By Jordyn Grzelewski
and Kalea Hall
When George Roman III started coming to the Canfield Fair 60-plus years ago, it was a simpler time.
He grows nostalgic reflecting on those days, when grandparents, parents and kids would pile into their car and head out for a long day at the fairgrounds, picnic lunches in tow.
He remembers, too, the days in the 1950s when he and his neighborhood friends would return to comb the fairgrounds for scattered soda bottles after the fair ended. They’d return the bottles to their local grocery store for the 2- and 5-cent deposits that people had paid for them.
“All the pop around the fair was sold in bottles. Immediately after the fair ... we just beat it to the fairgrounds at 7 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and we were out there picking up pop bottles,” he said. “That’s how we made our money for next year’s fair.”
Reminiscing on those days, his voice seeps nostalgia.
“I think it’s a lot of hustle and bustle now. Way back when I started coming to the fair, it was more laid back and easygoing,” said Roman, now the fair director for concessions, grandstand and special attractions.
“Now it’s kind of crazy,” he said. “The kids are given so many opportunities – riding the rides, looking at all the animals. ... The pace is just moving along so much faster.”
Like countless other lifelong fairgoers in the community, Roman has seen the fair evolve to an event that retains many of its traditional features but is constantly updated with modern twists.
Today’s fairgoers have greater concern for safety and security than when he was a kid. In the 1950s, parents didn’t think twice about sending young children to the fair without adult supervision, he noted.
The Mahoning County Agricultural Society started the fair in 1847 as a way to celebrate agriculture. The Vindicator obtained a copy of “The Enduring Traditions,” a book on 150 years of the Canfield Fair written by Charlotte Agustin.
Inside its pages, the beginnings of the fair are given life. Then, fairs were very important to farmers.
“Unless you can keep up a love and interest in all the various productions of the soil, and its domestic animals, you cannot keep up with your fairs, and if the fairs are not kept up, your fields will not be,” reads an excerpt from Eben Newton’s speech at the Oct. 7, 1862 fair.
The founders of the fair “knew that only by attending a fair can people be educated, and only with excited attention can that learning become a lasting enrichment for all,” the book states.
From the beginning, the fair has been filled with dances, music, contests, pageants, parades and animals.
“Within the tradition of recreation, the fair has expressed the changes occurring in the world,” the book reads. “Where a bathtub and dog-powered wash machine met amazement and delight in the 1800s, aeroplanes and helicopters did the same in the 1940s and 1960s.”
The early days brought performances by local talent. After World War II, fairgoers wanted something new.
In 1957, Fair Board Director William Kilcawley arranged for the Lennon Sisters to perform.
Field crops and livestock were always an important part of the fair. Back in 1847, there were four vegetable and two fruit and flower classes, according to “The Enduring Traditions.” That first year also brought 30 cattle, six sheep, three swine and 12 horse classes.
Medical displays began in 1952, and the international exhibits came in 1962. In 1848, the “Ladies’ Fair” featuring arts and crafts was introduced.
One aspect of the Canfield Fair that cannot be forgotten is the food.
“The appeal of food is one of the strongest motivations for repeated visits to the Canfield Fair,” the book reads.
Back in 1861, one concession sold $200 worth of candy. Isaly’s was a mainstay at the fair in the 1900s with its cones, milkshakes, ice cream sandwiches and swiss cheese on rye bread.
Today, it’s the DiRusso’s Italian sausage sandwiches, Molnar’s cinnamon rolls and Richardson’s french fries that are among the top concessions.
Roller coasters got their start at the fair in 1885 when a primitive version was introduced. During the Civil War, swings were the fair’s only ride attraction. Bates Amusement Co. now brings in metal giants to spin its riders around and upside down.
The first year of the fair 1,500 people attended. In 2015, the fair drew 282,386 visitors over its six days. In 1979, 539,437 attended the fair — setting an unbroken record.
Admission fees didn’t start until 1851 after five acres were purchased for a permanent fair location. Back then, it was one shilling or 12.5 cents to attend the fair. This year, the admission fees range from $6 to $8 for adults depending on the day.
Despite the changes that have come with time, the fair remains what it’s been for the past 170 years: a tradition and a celebration of Mahoning Valley farms.
To commemorate the 170th anniversary of that tradition, The Vindicator looked through the trove of archive files on the fair, which feature decades of headlines noting new attendance records, expansions and improvements at the fairgrounds. They also chronicle weather events – from idyllic sunny days, to gales that left the fairgrounds empty and flooded.
Worth noting: As the longest-running media to cover the fair as the sum total of all daily newspapers published in Youngstown since 1869, The Vindicator on-site archives on the Canfield Fair starts in 1921, where a story notes attendance of 35,000 at the 75th Canfield Fair.
Here are some other milestones The Vindicator crowed about during the fair’s history.
In July 1925, a new grandstand and race track are dedicated.
In 1936, fair attendance hits 100,000 people.
In 1937, the admission price goes up 15 cents, to 40 cents. That’s equivalent to $6.68 today.
An August 1940 Vindicator headline reads: “Four buffalo missing two nights driven into corral after located on South Run.” The incident is later editorialized in a piece titled “The Buffalo – and the Fair.”
1941: First annual horse show takes place at the fairgrounds.
September 1942: A Vindicator editorial titled “The War-Time Fair” stresses that the Canfield Fair board was right to go ahead with the fair.
1945: The first helicopter to be shown in the area is at the fair.
1946: Bars to close within a 2-mile radius of the fair.
1949: The 4-H building is dedicated.
1954: A Vindicator column looking at history from 40 years before notes that during a visit to the fair, Ohio Gov. James Cox “has narrow escape when speaker’s stand collapses under weight of 100 people.”
1955: Daniel Gearhart of Greenville asks for $30,000 in damages after being bitten by a horse at the fair.
January 1958: Fair posts its best profit in history, at $57,721.
1958: Eight horses die in a barn fire later determined to be an arson committed by a Barnum and Bailey circus worker.
1958: Board member W.H. Kilcawley donates 50-ton boulder to the fairgrounds.
1959: So-called “Blue laws” – designed to ban certain activities on Sundays – may eliminate Canfield Fair Sunday date, The Vindicator reports.
An August 1959 Vindicator article notes: “There will be no policing of women’s costumes at the Canfield Fair, President Ralph Courtney declared today. In some sections of the country, women are being told they cannot attend if they wear shorts, halters or Bermudas. They can wear them at the Canfield Fair Sept. 3-7, unless they get unreasonable, Courtney says. Asked what he meant by “unreasonable,” Courtney said, “I expect women and girls have the answer to that.”
1962: The fair adds a fifth day, using the slogan: “More for You in ’62.”
1963: Baby elephant at the fair dies of pneumonia.
1970: 5,000 fairgoers send letters to Hanoi in honor of missing servicemen and prisoners of war.
1971: A special six-day fair takes place to celebrate the 125th anniversary.
1972: A fair concessionaire holds 37-year record.
1974: Warren man “in serious condition” after falling from “The Twister” ride.
A September 1975 Vindicator headline proclaims that a woman “working snow cone concession accidentally shaved off her right index finger along with the ice Sunday afternoon. Red Cross bundled her wound and fingertip in ice shaving and took her to the hospital.”
December 1975: Rooster emblem stolen from the fairgrounds found outside Canfield High School and returned to the fairgrounds.
1976: U.S. Sen. John Glenn “to mingle with Labor Day crowds at the fair.” Also, Nine people injured after being thrown from the “Cyclone” ride.
1977: Johnny Cash performs at the fair.
1978: Bob Hope performs, and more than a half-million people visit the fair.
1979: The fair bans dogs.
1981: Pioneer Village changes to Western Reserve Village.
1987: School starting before Labor Day hurts fair attendance.
1988: Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine pull out of contract as main attraction; Patty LaBelle performs instead.
1989: Seven-foot-long white oak log to be used to carve fair’s rooster mascot.
1993: Dolly Parton performs.
1995: Fair board hires its first manager, Bev Fisher.
1996: 72,000 fairgoers flap their way into the Guinness World Records for most people doing the Chicken Dance at once.
2000: Sharks are on display in new attraction sponsored by The Vindicator.
2002: The Great Bear show, sponsored by The Vindicator, takes place.
2003: For the first time in 40 years, the fair does not honor an outstanding fair family because of lack of nominations.
2006: Beach Boys perform at the fair for the fourth time.
2009: Fair launches new website. Also, an Asian-built Chevrolet Cruze is displayed at the Canfield Fair. The Cruze will be manufactured at the GM Lordstown plant.
2012: Vice President Joe Biden visits the fair.
2013: Installation of new cellphone tower to improve reception at the fairgrounds.
2014: Fair encourages visitors to attach love locks to 13-foot-tall wire rooster.
2015: Poultry – including the fair’s signature roosters – banned due to avian-flu concerns.
2016: Canfield Fair marks its 170th anniversary.