It’s the annual event of the summer, and it has been for over sixty years.
The Lebanon Area Fair may be taking a different form in 2020, but change is nothing new for the fair, which has been experimenting since its initial inception as the Lebanon County 4-H Fair in 1957 and its move to the Lebanon Valley Fair Grounds in 1969. It can trace its 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America roots back even earlier than that. Here’s how Lebanon County’s biggest summertime draw grew out of earlier area agriculture shows and continuously reinvented itself over the course of six decades.
Early fairs of the south Lebanon area
Long before the Lebanon Area Fair as we know it was organized, there were similar fairs held occasionally in the 1920s and ’30s. A South Lebanon “corn show” was held as early as 1923, and in 1930, a South Lebanon Township Show was attended by over 1,000 people.
Even before those two was the Lebanon Valley Fair, which was held as early as 1881 and ran until 1938. This fair drew in crowds in the thousands and featured many equestrian events and races.
But there was one event that caught on more than any other: the South Lebanon Township Community Fair. First held in 1945 by retired Lebanon County Agent A. C. Berger, the fair quickly became a big annual hit for the area. Though typically held for just a few days in October on the grounds of the Iona School, the event regularly drew in thousands of patrons. It was officially incorporated and granted a state charter in 1947 and expanded significantly afterwards.
The fair had close ties to the 4-H Club from the beginning. Berger himself is credited with introducing the organization into Lebanon County in 1917 (4-H itself was started in the Midwest and “effectively nationalized” in 1914, according to the National 4-H History Preservation Program website).
Local youth agricultural divisions of the 4-H Club and the Future Farmers of America competed in livestock and produce competitions, grade school students participated in everything from wood burning to musical performance, and many educational and commercial exhibitions were erected on the grounds of the school.
The fair was a staple of the fall season for much of the 1950s and only grew in popularity over time: the Lebanon Daily News reported that the 1947 fair had broken attendance records at the time with 7,000 visitors in all, while on just the first night of the 1956 fair, 8,000 crowded in to see the livestock and attractions.
The birth of the Lebanon County 4-H Fair
In 1957, the Iona School was preparing for the next-door construction of the South Lebanon Elementary school, and Joseph K. Kreider, president of the fair’s board of directors, announced that the fair would be cancelled for the year. The cancellation of the South Lebanon Township Fair was a disappointment for many at the time, but less than a month after the cancellation notice, the Lebanon 4-H Club had announced plans to hold the first Lebanon County 4-H Fair in August at the Ebenezer School. Kreider was also elected president of the new fair’s board of directors.
In its first year, the fair boasted the usual livestock and produce displays, as well as beekeeping, chicken barbecue, and tractor driving contests, among other attractions.
“It will be a small show this year,” associate county agricultural agent W. Harry Schaeffer Jr. told the Lebanon Daily News on July 2. “However, we hope to make it an annual event.”
Schaeffer was correct on both counts: the fair saw a relatively small turnout in the hundreds, but the fair did return year after year. As it grew in size, it relocated around the county, first in 1959, when it moved to Fredericksburg Firemen’s Park, and just a few years later in 1962 when it relocated again to the H&H Farm in Annville.
The events and attractions multiplied over the years. Square dancing, apiculture displays, horse and pony shows, and technical exhibitions all became part of the lineup.
The fair is renamed, moved to Rocherty and Cornwall
In 1968, the Lebanon Valley Exposition Corporation was created by 12 locals, two thirds of them 4-H leaders. The group was looking for a new home for the fair, and found the perfect site for it at the old farmstead of Alexander Bamberger at the intersection of Rocherty and Cornwall Roads. The group bough the 52-acre property for $44,760 in July, and over the next 12 months, began working on what would become the Lebanon Valley Exposition Center and Fairgrounds.
In 1969, the rechristened five-day Lebanon Area Fair opened at the new location, boasting 1,510 classes, including 354 classes of poultry. Only a refreshment stand stood on the property as a permanent structure, while tents provided shade and space.
In contrast to the early years of the fair, which took place more or less entirely in tents, the ’70s saw more events and activities both inside newly built halls of the Exposition Center as well as out in the open air, including a special flag dedication ceremony held during the country’s bicentennial in 1976. By that time, the grounds included a picnic pavilion, a livestock barn, an exhibit building, a horse ring, three livestock and dairy pole barns, and, of course, the refreshment stand.
In 1990, a massive expansion and renovation project began, which included the construction of the $500,000 Lebanon Valley Agricultural Center adjacent to the Expo Center proper. The completed project tripled the existing exhibition space, according to a 2007 Lebanon Daily News article by Barbara West for the fair’s 50th anniversary. A new computer system was installed in 1997 to manage the dizzying number of entries and prizes of the week-long affair.
The fair’s focus on agriculture and farming was expanded over the years, with many vendors and local businesses advertising their products or services to the rapidly expanding crowds (over 40,000 in 1973 and many later years). Exhibition numbers and livestock entries ballooned into the hundreds. Tractor driving contests continued to pull in the crowds, as did talent shows, youth singing, livestock sales, dancing, footraces, acrobatics, rodeos, concerts, and virtually every other kind of event imaginable.
For the more daring fairgoers, the fair began to offer demolition derbies (1978), motocross bike races (1986), fireworks, and exotic animal attractions, including monkeys, elephants, lions, zedonks (zebra-donkey hybrids), and much more.
Special visitors dropped in occasionally, including the Pennsylvania Honey Queen and state gubernatorial candidates. The Lebanon Area Fair got some royalty of its own with the annually crowned Fair Queen tradition beginning in the late 1980s.
The wide variety of food available at the fair took on a reputation of its own, with french fries and milkshakes becoming a particular customer favorite (a recipe switch to frozen potatoes in 1987 met backlash, and fresh, home-grown potatoes were back in the kitchen in 1988). Massive crowds often caused traffic problems on local roads, with bumper-to-bumper traffic reported in the early 1980s. In recent years, the attendance has been reported to be around 50,000.
All kinds of farm animals from rabbits to chickens to lambs were judged, as were a vast array of crops and plants. The livestock and agriculture competitions were sometimes influenced by external factors. In some years, hoses and fans were in heavy use to keep animals cool and comfortable during hot summertime weather.
In 1988, a local drought reduced the vegetable crop on display as growers resorted to more difficult irrigation techniques to produce their plants well, and in 1994, a bovine diarrhea outbreak significantly impacted the the dairy contests. Avian flu swept through the county for several years in the late 1990s before poultry returned to the fair in 1999. Good soil practices and horticulture techniques were a mainstay of the exhibitions.
Many dozens of volunteers and planners have made the Lebanon Area Fair into the summertime staple it is today, and planning for the next year’s event begins many, many months in advance. Hundreds of local businesses have come together to promote the economy of the Lebanon Valley. Thousands of 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America competitors and entries into livestock and crop classes have provided a backbone and driving force to the fair from before it was even created.
There may be carnival rides, exhibition booths, stunt competitions, animals from the far ends of the globe, and more, but at its heart, the Lebanon Area Fair is a celebration of the county’s bounty and the people who raise it and share it with everyone else.
And that’s not going away anytime soon.
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More coverage of the Lebanon Area Fair
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