big Thursday, an annual phenomenon at the Fair when everyone visited, hit a high mark of 80,000 fairgoers in 1918.
World War I strongly impacted the Great Allentown Fair. On May 28, 1917, the Secretary of War approved and signed a lease to use the Allentown Fairgrounds as a training center for the United States Army Ambulance Service.
America was fighting a World War on two fronts while the Lehigh County Agricultural Society continued to hold its Great Allentown Fairs brimming with patriotic themes and contributions to the nation’s effort. Soldiers enlisted and were honored on the fairgrounds, night shows gushed red, white and blue, and demonstrations of how to ration and plant Victory Gardens abounded. After the war ended, one of its most decorated generals received a hero’s welcome at “America’s Greatest County Fair.” Families went from gathering around the radio to television, and their desire to see in person the big name stars that were beamed into their living rooms prompted the Allentown Fair into becoming a trendsetter in the fair industry.
World War II loomed heavily on the minds of fairgoers in 1942. While federal officials suggested county fairs suspend to ration gas and rubber, fair officials saw possibilities for the county gatherings to be productive to the war effort.
The Future Farmers exhibit at the 1942 Allentown Fair carried the theme “Future Farmers Grow Potatoes for Victory.” It was one example of how the agricultural clubs promoted the planting of Victory Gardens.
Big Thursday 1942 - 122 men were sworn into the United States Navy and marched into the Grandstand as new recruits. A War Stamp and Bond Drive was the joint effort of The Great Allentown Fair and local radio station WSAN in 1942. The showgirls from George Hamid’s revue assisted in the campaign raising over $5,000.
The original, agricultural mission of the Lehigh County Agricultural Story continued to be filled by the annual operation of The Great Allentown Fair, but the magnitude of the entertainers that appeared at the Grandstand increased the event’s national recognition. No other fair could boast a more impressive bill of stars. Fair dates changed from harvest time during the third week in September to an early August slot enabling television entertainers to appear before their taping season and offering night show crowds warmer temperatures.
The Grandstand was dubbed the Home of the Stars and mightily lived up to its reputation.
For most of the 1960s - show tickets sold for $2, $3 and $3.50 in the covered grandstand 100 feet away from the stage and track seats right in front of the stage sold for $5.
Television variety show hosts made the biggest splashes. Andy Williams crooned “Moon River” to ecstatic audiences in 1964 and he brought the Osmond Brothers back for their second Fair appearance, this time introducing a fifth member of the performing family, five-year-old Donny.
Big names performing in the ‘60s included Lawrence Welk 1961, 62, 69, popular piano virtuoso Liberace 1965, 68, Donald O’Connor 1965, Danny Kaye 1965, Perry Como 1966, trumpeter Al Hirt 1968, Eddy Arnold 1968, “Laugh-In’s” Rowan & Martin 1968, Merv Griffin 1969, Johnny Cash 1969, John Davidson 1969, and many more.
Star of the “Tonight Show” Johnny Carson made an unprecedented Fair appearance in 1967. He brought along sidekick Ed McMahon, who had been at the 1954 Fair when he was touted “Clown of the Big Top” on Philadelphia’s WCAU Channel 10. Singer Kaye Stevens joined Johnny as did a teenage banjo-picking Roy Clark, who after being with Johnny at the Fair, mentioned it every time he appeared on the Tonight Show over the next three decades.
Summer thunderstorms and oppressive August heat made Fair officials long for their old September Fair. It did not seem likely that County school districts would return to giving time off for Fair attendance, so the decision was reached to operate the Fair during the days leading up to and through the Labor Day holiday weekend. All of the factors that had affected the nation’s economy in the late 1970s - inflation, recession, fuel shortages - had taken a toll on the Fair. The Committee worked to cope with rising costs of operating the annual event and maintaining the Fairgrounds. It strived to anticipate the community’s rapidly evolving tastes in entertainment. Running a fair was no longer a simple business of handshakes. The Lehigh County Agricultural Society pulled together to keep its Fair viable and relevant.
August 25-September 2, 1978 - the Fair coincided with the Labor Day holiday for the first time. Because of the time change, Goodings Million Dollar Midway could not provide enough attractions. The Society tried several carnival companies over the next few years to suitably fill the lot.
Recognizing the record number eight years that The Osmonds had performed at the Fair, the Society dedicated Osmonds Plaza, a landscaped rest area inside the Main Entrance of the Fair in 1978. All family members were given “honorary Allentown citizenship!”
Notable headliners that took the Fair from the ‘70s into the ‘80s and beyond included Chicago 1978, 87, 90, Barbara Mandrell 1979, 82, 84, 90, Sha Na Na 1979-81, The Beach Boys 1979, 82, 83, 86, 87, 92, 94, Anne Murray 1979, and Loretta Lynn 1981, 87.
A string of successful expositions solidly positioned the Society to take its Fair into the new Millennium. A major disaster nearly destroyed a Fairgrounds landmark, the famous Ritz Barbecue, but area firefighters and a reconstruction company came to the rescue. Boy bands became popular again and the Fair’s Grandstand was filled with screaming teens like it was during Osmond Mania two decades earlier. Country music superstars made a big statement, too. Recognizing that the consuming public wanted to know how its food gets from the farm to the table, the Lehigh County Agricultural Society went back to its original mission.
The 1990s opened with more big names in the Grandstand such as Kenny G and Michael Bolton 1990,
The Judds 1991, Randy Travis 1991, James Taylor 1992 and a trio of Sharon, Lois and Bram, children’s performers who sold out the Grandstand to wee folks requiring the first stroller parking lot! 1990, 91
Grandstand stage production sets were getting bigger every year. In 1992, the roof could no longer hold the extensive lighting and suspended speakers many stars required, so the Society decided to give it a lift. The Alvin H. Butz Company reconstructed and raised it.
Reba McEntire posted back-to-back Labor Day sellouts in the Grandstand. The redheaded country superstar is one of the Fair’s most enduring and endearing performers 1991, 94, 95, 99.
All the rage, teen acts The Backstreet Boys 1998, Britney Spears 1999, 98º 1997, 99, 01, LFO 2000, and Destiny’s Child 2000 brought back the fan hysteria that greeted The Osmonds in the 1970s.