Is The Jefferson County Fair The Longest Consecutively Running Fair At 205 in 2022?
The Jefferson County Fair has the distinguish of being the longest consecutively running county fair in the United States and will be celebrating its 205 consecutive year in 2022… or so it’s being promoted as such. In researching its history the fair, its milestones and anniversaries, it was discovered the event held in 1917 was NOT acknowledged as the 100th fair, but rather the 99th which beget a trip or few down rabbit holes to figure where the math came from as 1817 is cited as the fist Jefferson County Fair, but not necessarily correct.
Could it have been a printing error? Apparently not, because the Watertown Daily Times reported the 1918 edition as the 100th which would make the 2018th the 200th and the current year, 2022, number 204, except those numbers don’t add up, either. Mystery not withstanding, and more on this later, the county fairs began in the early 19th century as a way for local farmers to organize and exhibit their various improvements in modern farming and usually took part over the course of 2 to 3 days in either September or October.
An article in the August 17, 1957 Watertown Daily Times noted—
The idea was first copied in this state in 1817 at Otsego and following the war of 1812 the Jefferson County Agricultural society was formed to promote similar events.
The organization of the county agricultural society was largely due to James Le Ray de Chaumont, a member of one of the prominent early French families of the area. LeRay was a large landholder in the 19th century and had purchased most of the land in the county north of the Black River.
In fact, Le Ray’s interest in agricultural affairs drew the attention of Thomas Jefferson, whose letter to LeRay in May of 1818, the first actual year of the Jefferson County Fair, is below. That year, the fair was said to have been held on what is now LeRay Street. It wouldn’t be until 1843 when the fair moved permanently to what is now the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds, the land owned by the Jefferson County Agricultural Society until 1948 when it was acquired by the city with the stipulation that the county fair continued to be held there.
The interest carried over the decades and is particularly evident with many of the earliest mentions in the local newspapers. The Jefferson County Fair back to 1850 was actually used as testaments in advertisements for tools of the trade to livestock, including “The Thorough-Bred Horse Mahomet” which came from Mexico and was deemed by the Horse Committee at the fair to be of a premium breed from an Arabian sire by a Mexican dam.
In 1872, the Watertown Daily Times posted a dispirited response to the fair that year—
The editor of the Pulaski Democrat attended our recent fair, got caught in a shower and went home vexed enough to get off the following:
The Jefferson County Fair was rather a slim af-fair. The exhibition was not without some commendable features, but taken as a hole, especially on the third day, there was little upon the ground to instruct, interest or amuse. This fact, taken in connection with the frequent showers, had rather of a depressing effect upon those in attendance.
While the County Fair has had its ups and downs over the years, what was evidently lacked the most that day was a dunking booth which undoubtedly would have checked nearly all the boxes in the editor’s letter.
In the late 1800s, balloon ascensions would become a popular attraction as they had proven to be on Public Square on several occasions in years prior. Dog racing proved to be a popular spectacle then, too, as did parachute jumps and rope walks.
In 1910, the Jefferson County Fairgrounds were graced with the “Grand Promenade” used during the New York State Firemen’s Convention held the previous month in downtown. The Grand Promenade was 600 feet long, 60 feet wide, outlined by 16 massive columns 35 feet high, decorated with American flags touted as “making a plain county fair an Exposition.” The promenade was erected to the south of the main exhibition halls, where the midway had been in the past.
The same year would also see the likes of the Strobel airship, aka “blimp,” driven through the air by a motor and sailing upward like an eagle. The 92nd Annual fair of the Jefferson County Agricultural Society ran from Sept. 5 through the 9th that year. The attendance in 1910 was an estimated 15,000 for the first two main days.
What was regarded as the 99th fair in 1917 saw an attraction on the platform in front of the grand stand involving a dove and monkey show. Even a vivid imagination draws a blank on that one. The main attraction, however, was the automobile show. 40 models would be showcased, including the Studebaker, Maxwell and Grant motor cars from Ward P. Smith’s dealership on State Street.
In the Watertown Daily Times September 3, 1918 article marking the 100th anniversary of the Jefferson County Fair, it was reported—
Jefferson County Fair, held this week, marks the 100th anniversary of the first fair held in this county. The gathering of 1818 was the second county fair held in the state, the first having been that held in Ostego County. The first fair in America is said to have been held in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, not so many years before, and gradually the idea spread west, making the journey with those first settlers.
In the first fairs one of the favorite attractions was the plowing race in which oxen were employed and to the winners of which prizes running as high as $100 were given. Today the chief interest of the farmers is in the tractors and their work, and the news story today says that there are an especially large number tractors being exhibited on the grounds and that the public is taking an unusual interest in them. It is a far cry from oxen to tractors for use in plowing, but it only serves to emphasize the advance that we have made along the lines during the century that has passed since the first fair was held in Watertown.
The Discrepancy In Years And Consecutive Years: Who’s Actually Keeping Tally?
Interesting to note, the 150th Jefferson County Fair was celebrated in 1967, so somewhere in between all those years dating back to 1818 a mystery not only remained, but deepened with more digging. What should have been the 125th consecutive year of the fair in 1942, based on the assumption that the county fair began in 1817, never actually happened. In an article published in The Times on August 20, 1942, it was stated—
Since there will be no Jefferson County Fair this year, during which selections for state homemaking exhibits in conjunction with 4-H club work are customarily made, it has been decided to hold a small county 4-2 homemaking exhibit for that purpose, it was announced today by George A. Earl, Jr., county 4-H club agent.
The absence was further indicated the following year on February 19, 1943—
Had the Jefferson County Fair held forth last year it would have been its 124th annual exposition without a lapse since its organization in 1818. The present year marks its 125 milestone. It is a record not duplicated by any other of the state’s original 94 associations and one which fair officials, a number of years ago, had anticipated would be fittingly observed.
Complicating matters further, the fair didn’t occur in 1943, either, or 1944 when a letter to the editor on September 5 questioned as to why—
To The Times:
I’ve been thinking lately a great deal about the old Jefferson County fair. What’s become of it and why, with the facilities Jefferson County has for putting on a fair, don’t we have one?
On September 15th of 1944, it was reported that resolutions were passed stating that the Jefferson County Fair should reorganize and resume as soon as war conditions permit. The last fair held was in 1941 and 1945 passed without it being held, either. It wasn’t until August 27 through the 31 of 1946 that the fair would be held again.
1946 also brought another article re-iterating the first Jefferson County Fair occurred in 1818 as a Sackets Harbor paper carried the story of it. Per the article—
On the inside page of the Sacket’s (sic) Harbor Gazette and Advertiser, which was published by George (Elisha?) Camp, in Sackets Harbor in the early 1800’s, the account states the first cattle show and fair of Jefferson county agricultural society was held at the village of Watertown on the 28th and 29th of September, 1818.
The Jefferson County Fair in 1947 was recognized as the 125th and the years that followed through 1955 were correct, but an article that year stated—
On Aug. 22, the Jefferson County Fair will open at the fairgrounds in Watertown for the 134th time. If you count back 134 years, the first one took place in 1821. That’s probably a record for any such institution to hold forth, be praised and criticized, and yet, continue to make plans for still another year.
While the 1955 county fair was, in fact, the 134th, the article’s author erroneously assumed they were continuously held every year and came up with the wrong start date. Mind you, the error came less than a decade after the fair resumed in 1946 from a four year break, too. The mid-1950s saw articles referring to the current year (e.g. 1956) Jefferson County Fair rather than its running total which may have contributed to confusion and subsequent misinformation – though the 1957 was referenced once as “135th Jefferson County Fair,” which was incorrect as well.
The 1958 county fair subsequently was referred to as the 138th county fair, one off from the correct 137, most likely due to crediting the first to 1817 instead of 1818. With a nine-year gap to 1967, the discrepancy of 1 would somehow become 5 when that year’s fair was credited as being the 150th and from which every subsequent year followed the suit until the current 2022 being the “205th consecutive,” when it’s apparently the 200th with the fair in 2020 having been canceled.
Below: a night at the Jefferson County Fair in 2014, from the Watertown Daily Times.
If all that isn’t confusing, consider in 1960 The Times printed an article regarding the discovery of a document purportedly from papers of the Elisha Camp collection in Sackets Harbor indicating the first fair was in 1822. So it was reported that 1960 was now the 138th year of the fair because of, well, math: 1960 – 1822 = 138.
There was no mentioning of its own reporting in 1946 of the similar article already mentioning the finding being from 1818 (at which time a book was actually written about it.) The 1960 article goes on to say the fair was held in back of the court house on Court Street instead of on what is now LeRay Street. Two years later, the confusion didn’t let up when the 1962 fair was deemed the 140th fair, only five years away from when 1967 was credited and celebrated as its 150th!
Two years later the Jefferson County Fair was back to having been established in 1817 and now going on 147, putting it on track to hit 150 in 1967. Most references since have all carried the same misinformation with both the number of fairs held, its first year and its continuously running streak (a quick search shows Steuben County as laying claim to the title with 191 continuous fairs – but hey, who knows where that rabbit hole will lead…)
Below: Watertown thru the eyes of Mr. Watertown, Alex Duffy, from Steve Weed Productions’ YouTube Channel.
Mr. Watertown, Alex T. Duffy
No discussion on the Jefferson County Fair would be complete without the mentioning of Mr. Watertown, Alex Thomas Duffy, whom the fairgrounds are named after. Born in January of 1900, Mr. Duffy wore many hats over the course of his 99 years. Among those included President of the Jefferson County Agricultural Society for over 30 years. An exceptional athlete growing up, he played center for 16 seasons for the Watertown Red & Black. During his tenure, he was captain for two years, coach for two years and general manager for two years.
Mr. Duffy’s introduction with agriculture began at an early age when he raised poultry at the age of 12. His Cochin were world class and from 1940 to 1961 he was manager of the New York City Poultry Show held at Madison Square Garden and would also serve as the national president of the American Standard Cochin Club.
The Times would write of a special award received in 1985–
The 168th Jefferson County Fair opened in July 1985 with a surprise state awards ceremony as the deputy commissioner of agriculture, Joseph E. O’Hara, presented a certificate of achievement to Mr. Duffy from Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. The award was in recognition of the longest-running fair in the country and of Mr. Duffy’s then 50 years of service to the county fair.
In short, there’s not just one, but rather many reasons why they’re called the Alex T. Duffy fairgrounds.