Canfield Fair is all about growth and change

The fair has seen 161 years of transformation.



CANFIELD — David Myers, 78, remembers when a carnival game at the Canfield Fair required contestants to shoot a pack of cigarettes off a shelf with a cork gun. The winner got to keep the cigarettes.

Robert DiRusso, 48, misses the freak shows.

Times have changed since the first Canfield Fair in 1847, when admission was one shilling, or 12.5 cents, according to Charlotte Agustin, author of a book on the fair’s history.

Now the event can draw as many as 100,000 guests in a day, surpassing the population of Youngstown, said Timm Schreiber, fair board member.

Growth and change have made their marks on nearly every aspect of fair life, say longtime fairgoers.

From the beginning, evolution and adaptation have been essential to the fair’s success. The fair was five years old in 1851, when it had outgrown its location on Canfield’s public square. That year, organizers bought five acres on the site of the current fairgrounds to serve as permanent home of the “agricultural exhibition,” according to Agustin.

There were additional land acquisitions, particularly in the 1950s, Agustin said. Today, the fairgrounds have swelled to 353 acres.

“It’s gotten much larger,” said Kathryn Bennett, 64, a fair board member and 1956 fair queen. When she began attending the fair at age 6, there was only one midway, she said.

There are now 16, according to Agustin.

Amusement rides

During the Civil War, the fair’s only pay-to-ride amusement was swings. By 1885, a roller coaster had been introduced, Agustin said.

In Myers’ early trips to the fair, he remembers enjoying carnival staples such as the Ferris wheel, bumper cars and Tilt-a-Whirl.

But early fairgoers couldn’t have imagined the 50 computerized rides that occupy a large portion of the fairgrounds today, said Al Bozich, of the Bates Bros. Amusement Co.

“It’s just a whole different world,” he said.

Bates Bros. has been providing the Canfield Fair with rides since 1987. Their oldest — the Kangaroo Ride in Kiddie land — dates to 1956, he said.

“It’s still going in circles,” he said.

Growth has led to increasingly stiff competition in the food stands, said DiRusso, whose family operates DiRusso’s Real Italian Sausage stand.

In 1944, fairgoers complained about the lack of concessions available at the fair, according to Agustin. During World War II, rations had made food items hard to acquire.

Fair food

Today, however, there are about 2,000 registered vendors, food and otherwise, at the fair, said Bennett.

DiRusso has seen increased competition change the fair concession business dramatically since he began working the family’s sausage stands with his grandmother in 1973. Back then, french fries and lemonade “were the big things,” he said. Apple dumplings, pizza and stromboli all came later.

“The food has changed,” he said. “It’s more sophisticated.”

DiRusso said the family introduced turkey sausage about 10 years ago to please health-conscious consumers. More recently, the family added stuffed peppers to its menu.

Fair favorites still account for a large percentage of the food consumed by Canfield fairgoers, said Agustin.

In the 1990s, fairgoers daily were consuming about 700 pounds of french fries, 100 pounds of sausage and eight cases of lemons, 200 pounds of sugar and 600 pounds of ice in lemonade, she said.

Fair board members have battled to ensure agriculture would remain a mainstay of the fair, even as society becomes increasingly urbanized, said Bennett.

“We’re trying to keep agriculture here because it’s going away a lot of places,” she said.

Farm produce

During the first fair in 1847, there were four vegetable and two fruit and flower classes judged, according to Agustin’s book. One class even judged crops in the field and the general state of the farm over 50 acres, she said.

By the 1990s, there were 78 categories for farm products, 55 for fruit, 15 for hay and 62 pumpkin classes, said Agustin.

But urbanization has taken its toll on many agricultural exhibitions, including the fruit categories, according to fair board member George Less.

Recently, Less moved to increase prizes in several fruit categories to counteract waning participation, he said.

“We were losing all our growers,” said Less. “They were going out of business.”

Less, who grew up on a fruit farm, said the fair also added a wine-making category to attract interest in the fruit category of the fair’s agricultural showcase. The competition has been a popular addition, he said.

The increasing urbanization of society is apparent in the decline of local Grange organizations occupying the Grange Building, according to Agustin. At its height, the building housed 12 Granges. Only five remain active, she said.

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