Harold Pinter wrote that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. People who came to the first Berea Fair in the 19th century did not arrive in cars, had no electricity, radio, television or computers.
The first fairgoers went to the fair in the fall because farmers had their crops in by then and had time to take the family to see new farm machinery. Mother spent the day and night before finishing up pies and jams to take to the fair, children looked forward to playing baseball.
Today they come for the great diversity of attractions. They want to consume the apple dumplings, elephant ears, funnel cakes, ice cream and lemonade; to see the pigs, rabbits, goats and horses; to get spun and flipped on the midway rides.
They come for the music, to enjoy the fireworks, to compete to win a blue ribbon, to watch the square dancers, the unicyclists and wood carvers. They are interested in the floral displays; arts and crafts and taking in the grandstand thrill shows.
The Cuyahoga County Fair has a history reaching back to 1893. Except for one year in the depression (1932) and two years, during World War II (1942 and 1943) the event has been held each year at the Fairgrounds in Berea, Ohio.
The original fair was called the West Cuyahoga County Fair in 1893, since there were so many other smaller fairs in the area. In 1895, advertising promised fairgoers an exhibition that would “bring together the best of everything.” That slogan has been the guiding motto every year since that time. The West Side Fair continued on and grew.
For a while, there was an East Side Cuyahoga County Fair in Chagrin Falls, but it shut down in 1929 when most of America did the same as a result of the stock market crash.
Initially, the fairs were held in October to celebrate the farm harvests. As the area grew more urban, the fairs were moved to summer. This also avoided closing down the schools for a day, which had been done earlier.
Early fairs brought together families who took advantage of the opportunity to socialize and talk about farm problems and see the farm animals on display. Local businesses set up booths and baseball games were a central part of the entertainment.
Mom entered her jams, jellies, and other culinary delights for judging. There were homemade crafts on display and for purchase. Children helped their parents sell the fresh produce from the family farm.
There were 60 acres of green grass at the turn of the century at the fairgrounds in Berea, so families spread out picnic baskets and ate as they watched or listened to local musicians. Today, the fairgrounds has grown to 117 acres. After the picnic, there were children’s games, shearing contests and conversation.
Cuyahoga County was a major agricultural center in those early years. The county was number one in Ohio potato production in 1909, and often first in dairy products, poultry and grapes.
Though located in the country, Berea was a transportation hub, with three rail lines and an interurban rail service. An amazing lighting system was installed in 1914 to allow the fair to be held at night. Until then, fair days ended when the sun went down.
As the automobile emerged in American life, thrill shows started to appear at the fair, with jalopies leaping over flaming bales of hay. The famous Eastland Road arch went up at the fairgrounds in 1929 as the stock market crashed.
When people enter under that arch today, they find many of the same traditions of past fairs, from arts and crafts to farm produce; picnics and musicians; food and conversation; rides and grandstand thrill shows.
The city of Berea is more developed now. Entertainment and attractions have changed. Motocross, demolition derbies, music and youth interests have evolved, and the Fair has adjusted over the years to ensure that there’s always something new to experience at the Cuyahoga County Fair.
Forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan wisely +predicted that in the future we would be living in “speed up”. Rod Serling dealt with this in his famous television series The Twilight Zone in a chapter called “Walking Distance”.
In this story a weary executive goes back in time to his hometown. He meets up with his father and talks about the fairs of his youth. “I’ve been living at a dead run, Pop, and I’m tired. I had to come back and get on a merry-go-round, drink lemonade and hear a concert – to stop, relax, close my eyes and listen.”
You don’t have to look behind you to return to the old times, you can look ahead to the 124th Cuyahoga County Fair August 10-15, 2021.
* Photos are from CSU's Cleveland Memory Project. To view more archived moments from the fair, visit: clevelandmemory.org/countyfair/