This week, Ravalli County is hosting the county fair.
It's a fair that was started by the late Copper Baron Marcus Daly on his own property in the late 1890s.
So, when and how did fairs begin? Like many things in history, the beginnings of fairs are shrouded in mystery. An early reference in the Bible (around 550 BCE) describes the island city of Tyre (off the coast of Lebanon), as an important market and fair center. What is clear is that both commerce and religion played important roles in the creation of early fairs.
Early on, traders and merchants from distant areas came together at places described as “fairs.” Equally important were religious activities that accompanied and in many instances, predated “commercial gatherings.” In fact, the Latin word "feria" meaning "holy day," would logically seem to be the root word for fair.
At these fairs, a large number of people assembled at temples to pay homage to their gods. And given that these cities were also hubs for commerce, the blending of trading and religion was a natural outcome. In many of these blended “fairs,” religious figures were placed about to provide “protection” for traders and merchants.
During the early Christian era, the Catholic Church was very active in sponsoring fairs on feast days. While religion was obviously an important aspect, the Church also did quite well financially and soon, fairs became a another source of revenue for the Church.
Over time, especially in Western Europe, entertainment along with other activities, were blended into fairs. Traveling “actors” performed, going from one fair to the next. Over time, this would begin resemble modern fairs with specialty entertainment and of course, family-friendly carnival row.
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In 1765, the first fair in North America took place in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Amazingly, this fair is still going strong today.
However, the concept of a county fair was still not quite there, that is until Elkanah Watson, a farmer and patriot, held his first fair called which he called the Cattle Show in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1811. This fair was unlike its predecessors — it was not just a market, but it was also more than an exhibit of animals. At this fair, there were competitions for prize money paid for the best oxen, sheep, swine and cattle. Game on.
So, why has Watson been called the "Father of U.S. agricultural fairs?" Because he worked tirelessly for many years helping other communities organize their own agricultural shows. By 1819, most counties in New England were holding their own fair. The movement quickly spread to other states, and by the end of the nineteenth century almost every state and county were holding annual fairs.
Even though over time, other types of “exhibits” have been added, such as vegetables, flowers and antiques, those early fairs nonetheless form the heart of today’s agricultural fairs.
Today, there are nearly 2,000 fairs held in North America each year. And around the world, agricultural fairs can be found throughout Europe, Australia and Latin America.
It’s at fairs that today’s consumers can understand and have an appreciation of the importance of farming and can learn where their food really comes from (not the supermarket).
So, why are fairs still popular? It’s an opportunity for folks to come together in celebration of common values and to be a part of the larger community of friends and neighbors.