A History of The Cortland County Fair

By Thomas Dumas and Dick & Martha Bush

The first Cortland County Fair was held in 1818 and was held in a Hotel. The Fair was used to judge sheep and products of the day like maple syrup and cheese. The first few years the fair was held in different places and not every year. They had fairs off and on until 1838 when the Agriculture Society was organized. The fair was held on the first Wednesday in October at the Eagle Tavern. Fairs were held in different towns in the County

1845 Held in Truxton, 100 head of cattle, 25 horses, 80 sheep and 22 hogs.

1846 Held in Cortland, all cattle held in pens, a suggestion was made next year to tie each animal for better show.

1859 At this time they bought the present grounds that are located off Homer Avenue in Cortland, New York. Horse racing was the big event in all the early fairs and carried on to the fairs end. There were three private horse tracts in Cortland County in the mid to late1800s, one in Homer, one where the airport is now and one on Kellogg Rd.

1862 The fair had $6000 in assets with only $800 in loans to pay off over the next several years.

1890 The Society reorganized itself into a stock company, $20,000 in stock sold.

1891 The Grandstands were built.

1928 Road from Fisher Ave. was constructed.

In 1932 the Cortland County Holstein Club erected the big cattle barn. The barn still stands today.

1938 Cortland County Fair claimed the distinction of having the oldest fair in the United States 100 years old. They had the centennial fair and they had a huge crowd for this fair. Years later they found Jefferson County Fair had the oldest continuous running fair starting on October 17, 1818.

January 26, 1939 discussed carnival arrangements for 1939 fair, opinion was: strict supervision should be had by directors themselves in order to prevent any recurrence of trouble with gambling and improper shows. 1939 attendance was second largest they had ever had. February 1939 meeting held for purpose of carnival contract for 1939 fair. Carnival owners Buck, Coleman and Glick were present. All submitted their bids; all were thoroughly discussed, with Coleman awarded contract for $2,500.00 and a percentage over certain gross amount on shows and rides to go to the fair board. March of that year Mr. Phil Wirth-Wirth Booking Agency was hired for the entertainment programs. “Cheer Up” for $2,500.00, Wirth to take first money. Tiger Act and Four Man Swing Act for $1,300.00 guarantee amount. Thrill Day Saturday $200.00 (first money plus 50% of gate and grandstand up to 5:00 PM) Premium recommendations; $300.00 horses, $600.00 cattle, $240.00 granges, $250.00 4-H clubs, $90.00 poultry. The committee decided 10 exhibits by Home Bureau and 10 for the Granges. Want to develop softball diamond inside the race tract and eliminate the fruit dept this year.

1940 fair week was the week preceding the state fair August 19-24. Bigger carnival needed ($3,000.00to $3,500.00) talk of combining 4-H and FFA.

1941 Fair started on August 18, one week before the Syracuse State Fair. Fair was stared on Sunday to earn more revenue. 1941 the Governor cut the State budget for fairs by 50%. Nothing like history repeating its self, as this happened again in 2009! Cortland County was rated number one in all the New York Fairs at the New York fair meeting.

1942 the New York State fair was cancelled because of World War II. Cortland took fair date August 31 thru September 7, 1942. Carnival was Prell Shows.

1944 The Society secured title to the Columbus Athletic Field on North Homer Ave. The McDonald Sports Complex in now located there. There was no State Fair in 1944 because of the war so Cortland used that date and had James E Strates Shows as the midway that year.

1945 107th Fair had free chest x-rays. August 27-September1 1945 fair date. James E States moved the show on the train using 32 railroad cars..


1946 the number of Holstein cattle that were exhibited in open classes at the local fairs

Cortland County Fair # of cattle 146.

Dutchess County Fair                 123

Muncie, Indiana Fair                    96

Ohio State Fair                            117

Iowa State Fair                            115

Cattle shows became as popular of a attraction as the horse racing and Cortland Fair still has large cattle shows even today.

1947 majority of high voltage wires were run underground. New roadway from Carroll St was made.

1949 Fair, Strates Shows traveling on its own train of 45 railroad cars carrying 27 rides and 22 big shows.

1951 113 Fair August 13-17. Most of the fairs were at the end of August. Admission prices were adults $.60, children 6-12 $.30 under 5 free. Grandstand was $.90.

1953 Fair attendance was down 21%. The fair was losing money. At a board meeting the Grand Union Company of Patterson, N.J. purposed to buy the entire frontage on Homer Ave (Route 11) Board member J.M. McDonald moved that a stockholders meeting be held on proposed sale to Grand Union Company. On November 13,1953 stockholders held a meeting and voted to sell for $70,000.00 to Grand Union Company. The grandstand and part of the race tract area was sold to city for $20,000.00 to build the State Armory on.

1954 January 20 voted at meeting to discontinue the County Fair. Grand Union bought an adjoining strip to Carroll St for $5,000.00. Cortland Board of Education bought end piece for $21,000.00 and built Ferdinand E. Smith School. The Holstein Club settled with them for $500.00

1955 April 23ed, the Society property located outside city limits was put up for bid. Junior Fair Association had the highest bid in at $7500.00. Junior Fair Association has until June 1, 1955 to buy. This was the end of the Cortland County Fair as we knew it then (big) It ran from 1838 to 1953 115 years with exception of one year when it was cancelled because of Polio threat.



When the original “Cortland County Fair” came to its end in the early 1950’s so did a long annual tradition of community activities. But for some in Cortland County, this was not acceptable and thus came the beginning of what is now known as the “Cortland County Junior Fair”.

On June 3, 1954 a meeting was held at the “Homer Fire House” of a committee of those interested in working on a “Junior Fair”. A resolution was accepted “on holding a Junior Fair at the Holstein Club property. A week later, another meeting was held at the 4-H Club Office choosing the dates of August 15, 16 &17 as the dates for the fair and at this time a name for the fair was being discussed as being the “Cortland County Junior Fair”.


Committees were needed…

Putting together the fair was no easy task, especially with the dates being just a few weeks a way. Many different committees were needed including Rodeo, Dairy, Poultry, Vegetable, Homemaking, Finance, Concession and Steering committees. Volunteers were needed to serve on these committees along with determining just what responsibilities each committee would be charged with. Every little detail needed to be worked out. Even parking was a critical concern as the “old fair grounds” was not necessarily an option to be used. 

A committee on arranging “space in the barn” was established along with another committee for “outside space”. The “Outside Space” committee would be responsible for arranging the outside space for rodeo, concessions, rides, machinery and feed dealers, parking, fencing problems, and the list went on. The “Space in The Barn” committee had no easy task either, as locating homemaking exhibits of food and clothing along with agricultural exhibits of various animals, vegetables, etc. made for many compromises.

Liability coverage was another major issue. Just who was being insured and from what, say nothing about where would the money come from to pay for the policy.  It soon became evident that the group needed to become “incorporated”. By June 23 many decisions had already been made. Permission had been gained to use the area “belonging to the Fair Association” east of the Holstein property and called  “the old ball-park” for parking.  A Publicity Committee was needed and thus appointed. Decisions were made including having a horse show on Sunday afternoon and a horse pull for Saturday night before the fair. Use of the “Holstein Property” was approved and permission for an adult rabbit show was given, but without a specific location to house the rabbits. The group agreed to a “net profit split of 50-50” and discussions were had as to having rides, booths and games. Approval was also given to bring in a “wrestling show”.

By the first week of July more discussions were had regarding the need for “incorporation”, the printing of premium lists, food concessions, poultry coops, holding an open rabbit show, lining up rides, publicity, finances and holding a wrestling show for three nights. Meetings were held every week, with committees meeting even more often. By the middle of July everything seemed to be in order except for fencing for the rodeo. It was decided to construct the arena 75 feet west of the wash rack with a concession-stand to be located inside the spectator snow fence. The FFA would be in charge of all short order food concessions for the duration. Tables had yet to be obtained for the Vegetable and Home Economic exhibits. The Dairy exhibitors would furnish their own hay, straw and grain with water being made available. “Fred Allen Amusements” would provide rides and shows.

On July 15 a motion was approved that the event be called the “Cortland County Junior Fair”. It was determined that Farm Bureau and the 4-H Association must sponsor the fair and proof of such sponsorship must accompany “Incorporation Papers”. Invitations were sent to the scout groups and other youth organizations in the county to participate in the fair.

By the July 29 meeting, the group was informed that the “old fair association” would not dissolve or agree not to hold further fairs, so a new group had to be formed. The group could not be a county group due to present laws. It would have to be an association of towns in the county. The Girl Scouts desired to have space for their participation. By August 5, it was determined that since the Junior Fair was being sponsored by the Farm Bureau Executive Committee, that there was no need for incorporation, thus a motion was carried “to rescind the move to incorporate”.

The first Junior Fair was now history…

By October 13, the first Junior Fair was history. The group approved paying a total of  $1000 premium money with a $50 per exhibitor limit for all premiums at the Junior Fair. Discussion and consideration was being given to a “Junior Fair Charter”.  Regular meeting dates of the first Wednesday of every month was set.

By January 12, 1955 the “old fair association” had voted to dissolve. The “association” owned 13.1 acres in Cortlandville with about five acres in “the old ballpark” and eight acres of other land. The Junior Fair had no agreement to use the Holstein Club property in future years.

On February 9 a financial report of the 1954 fair showed a total income of $3011.65 with expenses bringing the bank balance to around $300. Much was learned in putting together a fair.  Many volunteers whose primary interest was “for the youth of Cortland County” spent thousands of hours. The first Cortland County Junior Fair was a success.

Early in 1955…

Early in 1955, approval was gained to again use the Holstein Property in 1955 for the Junior Fair. A contract was signed with “Continental Shows” to provide rides and concessions for the dates of August 10 through 13. The contract included space requirements for rides and concessions. The “Fair” to receive 20% on rides, 20% of shows and $2 per frontage foot for concessions. A free gate with a charge for parking was also included in the agreement.

Contacts were being continued with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets so that the Cortland County Junior Fair would be recognized and count towards a charter. A motion was approved to attempt to pay the same amount of premium money $1,000 as last year with $100 set aside for club and organization exhibits.

Incorporation papers drawn up…

By May 4,  “incorporation” papers had been drawn up and signed by the charter members. The First National Bank of Cortland had agreed to finance the purchase of the 13 acres for $7500 at 4% interest. Meetings became more frequent once again, meeting three times a month. Arrangements were made to print 2000 premium books with 50 pages each, 38 pages being advertising and 12-premium information.

Confusion reigned as to membership, “some feeling all members of the committee are members of the new corporation regardless of whether or not they signed the corporation papers. Others feel they are not and will have to be admitted by the by-laws when they are adopted”. The option to purchase the 13 acres of fair property located in the Town of Cortlandville for $7500 needed to be exercised by the June 1 deadline. On May 26 a motion was approved that “the corporation execute its option to purchase property from the Fair Association by June 1, 12 o’clock noon”.

By June 8, approval of a “Youth Fair Agreement” had been received and much time was spent on planning the program for the upcoming fair starting with a horse pull on Tuesday night, free acts Wednesday and Thursday, a firemen’s show Friday night and fireworks on Saturday. Much discussion was had regarding “having fireworks and other special events such as a square dance and calf scramble”. It was decided not to have fireworks, but approval was given to have the “firemen’s night” and a square dance contest.

As the 1955 Cortland County Junior Fair neared and many more programming decisions needed to be followed up on. Many other decisions had to be made on purchasing the old fair properties, surveys, titles, contracts, etc. Options to purchase the Holstein properties were also considered, but put on hold.

Soon the 1955 Junior Fair was over and plans were being already discussed for the next year. At the September meeting details for the annual meeting were discussed along with setting the date and organizations to be contacted. On November 14 the annual meeting of the County of Cortland Agricultural Corporation was held with 31 people present. Reports were received as to the numbers of exhibits and as well as the monies received and spent.  The By-laws were approved and $500 was paid on the bank note.

As the years progress…

As the years progressed so did the development of the Cortland County Junior Fair. Many contracts developed with some being signed and others discarded as to carnival companies, bands, special interest programs, property rental and the list goes on. Improvements to the fair ground properties were an ongoing challenge. Additional exhibit and show space was added with the rental of tents. More members and organizations were added to the Corporation and changes made to the by-laws.

By 1958, the state had agreed to pay up to $2500 in premiums but this was on a reimbursement rate, and the money needed to be raised and spent first. A contract had been signed with Mr. Goodwin of Riethoffers Amusements Company to provide the carnival for the Junior Fair. In 1960 the Board of Health required that new toilet facilities be installed before the fair could be held and thus a motion was made to sell land not used at present and to use the money for this purpose along with paying on the bank note.

Extension given approval to build…

In 1961 Extension was given approval to build its own building on the fair grounds with an additional 150 feet added to the agreement for the purpose of a corral. Rebuilding of the Holstein Barn, which had collapsed from excessive snow, was being discussed. In 1962 the Grange and 4-H Council were granted permission to build permanent buildings on skids for use as their stands at the fair. It was decided that the area between the Holstein property barn and Extension’s building be black topped.

In 1963, it was decided to place a tent over the newly black topped area and that the Extension Service would build toilets for the 4-H building. A “hepatitis” scare created much concern during the 1963 Junior Fair resulting in some events being cancelled. A loss of income over expenses was also realized because of the “hepatitis scare”.

The first ten years…

By 1964 and after ten years of Junior Fair many improvements had been made to the properties and program. A new concrete floor had been added to the 4-H building and another piece of property had been sold off to a Mr. Gates. Continued improvements were always on the Corporation members’ minds. By 1965 the sale of property had often funded major improvements. A new pole barn had been built over the asphalt area. A new wash rack along with a well and pump was installed. The bank note on purchasing the original properties had been paid off and a savings account had been started.

In 1966 discussion continued on building an electrical building on Corporation property and approval was finally given to go ahead along with purchasing bleachers for the new pole barn. A beef sale auction was held at the fair and another was planned for next year.

Over the next few years more changes and approvements were made. Rentals of the fair properties continued to increase including holding political “clam bakes”, auctions, dances, horse shows and a Brown Swiss Canton Show. New electrical wiring and an addition of a new transformer was completed, the “gable ends” closed up in the new pole barn and a “woolen show” added to the fair. New toilets were installed in the electrical building with showers to be included later.

In 1970 approval was given to build a two-board fence around the arena and tents were acquired to house the rabbit and chicken exhibits. A committee was formed to consider the purchase of three lots near the fair grounds. A “dry well” was dug by the wash rack on the Holstein property and the floor in the 4-H building was painted.

Work on article done by Richard Bush (Early information) and Tom Dumas ( Later Information ). Material for the article came from numerous sources. The early years came from Cortland County Ag Society records found at the Cortland Historical Society. A phone call to Florida to speak to the son of the old James E Strates Shows , E. James Strates who spent most of the 1940s and early 50s at the County Fair each year before he went in the U.S. Marine Corp. He is now the owner with his sons. He had many good stories to tell and remembers a lot about the old Crozier Gun shop in Homer, NY and as he says the great bar across the street from the fair grounds the “King Cole”! He said the Strates Shows played in Cortland first in early August, then went to the Erie County Fair and then on to the State Fair in Syracuse from late August to early September.

From the beginning Cortland Fair has had a long rich history, but there have been years when the fair was almost broke or close to bankruptcy. The Junior Fair is a not-for-profit organization and has away been run by a group of dedicated volunteers.