The “Mercer County Agricultural and Manufacturing Society of Stoneboro” organized its fair in 1868. For eight years it was situated on a lot between the heavily traveled train tracks and the town’s scenic lake.
The founding officers were: J. P. Kerr, President, Robert J. McClure, V. Pres., Samuel Hines, Secretary and H. B. Blood, Treasurer.
Due to its popularity, the fair’s founders realized the need to expand. In 1876, the fair board purchased 32 lush rolling acres two miles away, filled with shade trees and overlooking the town. It served as home to the newly named “Mercer County Agricultural Society”, but more commonly known as “The Great Stoneboro Fair” that is “Always on Labor Day”.
Soon after the relocation, a half-mile racetrack was constructed and is still one of the finest in the state. The racetrack is a multi-purpose dirt track that is used for harness racing, demolition derbies, truck and tractor pulls and rodeos. Its unique construction includes two tunnels below it at opposite sides for pedestrians and vehicles to enter the exhibit and stage area in the center field.
The track is home to outstanding harness racing that has attracted attendees to the fair for well over a century.
The fair was very fortunate in receiving the U.S. Trotting Association’s Blue Ribbon Fair Award for the best harness racing program in 2002. This honor has been given to only three fairs a year in the whole United States since the award started six years ago. Many horses and talented drivers have raced on this track. The track record for trotting was set in 1986 by the horse Laser Almahurst in 2min. 2 sec. with a local driver H. Brocklehurst. The pacer record was set in 2002 by the horse J.T. Arturo in 1 min. 57.2 sec. with the driver R. Hammer. Several horse owners stable and train their horses at the fairground year round.
Though racing could be viewed from many beautiful locations throughout the grounds, the most advantageous was from the large wooden grandstand erected in the late 1870’s. The fair lost this landmark in 1950 when a tornado completely destroyed it in a matter of minutes. It would be over 24 years before a new grandstand was erected. The judges stand, stage and dressing rooms are across the track from the grandstand.
Along with the original grandstand, several other buildings were erected before the 1900’s and have weathered the course of time. The Fine Arts Hall with vaulted ceilings and spacious display booths on the inside features amateur arts and crafts for competition. The Hall is just as popular outside with a rap-around porch offering seating that is a welcome respite for fairgoers who can rest and enjoy the sights, sounds and aroma of the fair. Next to the Hall is the two-story administrative office where the business of the fair has been conducted for over 100 years.
In response to the rising popularity of the fair, many permanent structures were erected. Today there are 2 horse barns, 2 cow barns and a milking parlor, 4 racehorse stables, the Mohney show arena, the Ibbs agricultural building, a rabbit building, a wildlife educational building, a steel building for area merchants, numerous lavatories and the concrete and steel grandstand that can accommodate about 2000 people. Under the grandstand the ample room houses the Stoneboro Lions Club’s concession stand, displays from local granges and merchants, as well as information booths for political candidates.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has awarded the fair with numerous “Matching Funds” for capital improvement over the past 13 years. Some of these items include the Dwight Pringle milking parlor in 1990, the D. Lee Mohney show arena in 1992, the outside horse show ring in 1993, all electrical wiring underground in 1994, the Arthur Baxter cow barn in 1995 and new restrooms in 1996.
The fair has featured a variety of animals. Visitors have been able to see and touch farm animals and learn about wild animals and even exotic animals such as elephants, lions and camels.
Though a farming community, many local children are not closely acquainted with agriculture. The
Fair Directors arrange for the first grade students of Lakeview schools to attend the fair on Thursday morning free of charge for hands-on learning and lectures by the exhibitors and the Mercer County Federation of Sportsmen Club. They top off their visit with ice cream furnished by the Mercer County Dairy Princess.
Fair food is another treat that visitors come to anticipate year after year. Back in the 1920’s and 1930’s the Stoneboro Presbyterian Church had a tent where they could serve hot meals. There were very few eating places on the grounds at that time. Now the fair serves as the leading fundraising event for many local organizations. Many people patronize these booths for particular edibles. The Girl Scouts are known for barbecued chicken and pie, the Lions Club for hot sausage and the Stoneboro Firemen for French fries. Many clubs have booths that offer games and raffles. For the sweet eaters, delights abound with Fowler’s taffy, Shannon’s fudge, and Willie’s hot roasted peanuts.
Of course there are other foods on display for competition, such as home grown fruits and vegetables, baked goods and canned goods. After the judging, the baked goods are auctioned off to the highest bidder.
While touring the grounds, new farm equipment can be found on display in the center field, along with a petting zoo, singers and musicians performing and merchandize for sale.
Over the years people have filled the grandstand to see demolition derbies, tractor and truck pulls, thrill shows, “Miss Mercer County” pageants, fireworks by Zambelli and musical performances. Back in 1934, a most uncommon sporting event was featured by pitting an American team against a British team in “auto polo”. Records were not available as to who won the event.
Big-name Country Western entertainers have graced the grandstand stage including Eddy Arnold, Mickey Gilley, Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers, Tracy Lawrence, Jeannie C. Riley, Trick Pony, and Joe Nichols who was named the Academy of Country Music New Top Male Vocalist of the Year for 2003. Other entertainers have been Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, Myron Floren, The Blue Ridge Quartet and the Vogues. In 1964 a local musician, James Wheeler, a tenor soloist for the Fred Waring Glee Club performed. Another local musician, Debbi Burdett, who had appeared in many roles with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, performed in 2002.
On Labor Day morning people flock to the fairground early to witness the Grand Cavalcade. It is a tradition dating back to the early 1900’s that celebrates the heritage and agriculture of the community as it winds its way around the racetrack. It is a parade of veteran honor guards, marching bands, live stock, farm machinery, fire engines and Shriners’ Zem Zem units. In recent years some of the older fair officials have been given the honor of being named Grand Marshall.
In 2002 Pennsylvania “Matching Funds” made it possible to pave the entire carnival’s walkway making it easier for people in wheelchairs and strollers to cover the area. A popular spot, the Midway features carnival games, thrill rides, kiddie rides and of course the Ferris Wheel for an uncommon birds-eye view of the tranquil landscape.
Many local families have been participating in the fair for generations. The George Hunter family, a livestock exhibitor since the 1930’s received the prestigious Pennsylvania Farm Show Family of the Year Award in 1983 from the state farm show. Another example is Robert P. Cann who was elected the fair’s second treasurer in 1873 and whose son, John and then his daughter, Julia Cann, continued in that position until her death in 1980 for a total of more than sixty years of service between them.
The Fair Board has been graced with many fine leaders since its inception. Of particular note were Walter B. Parker and C. William Ibbs who had not only presided over the Stoneboro Fair for many years, but both served as President of the Pennsylvania Association of County Fairs. Mr. Ibbs was a member of the Executive Board of the State Association for 19 years and in 1975 he was named “Outstanding Fair Man of the Year in the State of Pennsylvania”.
The Stoneboro Fair experienced some lean years in the 1970’s to mid 1980’s. A combination of bad weather and rising costs that were passed on to attendees in separate charges for rides, parking and entertainment caused dwindling attendance. In an effort to boost attendance, the 1986 Board of Directors took a risk and made an innovative change in the pricing structure by implementing the “Pay One Price” (POP) system. By negotiating with the carnival for a percentage of the admission, they were able to package the parking, rides and all attractions for a single, low gate fee (originally $3.50 per person). The impact was remarkable. Two years after POP was initiated, attendance rose to a record 21,614 paid attendance. The next year it increased another 10,000 to over 31,000 paid attendance. In 2002 with beautiful weather and only a mild POP increase to $5.00, the fair enjoyed record attendance of nearly 45,200 paying guests.
The Fair Board continues to upgrade the infrastructure. In 1994 a computer system was integrated to track entries and help manage the administration. The expansive building and grounds have lead to the full-time employment of the grounds and maintenance supervisor, Mr. Ron Miller. Many people who walk daily at the fairgrounds for exercise have commented on the beautiful condition of the buildings and grounds since this change was made.
In addition to the fair, the grounds have hosted the local Meals-On-Wheels annual Bike-A-Thon, the Girl Scouts’ summer camp outing and the Antique Power Show. Associations and clubs use the barns and arenas to conduct their events and people throughout the region as far away as Pittsburgh and Erie house their boats, vehicles, campers and gliders in the buildings during the winter months.
Whether the attraction is farming, food, entertainment or just seeing friends and family, the Stoneboro Fair has continued to be Mercer County’s fun end-of-the-summer event for more than 140 years.
– Written By Christy Henderson Kehlbeck and James Henderson