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October 13th, 2011:

First day of the Fair, 1853

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Everybody get ready for the North Carolina State Fair – which officially starts TODAY!

Before you put on your tennis shoes and t-shirt, plan which ride to ride first, and grab some money for a giant turkey leg, take a trip back to that first North Carolina State Fair, 158 years ago. What was it like?

First off, you wouldn’t have been enjoying that turkey leg off of Hillsborough Street on the way to Cary. The Fair was first held at a location much closer to downtown Raleigh, near Swain Street, between Davie and Hargett Streets. This section from an 1872 map shows the Fairgrounds in its first of three locations.

(You can see the full map in the North Carolina Digital Collections.) Today, this area is mostly residential. In 1873, the Fair moved west outside of Raleigh city limits, to an area off of Hillsborough Street across from what is now North Carolina State University.  You can see that location on this map from the North Carolina Maps website.  “Horse Track Alley,” presumably named for the Fairgrounds horse racing track, denotes the spot now. It was only in 1926 that you’d find yourself where the Fair is held today.

If it was 1853, you’d definitely be trading in that t-shirt, as well.  While I don’t have any direct documentation about what folks wore at that first fair, I’m guessing they might have dressed up at least a little bit to visit the exhibits and socialize. Maybe it was similar to this North Carolina family, photographed in 1868:

Image courtesy of DigitalNC.

Finally, you might want to forget about the Gravitron. If you were heading to the Fair on October 18, 1853, you’d only have livestock, machinery, exhibits, and maybe a trip to the decorated Floral Hall ahead of you. You’d also be getting ready, with your fair companions, to watch and enjoy some true entertainment — a rousing speech. The first State Fairs were inaugurated by speeches from famous North Carolinians. In 1853, the speech was given by Abraham Watkins Venable, a congressman from Granville County, NC. The entire speech is reprinted in the Farmer’s Journal, spread across the November (p.253) and December 1853 issues. Venable’s speech, according to my calculations, would have lasted between 1.5 to 2 HOURS. And remember, that was without Angry Birds to keep you busy.

It may have looked a lot different from today’s Fair, but that early Fair played an important social and educational role for North Carolinians. It was a source of pride for them, even in that first year, and in that way it’s completely and definitely an ancestor to our Fair today.  It’s unfortunate that we don’t know more about what those first fairgoers experienced, which is why we’re asking YOU to contribute your State Fair memory to the Blue Ribbon Memories site. It’s easy, and it’ll paint that picture that we can only haphazardly piece together for 1853. So go, have fun at this year’s fair, then hop on over to Blue Ribbon Memories and make Fair history!

This blog is a service of the State Library of North Carolina, part of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Blog comments and posts may be subject to Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties.