Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
People entering at the front of the Main Exhibition Building, 1964 RG-1/PA State Archives

People entering at the front of the Main Exhibition Building, 1964. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-1

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the largest indoor agricultural event in the United States. Each year hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, to experience apples and alpacas, butter sculpture and blue-ribbon contests, milkshakes and mushrooms, square dancing and grape stomping, rodeos and tractor pulling, and everything else the state’s farms, rural areas and agricultural industries have to offer. The 100th show will take place in January 2016.

If you lived around 500 BCE you probably would have attended an agricultural fair, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. In Europe they flourished in the Middle Ages as carnivals and market trading days. Bartering soon evolved into selling. English settlers brought the idea with them to America in the 17th and 18th centuries and quickly set up agricultural fairs in communities throughout the colonies. By the end of the 19th century, nearly every locale had its agricultural society and fair with the purpose of sharing ideas about improving crops and raising domestic animals. The fairs additionally helped to bind the people on distant farms into close-knit communities where they could trade, share and enjoy each other’s company.

In establishing agricultural fairs, Pennsylvania was no exception. At the direction of William Penn (1644-1718), founder of the commonwealth, a fair in Philadelphia was organized as early as 1685 for the promotion of industrial enterprises. The principles of this and subsequent fairs were soon extended to agriculture, and in the 18th century, Penn’s sons Thomas and Richard set aside land in Reading, Berks County, for fairs twice a year where farmers could barter animals and horticultural products.

The Philadelphia Cattle Show of 1809 changed things. According to George Fisk Johnson in his 1937 History of the Pennsylvania Farm Products Show, this event influenced Elkanah Watson (1758-1842), “the father of farm shows in America,” who established the Berkshire Agricultural Society and Cattle Show at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1810. “Previous to the efforts of Watson, the farm show was principally a man’s institution,” Johnson wrote. “This was true of the shows in England and the ‘Cattle Shows’ at Philadelphia.” Watson broadened the show with what he called “domestic manufactures” in an effort to interest women as well. By the third show in 1812, he added a department for home exhibits and an agricultural ball on the evening of the show’s closing day. Johnson concluded, “Watson’s successful effort in developing a farm show which would appeal to rural women was a turning point in the history of rural sociology; it is mentioned here because of its century-long influence upon the scope of these agricultural events so well exemplified in the prominent part taken by rural women in the present Pennsylvania Farm Show.”

The Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law in 1820 that encouraged the establishment of agricultural societies; however, the law came without funding, so there was little activity. The next year, the law was amended to charter the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society for the purpose of holding shows in Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. Several shows were held, but without funds the organization soon disappeared. Enter the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, the most viable organization for the task of establishing a statewide show. The state appropriated $600 for premiums (or prizes) for the society’s shows in the Philadelphia area beginning in 1839.

In 1851 something momentous happened. A statewide agricultural exhibition, the first for Pennsylvania, was held in Harrisburg. The three-day event attracted more than 20,000 people to a site north of Harrisburg close to the location of the present Farm Show Complex. The site was surrounded with fencing and contained sheds for housing animals, tents for exhibits, and even a field where farmers competed for premiums for their plowing skills. This show, like others before it, encouraged the sharing of ideas and knowledge and introduced improvements in farming methods and in livestock breeding.

Visitors to the show found exhibits of cattle, horses, mules, sheep and swine; turkeys, geese, ducks, pigeons and capons; and fruits and vegetables of almost every kind imaginable. Dozens of farm implements were displayed. Farmers examined plows, cultivators, drilling machines, threshing machines, hay presses and the famous McCormick reaper. The women showed off quilts, carpets, curtains, sheets, blankets, jellies, honey, butter, bread and cut flowers.

The 1851 show was a model for today’s Farm Show. The Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society, writing with keen foresight in its annual report to Governor William Bigler and the State Legislature declared: “There are few States in the Union . . . whose wants in a greater degree demanded the establishment of a State Society. It was not surprising, therefore, that the farmers of the State took hold of the subject with avidity, and gave to its first exhibition a show of numbers and contributions which promised for the future their hearty support.”


Food counters at the 1964 show. RG-1/PA State Archives

Food counters at the 1964 show. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-1

The society continued to hold farm shows in cities across the state as farming matured from family operations to larger agricultural businesses. Still, education was a prime ingredient in the shows, with the latest inventions exhibited. By the end of the 19th century, however, the statewide exhibitions were eclipsed by the local and regional farm products shows they were meant to encourage. This new breed of shows included midway attractions and sideshows and did little, if anything, to help farmers learn about cost-saving innovations or improving the quality of their products.

The State Legislature had begun to take more notice of agriculture, establishing a State Board of Agriculture in 1876 and the Department of Agriculture in 1895. The two agencies were eventually merged into one.

Farm organizations like the Pennsylvania Livestock Breeders Association began holding their meetings jointly or at least in the same place at the same time. The State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Dairy Union and the State Poultry Association were all formed in the latter half of the 1800s and they too held annual meetings but in different places. After the turn of the century, however, they eventually settled on meeting in Harrisburg each January. During this period support grew for a state farm show. The State Board of Agriculture, the cattlemen and the dairymen all met together in 1907 in Harrisburg and held a show, complete with premiums. The concept of always providing an educational component in future shows was stressed.

In August 1916 Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Secretary Charles E. Patton (1859-1937) met with leaders of the various farm groups in Lancaster and determined that an agricultural display should soon take place. They knew that in January farmers would be looking forward to buying machinery, seed and fertilizer. The rules for the new show stated that there should be a competition for the best farm products, a display of farm implements, educational meetings, and no admission charge. The group learned that the large Emerson-Brantingham building in Harrisburg – housing a farm implements dealer and containing 10,000 square feet of space – could be made available for such a farm show.

And so the first statewide Farm Show became a reality. In January 1917 Harrisburg welcomed farmers, experts, students and equipment vendors to what was called the Pennsylvania Corn, Fruit, Vegetable, Dairy Products and Wool Show. Among those in attendance were representatives of the various interest groups – dairymen, breeders and growers – all of whom met to discuss matters of importance to them, such as milk prices, food packaging requirements, the problem of deer destroying crops, and payments to farmers whose cattle were destroyed as a result of positive results in tuberculosis tests.

The most exciting part of the show for many of the estimated 5,000 in attendance, however, was the display of farm machinery at the Emerson-Brantingham building at 10th and Market streets. All the latest implements for improving production and making the job easier were shown in Machinery Hall. Elsewhere in the building, competitions were held with prizes awarded for the 440 displays of corn, apples, wool, turnips, butter, milk and other products of the farm.


Machinery displays, such as this tractor exhibit at the 1964 show, present the latest equipment for farmers. RG-1/PA State Archives

Machinery displays, such as this tractor exhibit at the 1964 show, present the latest equipment for farmers. Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-1

The following year the 1918 Farm Show was nearly cancelled because of the impending entry of the United States into World War I. But in order to maintain the momentum for the statewide show, organizers decided to move forward. The show subsequently grew in size and scope. The main problem was that the Emerson-Brantingham building was no longer able to accommodate all of the displays, and so the show spread out across Harrisburg to nine other buildings, including a church and the YMCA.

It soon became clear that a permanent site for the show would be necessary. On May 27, 1921, the State Fair Law created a commission to accomplish this task, but because of an economic slowdown it bore no fruit. Over the next several years the Farm Show continued as it had before, and by 1925 it had expanded to 15 locations in the city. In addition to horticultural exhibits, livestock was shown, including sheep, swine, horses, and dairy and beef cattle. A Farm Show tradition began when a 4-H Club baked and sold potatoes for five cents each. The schedule expanded to five days and attendance soared.

At the 1928 show, Governor John S. Fisher (1867-1940) declared that he would ask the State Legislature to authorize the establishment of a permanent Farm Show building. This was accomplished, and the following year a 40-acre site at Cameron and Maclay streets was chosen. The main exhibition building was to cover 10 acres, and a small auditorium would be used for educational programs and meetings. Ground was broken on October 31, 1929. The original cost of the building including furnishings was about $1,440,000.

Edward Rissel and his 1,055-pound Shorthorn named Whitey won the 4-H baby beef competition in 1962. RG-1/PA State Archives

Edward Rissel and his 1,055-pound Shorthorn named Whitey won the 4-H baby beef competition in 1962.
RG-1/PA State Archives

And so, the Pennsylvania Farm Show was born and found a permanent home. Today, if you approach what is now known as the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center from the Maclay Street side, you find on your left a long, low brick building set back a bit from the street. This façade, with its distinctive frieze of cattle, sheep and fowl, belies the mammoth size of the building behind it. There are now 24 acres under roof, including the main exhibit hall; five smaller halls; large, small and equine arenas; and a new 172,000-square-foot exhibition hall, completed in 2002.

The complex is home to the Farm Show, of course, but also hosts the All-American Dairy Show and the Keystone International Livestock Exposition, the largest livestock show in the eastern United States. Other shows have included horse shows and rodeos, livestock sales, agricultural expos, and many more nonagricultural activities.

The Farm Show Complex, extraordinary though it may be, is merely the “container” for the human activities found inside. The educational aspect of the show is still in the forefront, although some claim that the show is more consumer-driven than farmer-driven. Still, there are opportunities to learn about new techniques and farming practices. Displays of up-to-date farm equipment are always a favorite. They include machinery used for soil preparation, planting and seeding, and grain and silage harvesting. There are many tractors, of course, and plenty of sales representatives to answer questions.

But educational opportunities are not restricted to farmers. Anyone can find interest in some aspect of farm life, food production or agricultural heritage in Pennsylvania. Who doesn’t like to watch baby chicks peck their way into the world or enjoy the antics of little yellow ducklings sliding into a pool of water? Petting sheep and then watching the Sheep-to-Shawl competition illustrates the connection between farm and department store. Watching the milking of cows and then visiting a sculpture of life-sized figures made of more than 1,000 pounds of butter brings home the relationship between these two dairy foods.

Through interactive stations located throughout the complex, the Farm Show Detective program of the Department of Agriculture and Turkey Hill allows young and old alike to learn about the source and manufacture of food products and the protection of the environment. Lesson plans and workbooks aligned to Pennsylvania Department of Education standards are made available to teachers.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) makes several resources available. In the Historical Marker Scavenger Hunt, visitors can search for 24 replica Pennsylvania Historical Markers throughout the complex. Each one recalls a moment in agricultural history. Booklets for the hunt are available at explorepahistory.com and at the Farm Show itself. PHMC’s Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum will mount one of its most ambitious displays at the Farm Show in 2016, exhibiting a Conestoga wagon and historic farm implements and conducting daily seminars on historic farming practices.


Butter sculpture has been a Farm Show tradition for 25 years. Jim Victor made his first one in 1995, and his wife, Marie Pelton, joined him in 2000. They are both graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. For the 2015 sculpture, they started working the day after Christmas, welding together metal poles and wire mesh to create the outline of their characters before adding the nearly 1,000 pounds of butter donated by the Land O’Lakes plant in South Middleton Township, Cumberland County.

Butter sculpture has been a Farm Show tradition for 25 years. Jim Victor made his first one in 1995, and his wife, Marie Pelton, joined him in 2000. They are both graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. For the 2015 sculpture, they started working the day after Christmas, welding together metal poles and wire mesh to create the outline of their characters before adding the nearly 1,000 pounds of butter donated by the Land O’Lakes plant in South Middleton Township, Cumberland County. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

Interaction among farm folks is an important element of the Farm Show. Sally Reinoehl of Valley View, Schuylkill County, has been attending the Farm Show since she was a young child. Now she brings her grandchildren each year. “I enjoy so many things about the show,” she says. “I love the competition I have when entering a contest . . . of course the food, the exhibits, and various shows like tractor square dancing – now that is different!” Reinoehl volunteers at the nut growers’ booth, so that she can visit with old friends, and often enters her homemade pickles in a contest.

There are more than 10,000 competitive exhibits each year. Visitors will see draft horses, cattle, sheep, swine, goats, rabbits, poultry, and products, such as eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms and wine. Honey and maple products are found there, too, and so are Christmas trees. The list seems endless.

Susanna Haines won the first-place ribbon in the 2015 apple pie contest. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Susanna Haines won the first-place ribbon in the 2015 apple pie contest. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

Competition is keen and prizes are coveted. Susanna Haines, 22, of Madisonville, Lackawanna County, started entering baked goods in local fairs when she was 14. In 2015 she won the Farm Show’s blue ribbon in the apple pie contest for her apple, peaches and blueberry creation. “I was shocked,” Haines said recently. “I had come in second place the previous year but really didn’t expect first place this year either. I really love the competition.” Haines has parlayed her baking skills into a fledgling bakery business.

Apples have appeal to exhibitor Dwight Mickey of Chambersburg, Franklin County. Mickey and his family operate a fruit market and orchard, where they grow and sell apples, peaches and fruit products. Over the past 40 years, Mickey and his father before him have won more than 3,500 ribbons and prizes for the fruit they have entered for judging. The Farm Show recognizes winning fruit displays, and Mickey has won the Best Bushel award six times.

Interaction among people who live on farms and those who live in the city and suburbs is an important attraction of the Farm Show, too. Susan Marcus of Camp Hill, Cumberland County, remembers the Farm Show as being an enlightenment of sorts. “In the 1950s,” she recalls, “we walked over to the Farm Show from uptown Harrisburg. I remember that the Future Farmers of America kids all wore blue corduroy jackets with gold lettering. I wondered what their lives were like. They slept with the animals at the show and often had pieces of straw stuck to their clothing. It seemed like they were from a very different world from the one in which we lived.”

Participation by young people has always been important to planners and organizers of the show. Vocational-agricultural students were present at the first Farm Show in 1917. The Pennsylvania Farm Show Scholarship Foundation was formed in 1993 to invest in the future of agriculture by supporting and encouraging young farmers. Any young person who has exhibited a Farm Show junior market animal since 1993 and is enrolled in a post-secondary educational institution may apply for a scholarship.

Youth participation in the Farm Show is high – and enthusiastic. Pennsylvania Future Farmers of America (FFA) members hold their organization’s annual convention at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. FFA provides students with leadership development opportunities through classroom instruction, career development contests including livestock evaluation and parliamentary procedure, and real-world agricultural career placement.


Dairy goat contest, 2014

Dairy goat contest, 2014. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

Eighteen-year old Kyle MacCauley lives in Atglen, Chester County. He is a third-generation participant in the Farm Show. MacCauley has shown sheep in both the junior and open breeding shows since he was eight years old. He and his family come together to wash, prepare and show their sheep. His grandparents, parents, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins have all exhibited in the Farm Show. MacCauley enjoys talking to the public about his sheep and family farm because it is a way he can help educate people about farming and agriculture. “Through all this I have learned that hard work and dedication really pay off,” he says. “Participating in the Farm Show makes me proud as it is such a part of Pennsylvania’s agricultural history.”

Agricultural associations and interest groups have been involved in the Farm Show from its establishment, supporting and educating farmers. Even when the Farm Show Complex was commandeered by the federal government between 1943 and 1946 during World War II for the training of aircraft mechanics and overhauling airplane engines, the associations held their annual meetings, like they had before, in various locations in Harrisburg. There were no exhibits or competitions, but the associations provided educational sessions to those in attendance.

In recent years, these associations are perhaps better known for their promotion of products through their offerings in the famous Food Court. This feature is so popular that many people visit only that area of the show. Among the many delectable treats offered are apples, pickles, bacon, pork, beef, onions, maple sugar confections, cheese, mushrooms, milk and chicken. Favorites among them are milkshakes, with 165,000 sold by the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association; cheesesteaks, made from more than 4,640 pounds of beef, sold by the Pennsylvania Cattlemen’s Association; and mushrooms, with more than 7,500 pounds by the Mushroom Farmers of Pennsylvania (MFPA) and the American Mushroom Institute (62 percent of the mushrooms grown in the United States are grown in Pennsylvania).


The famous food court of the Pennsylvania Farm Show

The famous food court of the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

But it seems that the most popular items with show-goers come from the Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers, whose 2015 booth satisfied hungry visitors with 20,000 baked potatoes, 25,000 servings of french fries, and their best-seller year after year, more than 30,000 dozen potato donuts – that’s more than 360,000 donuts in a week. Obviously the co-op is onto a good thing.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show has been many things to many people since its inception. Attendance is surely in the hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even as high as 500,000 some years, compared to the 5,000 who came to the first show in 1917. Exact figures are never really known because the Pennsylvania Farm Show was designed to be and has always been admission-free.

Many people come away with lifelong memories of the agricultural extravaganza. Greg Smith of Johns Creek, Georgia, recalls one particular feature of the show. Smith’s father worked at a beer distributor warehouse in Harrisburg in the late 1950s and took him to see the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales at the Farm Show. “I remember walking across the Maclay Street Bridge in winter to the Farm Show just to see those magnificent horses,” Smith says. “They were huge and well cared for in very clean stalls with fresh hay or straw. I remember touching them, but I was so small I couldn’t reach the top of their shoulders.”

Milkshakes, mushrooms, cheesesteaks, baked potatoes and potato donuts have been favorites for years at the Food Court.

Potato donuts, as well as milkshakes, mushrooms, cheesesteaks and baked potatoes, have been favorites for years at the Food Court. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

When Dana Erney of Bethany Beach, Delaware, was growing up in Harrisburg, his mother took him and his brother to the Farm Show ostensibly to see the animals. After walking among the pens holding cattle, swine and sheep, they would head to the farm equipment exhibits. There as he and his brother ogled the immense farm machinery, Erney’s mother quietly collected the wooden yard sticks that vendors distributed as advertising. “I saw them many times during the next year, as they were handy and effective for threatening us boys with a good swat when we misbehaved,” Erney reminisced.

At the end of his history of the Farm Show, George Fisk Johnson expressed the hopes of those who had made the Farm Show so great and important: “We old chaps, we of gray hairs and bald heads are nearly done. Of course, we hope to see many more Farm Shows, but the real job is now up to you young fellows. Carry on, keep a clean Show free from fakes, better and better, rather than larger and larger. Keep agriculture in the foreground. And remember, the moment you have no lesson to teach, that moment your Show will die – Carry on.”

The Pennsylvania Farm Show has continued to be a gathering place for both farm families and city dwellers, a place for teaching and learning, for competing and improving, for enjoying the fruits of much labor, for making new memories, and for celebrating agriculture, Pennsylvania’s number one industry.


The 100th Pennsylvania Farm Show, featuring nearly 6,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 300 commercial exhibits, will take place at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, January 9-16, 2016.


John K. Robinson lives in Linglestown, Dauphin County, and is the president of the Historical Society of Dauphin County in Harrisburg.