The Centre County Grange Fair: “Oh, it’s just wonderful, that’s all”

Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

“I’d just like to see it keeping on and on.”

 

County fair! For many Americans these two words conjure up an array of images – memories of sights, sounds and smells found nowhere else … crowded, dusty fairgrounds … screams of excited children on midway rides … cotton candy and french fries … concessionaires cajoling passersby to “try their luck” … exhibit halls filled with displays of homemade preserves, meticulous handi­work and prized garden vegetables. Every so often a shift in the wind brings the unmistakable smells of the animal barns which house an assortment of farm animals awaiting their chance to win the blue ribbon.

A visitor to the Centre County Grange Fair in Centre Hall will certainly be greeted by all of these things. But, when the limits of the midway are reached the fair doesn’t end-it merely changes character. The familiar fair attractions are replaced by row upon row of identical green tents. Known as the Grange Fair Encampment, these tents are “home” to thousands of campers for one week each year.

Here, among the trees, the commotion of the midway fades into the background and is replaced by sounds of pleasant conversation, frequent laughter and music from transistor radios. Small groups of people in lawn chairs surround the entrances of tents filled with all manner of household goods: sofas, beds with colorful comforters, tables and chairs, antique bureaus, hot plates, kitchenware, lamps and rugs. It’s often surprising to see what’s inside­ – people certainly aren’t “roughing it”! These temporary homes are very comfortable indeed, and the occupants have a great deal of pride in them.

Beyond these physical comforts and material posses­sions, there is another much less tangible element which prevails on the campgrounds. Like the scents of home­cooked meals, it hovers in the air around the closely situ­ated tents – a sense of friendship and tradition. It is this encampment and surrounding atmosphere which makes the Centre County Grange Fair a unique and special event.

 

History of the Fair

The National Grange was formed in 1867 shortly after the close of the Civil War to help farmers organize for their own educational and economic improvement. The Grange proved to be a major force in the fight for such things as rural mail service, rural electricity and increased aid to public schools. This fraternal brotherhood was well re­ceived by the farmers and by 1875 had grown to a nation­wide membership of eight hundred thousand.

Granges at state and local levels were an important part of the network. These organizations sought to achieve, at their respective levels, the same goals as the National Grange. The first such lodge organized in Centre County was the Progress Grange of Centre Hall which received its charter in 1873. A prominent and motivating figure in this local organization was Leonard Rhone, the man tradition­ally regarded as the father of the Grange Fair.

Rhone, himself a successful farmer, worked throughout his life for the advancement of agriculture. He held a vari­ety of offices at all levels of the Grange, serving as Master of the Pennsylvania Stale Grange for eighteen years from 1880 to 1898. During these years Rhone’s administration was successful in “arousing the farmers from a passive con­dition to an active and aggressive citizenship.” He also sat as a member of the National Executive Committee and, in addition to other Grange responsibilities, served two terms in the state legislature.

Rhone’s dedication and interest in the agricultural community inspired the organization of the first Granger’s Picnic in 1873. He believed this day-long event would pro­vide an opportunity for farmers throughout the county to gather together and offer some relief from the monotony of rural life. His idea was met with great enthusiasm by his fellow Grangers who turned out in large numbers. at the first picnic held in a grove known as Leech’s Woods outside of Centre Hall. The day was marked by speakers from various Granges (which had been forming throughout the county). music by local bands and an old-fashioned picnic dinner followed by a parade in the afternoon. Such good spirits developed that it was quickly agreed that the picnic should become an annual event. A Fair Committee was formed with representatives from different Granges ap­pointed to carry out the necessary preparations.

The Granger’s Picnic grew rapidly. By the fourth year, 1876, the site was changed to the top of nearby Mt. Nittany which was regarded as a more central location. The picnic was held there until 1887 during which time it was ex­panded to a three-day event with some people staying over­night. It was also in 1887 that the first exhibits appeared.

During the next two years the location was again changed, this time to the Old Fort Woods which was more convenient to railroad traffic. The picnic, traditionally held at the end of September, had become a much heralded event – one report places the attendance of the 1888 gather­ing at ten thousand. Only a small percentage of these people camped at the picnic, either in their own tents or in ones borrowed by the Fair Committee from the National Guard. Over the years, the obvious need for a permanent location increased, resulting in the 1890 purchase of 20 acres of land west of Centre Hall which now forms the nucleus of the present-day Grange Park.

Between 1890 and 1910, the encampment grew to two hundred tents. Admission was free, meals were cooked on communal wood cookstoves supplied by the committee, and the grounds were lit by torches while coal oil lamps illuminated the tents. During these years, and those which followed, permanent buildings – such as an auditorium and exhibit halls – were erected, more land was procured and the committee began to purchase tents as they became more difficult to borrow from outside sources. The picnic, which at some point became known as the Grange Fair, was ex­panding at an almost alarming rate!

Today the encampment consists of nine hundred tents, all owned by the Fair Committee, with an additional five hundred and fifty spaces for private camping vehicles. (These occupy land separate from the designated tent area.) It is estimated that at least eight thousand people stay on the fairgrounds for as long as ten days, during seven of which the fair is officially in session. The size of the encampment is limited only by the space available, for there are literally hundreds of people always waiting to get a tent.

In spite of the tremendous growth during the past one hundred and four years, the Grange Fair has maintained much of its original flavor. Of course, as “progress” would have it, there have been physical and technological changes. But the high spirits and enthusiasm shared by the first picnickers in 1873 have been echoed throughout the years and are evident among the campers even today.

 

The Fair Committee

As might be expected, a great deal of careful planning and preparation is required before a successful and smooth­ly operated Grange Fair can be achieved. These prepara­tions are the responsibility of the Fair Committee which, like its early counterpart, is composed of members from the various local Granges. The fair is now held during the last week in August, but the twenty-four member committee begins its work in January, seven months earlier. It is the duty of each committee member to coordinate one aspect of the fair including such things as Grange presentations, concessions, livestock, parking, entertainment and youth exhibits. For many of these, arrangements must be finalized far in advance, but in aU instances activity increases dramat­ically as the Grange Fair approaches.

The preparation of the encampment is certainly the most arduous task which confronts the Fair Committee. Until mid-June, the site is relatively quiet with tall trees shading the black macadam floors where the tents will be situated. The grounds are cleared of debris before the groundskeeper and his crew begin the monumental job of erecting nine hundred 14′ x 14′ tents. Each one must be removed from storage, inspected for damage, erected and staked securely into the ground before the arrival of its inhabitants. The completion of this process requires the en lire two-month period before the fair, with the last Lents going up only a few days prior to the opening of the encampment.

Perhaps the most sought after member of the Fair Com­mittee is the tent secretary, Bertha Sharer, who has held her position for the past thirty years and has attended the fair her entire life. It is her responsibility to assign families to tents and determine the location of the campers. In many cases this is an easy task. A large percentage of the families have occupied their tents for years, sometimes for several generations. If these families choose to come, their tent sites are guaranteed; if not, their sites are temporarily used by another family. Should a family decide not to attend for two consecutive years, they automatically forfeit their tent for future use and it is assigned to another family. The encampment is such a popular event and vacant tents are so scarce that people who don’t already have a tent often wait years for the opportunity to camp at the fair. There are always many names on the waiting list. When vacancies do occur. they are filled on a “first come, first served” basis with no priority given to Grange mem­bers over non-members – the encampment is open to all.

Bertha Sharer’s work does not end when the encampment is filled, however. Throughout the duration of the fair, Bertha is on the grounds. She can be found at head­quarters or seen wandering among the tents chatting with her many acquaintances and checking to see that everything is as it should be. Sometimes referred to as the “town mayor,” Bertha oversees the entire encampment and must deal with any and all problems that arise. In an attempt to minimize the potential for problem situations. there are stated rules and restrictions which all campers are expected to follow. Alcoholic beverages. pets. bicycles, skateboards, squirt guns and excessive noise and rowdiness arc all pro­hibited. Regulatory measures are necessary if such a large number of people are to coexist peacefully and, surprising­ly, few incidents occur.

Perhaps it is Bertha’s conscientious dedication to her job which prevents the development of problem situations. When first meeting Bertha, though, it is difficult to imagine how this pleasant woman, barely five feet tall, can exercise control over thousands of campers. Actually the answer is simple:

I have been strict. .. and so far it has worked. They know. I only need to see them once. And we have a good talk. I tell them: “If you don’t want to abide by the rules, move out. There’s only one hundred people waiting to move in.” You see, this is where I have control because I always have around one hundred people wanting to come that don’t have a chance. So, I’m not about to put up with anything.

 

The Encampment

Once the various details of setting up the encampment are concluded and the tenters are settled, life at the Grange Fair really begins! Those who stay at the fair year after year do so for many reasons, but the most important aspect of the encampment for them is always “PEOPLE.” Ex­pressed in different ways by the tenters, it is apparent that the greatest attraction of the encampment is the op­portunity it offers for families and friends to visit, relax and be together. One woman labels it as a “visitation fair,” while another feels, “There’s an atmosphere about Grange. It’s one big family!” People return each year expecting to share in the warmth and hospitality which always exists. That’s what the Grange Fair is all about!

There are other benefits as well. The most noticeable is the tolerance and cooperation which develops among the tenters. This aspect is very special to eighty-five year-old Floyd Woomer:

I believe the more – how would we word it – we’re throwed together and cooperate together, I believe the more we know one another. I believe it makes worlds of difference. In other words, to associate with one another we sure get to understand one an­other. I think that’s most outstanding.

A different view of the pleasure of coming to the fair is offered by ninety-five year-old Elizabeth Ripka. She has attended more “picnics” than anybody living and still re­members going to those held on the mountain. Confined to a wheelchair, Elizabeth Ripka still comes to tent at the fair. She refused to receive medical attention after a fall three weeks prior to the 1978 Grange Fair for fear of being hospitalized and missing it. Why such determination?

You see friends here that you don’t see one year to the next. That’s why I come more than anything else. If it wouldn’t be for that I don’t think I’d bother. But. I come here … at home we have no­where to go. And, so, I sit here and first thing you know, here’s some of your friends coming along. And, you enjoy to see them. Yes. I do. It’s a big burden off me to see some of my friends. You don’t believe the burden that is lifted. And I like to watch them, and I like … now, lots of people, who are they? I don’t know. But I like to watch them.

For Elizabeth Ripka the Grange Fair provides time to learn if old friends are still alive. It offers a happy relief from her loneliness.

People spend their time at the fair in a variety of ways. Cora Gordon, a retired registered nurse, has camped at the fair for over forty years. She would traditionally schedule her vacation to coincide with the fair. Her reasons are clear:

It’s relaxing. And there’s people that you see, and people that you talk to that you don’t see from one year to the next. It’s also … it’s different from home­-life. Oh, it’s just wonderful, that’s all!

While Cora Gordon is relaxing, Joe Hartle, Jr. is in the midst of his busiest week of the year. Al age forty-six, he hasn’t missed a fair, has been a member of the Fair Com­mittee for the past twenty-nine years, and has exhibited livestock for the past thirty-six years. As an active dairy farmer. Joe Hartle must maintain his farm and livestock during the Grange Fair. He cannot “take a vacation.” For him, “It’s a hectic week.” The daily routine is compounded by his Grange Fair responsibilities, but Joe Hartle and his family. and others like them, are willing to make the neces­sary sacrifices.

Anna Schaeffer, although no longer active in farming, remembers the preparations which were involved:

We lived on a big farm. I had to work hard to get here, you know, to take a week off. Everything had to be done. The grain had to be in. The garden had to be cleaned.

The pleasures of attending the fair made these efforts worthwhile – at age eighty-two, Anna Schaeffer hasn’t missed a fair!

A long-standing feature of the Grange Fair is the Exhibit Halls. People or all ages compete for the recognition and honor afforded by a blue ribbon. Hours of work are repre­sented in the displays of handsewn articles – embroidered pillowcases, crocheted afghans and patchwork quilts, to name a few. Those more agriculturally inclined display their garden harvests. which range from carrots to cantaloupes. Canned and baked goods also abound. The livestock ex­hibits attract much attention as the judging in different categories continues throughout the week. For those in­dividuals participating in the exhibits. the Grange Fair is more than a week-long event. It requires dedicated work du ring the preceding months. As one participant pointed out:

We look toward the fair from the time it closes. It’s a year long planning period. The first of September this year we start thinking about next year.

Throughout the years. although much has remained the same, many changes have occurred in all phases of the Grange Fair. At one time moving into the encampment was a laborious task. Family possessions were brought to the tents in horse-drawn spring wagons or buggies. A trip which now requires twenty minutes by automobile might have been a day-long journey. The use of coal-oil lamps or candles for lighting and communal wood cookstoves for meal preparations preceded the installation of electricity at the fairgrounds. In short, life at the Grange Fair re­flected an existence that lacked many modern conveniences.

Prior to the macadam floors and walkways now round on the grounds, mud and the mess which resulted from it was a major part of life.

Mud! We used to have mud and we really knew it! You couldn’t come to the Fair without a pair of arctics for wading in the mud!

The inconvenience certainly didn’t prevent people from attending. It was just something to be reckoned with, some­thing which old-timers now remember with amusement.

A more agreeable aspect has always been the entertain­ment provided for tenters and other fair-goers. The style and quantity of this entertainment reflect changing social patterns and the rapid growth of the Grange Fair. The Grange plays, acrobats, and fondly remembered “Ocean Wave Ride ” have long since disappeared to be replaced by more sophisticated forms of entertainment and countless amusements. Seventy-seven year-old Cora Weaver, who has attended the fair since girlhood, regrets some of these changes:

Oh, it used to be much nicer … each Grange used to put on a play; a three act play … some nights they’d have three of them, and they were wonderful good. And you didn’t have to pay or anything to get in. It was really a Grange Fair!

However, Cora Gordon, like most of the tenters, has a more positive attitude:

It’s better than what it was. Because … well, you’ve got anything you want to see. Well, it’s really remark­able the things they’ve got now they didn’t have thirty years ago. I feel that it’s a great improvement all around.

Though they are difficult to find, there are those people who continue to come to the encampment even though they regret the loss of past values:

People was more friendly. We was a family … I think there was more brotherly love, friendship, or what­ever you want to call it, among people then … Today it’s not that way … Why do I keep coming? On account of the children. I wouldn’t if I was alone and be left alone. I don’t have that much enjoyment out of it. But the children like to come and I’ve kept it up.

In contrast, Floyd Woomer attends the Grange Fair for his own enjoyment. He first came in 1903 at the age of ten and has come each year since except while in the service during World War I. The many changes are incidental to the almost mystical attraction Floyd Woomer feels toward the Grange Fair:

Well, I don’t know whether we’d call it a magnet, or what it is, but it draws us, and we come, and a person just keeps liking it better – better and better! Yes … I’d just like to see it keeping on and on.

 

Conclusion

The Grange Fair represents different things to different people. For some it is a time to be outdoors, to relax, to visit with friends whom they perhaps haven’t seen for an entire year. For others, it is a culmination point for the previous year’s work, an opportunity to display carefully prepared handiwork, crafts, produce and livestock. What­ever the purpose or particular interest, the warm feelings and traditions of attending the Grange Fair are passed from one generation to the next, much like a precious family heirloom. The young children who pack their “Grange Fair suitcases” as soon as school is over in June will probably continue to attend as they grow into adult­hood. Perhaps their children will also attend. In the words of Joe Hartle. Jr.:

It’s more or less a homecoming … People like the idea that it’s just a tradition, I think. They’ll come back because they like it. If you enjoy doing some­thing I guess you’ll keep on doing it.

In spite of the urge to “keep on doing it,” it is difficult to predict what the fate of the Grange Fair will be. It has sustained its popularity for over a century, but as the emphasis of society shifts and its once large agricultural base continues to diminish, the features which currently attract people may lose importance. Most of the people who enjoy the Grange Fair so much today have, or once had, close ties to rural and farm existence. The passage of time may cause people to reject their past values. Or, it may prompt them to cling to them in an attempt to pre­serve a part of a rapidly fading American life-style which the Grange Fair represents. Whatever the outcome. it can­not be denied that the Centre County Grange Fair has been a unique event in Pennsylvania history.

 

The information presented in this article is largely based on personal interviews conducted by Ms. Romanow in 1978 as part of the Centre County Library project, “Recol­lections: The Oral History of Centre County.” The work was supported by a CETA grant. The people interviewed ranged in age from forty-six to ninety-five. The children and grandchildren of the narrators were also there at the fair and, in most cases, their parents and grandparents attended as well.

This year [1979] the Grange Fair will be held August 23-31 at the Centre Hall Grange Park where it has been held since 1890.

 

Sandy Romanow received a B.A. in history from the University of Michigan and began work in oral history in Pittsburgh in 1975. Presently, she is Project Director of the Centre County library Oral History Project.