Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When a small group of men met at Lancaster’s Leopard Hotel in August 1916 to organize the first Pennsylvania Farm Show, they did not have in mind mammoth displays of fifty thousand dollar tractors, mountains of steaming baked potatoes or presentations of grand champion livestock ribbons.

They didn’t envision a state fair of the type that had become so popular in places like Iowa, Ohio, New York or Texas. All they really wanted was a convention, a trade show for agriculturalists of every kind – dairy farmers, fruit and corn growers and livestock breeders. Three-quarters of a century ago, the promoters were simply looking for a way to bring farmers and breeders together at the same time to discuss common problems, methods and goals. And as the Farm Show marked its seventy-fifth anniversary this year [1991], its mission – and its weather – remained unchanged.

This winter [1991], Pennsylvania’s agricultural community celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the popular Farm Show. Drawing two hundred thousand people and filling every corner of Harrisburg’s fourteen-acre Farm Show Complex, today’s week-long event bears little, if any, resemblance to its beginnings – except, of course, for purpose. Indeed, Pennsylvania’s Farm Show is considered to be the largest indoor exposition dedicated solely to the promotion of agriculture. To farm families, the show honors and validates their way of life. For commercial exhibitors who breed animals, the event is valuable for the prestige that a Farm Show prize ribbon brings. And for urban or suburban families, it is perhaps the only glimpse over the barnyard fence they will ever enjoy.

Despite the long-held image of Pennsylvania as an industrial state, agriculture is its largest industry, accounting for nearly three and a half billion dollars annually! When restaurants, processors, wholesalers and retail grocery sales are counted, the economic effect totals more than forty-one billion dollars. Today’s Farm Show reflects the magnitude of that industry, but it owes its heritage and its existence to that first modest show in January 1917.

Curious individuals sometimes ask why Pennsylvania does not hold a state fair in summer or fall with entertainment, midway carnival attractions, harness or automobile racing, and an admission charge, as do most states with a large agricultural sector. Instead, the Farm Show is an oddity – a free mid-winter event at which non-farm attractions and sideshows are forbidden. Much of this is by design, part by circumstance.

In the nineteenth century, Pennsylvania did have state fairs. Following a highly successful agricultural fair held at Harrisburg in October 1851, an annual state fair was organized. Hosted by a different city each year, organizers deliberately sought to stimulate the creation of county agricultural societies and county fairs. Some local fairs were already well-established, such as the York Fair, which began in 1765. In addition to Harrisburg, the state fair traveled to Bethlehem, Easton, Erie, Indiana, Johnstown, Lancaster, Norristown, Philadelphia, Scranton, Uniontown, Williamsport, Wyoming and York. The state fair was a victim of its own success: the county fairs it propagated eventually overshadowed it in popularity and importance. And, so, the last state fair was held in 1899.

From the turn-of-the-century through 1916, agricultural organizations met in various locations, usually gathering in Harrisburg in January of odd-numbered years to chart strategy for the biennial legislative session, but there was no real coordination as various farm groups often met in different cities and on different dates. The Pennsylvania Livestock Breeders’ Association, organized in Pittsburgh in 1900 and representing twenty-four breeds, called for the revival of the state fair primarily as an educational event, managed by organizations representing livestock, dairying, educational and industrial interests. Across the Commonwealth, an editorial in the Philadelphia Press criticized the concept. “The Pennsylvania Livestock Breeders’ Association is anxious to hold a big State Fair devoted to cattle exhibits with the absence of a midway. If the livestock breeders will take a tip from Allentown, Bethlehem and Lancaster, they will hold a State Fair and assure its overwhelming success by abandoning the livestock exhibit and sticking to the midway exclusively.”

It was not until the 1916 meeting in Lancaster, called by Agriculture Secretary Charles E. Patton, that the Farm Show, as it is known today, began to take shape. The participants, who represented the livestock and dairy industry, the horticultural industry, the agricultural press and the Pennsylvania State College’s agricultural extension department agreed on several principles: it was to be held in mid-winter, when farmers were least busy planting or harvesting, when agricultural societies customarily met and when there was no conflict with county fairs; it was to be a public show, as well as a farm-industry show, with free admission; and competitive exhibits of farm products were to be included, with cash premiums awarded, and farm machinery displayed.

The first shows were held in scattered locations around Harrisburg because no single building was large enough to contain meetings of all the agricultural societies, displays of produce and commercial exhibits. Fair officials and participants simply commuted back and forth among the buildings and meetings.

Held January 23-25, 1917, the first extravaganza was hailed as the Pennsylvania Corn, Fruit, Vegetable, Dairy Products and Wool Show. It was headquartered in a three-story farm implement dealer’s hall, the Emerson-Brantingham Implement Company, at Tenth and Market streets in center-city Harrisburg. Apples, butter, carrots, celery, corn, milk, turnips and wool were shown, but no provision was made for showing or judging live animals. A total of $1,430 in cash prizes was offered, of which the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture provided $735. Gov. Martin Brumbaugh addressed the horticulturalists’ group. An estimated five thousand people attended the show, and when it concluded, the agricultural trade magazine Pennsylvania Farmer described it as “the biggest thing of its kind ever held in the state…. It is generally conceded that an effort should be made to have such shows held annually or biennially.”

For the next decade, the show burgeoned in size and in popularity, despite nearly being canceled in 1918 because of World War I. Because of the war, farmers were facing a shortage of labor with which to plant and harvest crops. (Munitions factories were paying as much as five dollars a day, compared to the dollar a day earned by the typical farm laborer at the time.) In spite of the war, attendance in 1918 doubled the 1917 figure, and more exhibits were added. By 1920, the exhibits spilled over into a second building, and a year later, the show (counting all meeting places) spread to nine buildings, and live animals – dairy and beef cattle, sheep, swine and horses – were shown for the first time. Two years later, the judging of animals began, the number of participating agricultural groups had grown to twenty-four, and the show expanded to four days. By 1925, the show was being held in fifteen locations, and the first 4-H Club livestock exhibition was held, featuring a display of forty-nine Hereford steers by the Adams County 4-H Baby Beef Club. This was the precursor of what eventually would become one of the show’s most popular activities.

The growth of interest, participation and public acceptance of the show led to calls for a permanent location and a building or, preferably, buildings, and an eleven member state fair commission was charged with finding a site and drawing up plans. The commission hired an architect and proposed acquisition of a six hundred acre tract near Lemoyne, just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, but its proposal foundered under the soft economic conditions of the early 1920s, as well as opposition from officials of county fairs, who saw in the appellation “state fair” the seeds of unwelcome competition.

The years 1927 and 1928 proved to be pivotal for the Farm Show. A fundamental change took place in the planning and management of the show in 1927. With increasing public attendance, members of the joint private-public committee that had been in charge of the show faced unlimited personal liability if any accidents occurred. To remedy this situation, a new state agency – the State Farm Products Show Commission – was created to take over. The State Farm Products Show Committee that had organized the show since 1917 survived as an advisory panel to the commission. Three-quarters of a century later, the committee, made up of members of most major farm organizations, still functions in that role.

By statute, the State Farm Products Show Commission was organized as a nine-member board, consisting of the governor; the state secretary of agriculture, who served as chairman; another staff member of the department of agriculture; a representative of the Department of Public Instruction (now the Pennsylvania Department of Education); the dean of Pennsylvania State College’s School of Agriculture; the director of Pennsylvania State College’s Agricultural Extension Service; and three farmers appointed by the governor from a list of six submitted by the State Farm Products Show Committee.

The year 1928 was also extremely critical to the development of the Farm Show because Gov. John S. Fisher toured the show on Tuesday, January 18, visiting every building and examining every exhibit. Occurring well before the age of television and mass distribution of images, Fisher moved through the buildings largely undetected by the public. Only occasionally did his state police escort clear the way through the crowd for him. He was so impressed by the popularity of the show – more than eighteen thousand people passed through the Emerson-Brantingham building in the first five hours alone! – that he promised to help establish a permanent site. “The people have developed this show out of their own lives,” Fisher said. “The show is an expression of the agricultural life of the State and it is the duty of the State to make ample provisions for the care of it, either in Harrisburg or the immediate vicinity.”

Governor Fisher was no stranger to construction. By the fall of 1929, more than twenty-seven million dollars worth of state buildings around Pennsylvania were under construction, including several projects in the Capitol’s back yard – the three million dollar North Office Building and the four and a half million dollar Education Building (now the Forum Building). To fund construction of the Farm Show building, a $1.34 million amendment was added to the appropriations bill for the Education Building. Selected as the site was a forty-acre tract on the northern edge of Harrisburg.

First bids totalled one million dollars more than the original estimates, and planners eliminated a large coliseum to help bring the project within budget. New bids were opened on October 23,1929, and a contract was awarded the next day. Less than a week later, Wall Street collapsed, inaugurating what historians would call the Great Depression, but it had little effect on Farm Show officials’ plans, and a groundbreaking was held on October 31. A few months later, an estimated eighty thousand people attended the Farm Show of 1930, the last for which crowds would endure makeshift quarters.

The sprawling new building, with its nearly eight hundred foot wide facade facing Harrisburg’s broad Maclay Street near the intersection of Cameron Street, was ready in time for the 1931 Farm Show. Containing four hundred and twenty-five thousand square feet (about ten acres) of area, it was a long, low, brick single-story structure with a two-story facade that accommodated Farm Show management offices. The coliseum was replaced with a modest judging area, now known as the Small Arena.

On Monday, January 19, his last full day in office, Governor Fisher toured the building on opening day of the 1931 event and proclaimed the show “a booming success.” That evening, it &as dedicated with speeches by Fisher and Governor-elect Gifford Pinchot, U.S. Senator James J. Davis, and an assistant U.S. agriculture secretary. During the following four days, throngs jammed the show. Streets leading to the site were also congested, and a drive from downtown Harrisburg – about a mile-took at least thirty minutes. By the end of the show, officials declared that more than two hundred and fifty thousand people had seen the show, three times the number of visitors the year before.

In the early years of the Great Depression, Farm Show attendance rose slightly, but declined to less than a quarter of a million by 1935. Participation, on the other hand, increased, with a total of ten thousand exhibits entered in that year’s show. At the same time, the new facilities began to see wider use during the off-season, as other groups and events occupied parts of the building for brief periods. In a little more than a year after its opening, events as varied as a Holstein show, a Boy Scout meeting, an evangelistic campaign, an automobile show and a funeral directors’ convention all booked space in the new complex. In December 1934, the Post Office used the structure for mail storage during the Christmas rush. Two years later, forty-three inches of water filled the building during severe flooding that paralyzed much of Pennsylvania. Despite the flooding, the building was pressed into duty as a temporary shelter for two hundred evacuees from the rising waters.

An undeniable spirit of optimism surfaced with the end of the Great Depression. Farm Show officials began planning for construction of the Coliseum stricken from the original blueprints in 19 Facing east onto Cameron Street, the $1.2 million dollar building would have a floor area of one hundred and twenty by two hundred and forty feet and contain more than seventy-six hundred seats for spectators. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held on opening day of the 1938 Farm Show. An enthusiastic Hansel1 French, Secretary of Agriculture, jubilantly exclaimed that Harrisburg would become “the agricultural capital of the world.” On August 1, a cornerstone was laid, and the New Arena (today called the Large Arena) opened several months before the 1939 show.

The addition of the Large Arena brought several immediate changes: exhibit space expansion eased some of the overcrowding on the floor of the main building; new attractions, including a horse pulling contest and a livestock parade, could be accommodated; and during the off-season, the Large Arena attracted groups, conventions and meetings that would not have otherwise used the main building.

Although the local press praised the new facilities, the Harrisburg Telegraph took the opportunity to call for changing the date of the Farm Show. With “the long record of miserable third-week-in-January weather, should not a slightly later date be considered for Farm Show – which also bumps head-on into the inauguration of a new Governor at four-year intervals?” This was neither the first nor the only suggestion for changing the dates of the Farm Show. Throughout the years many suggestions have been made for avoiding what has become well known in central Pennsylvania as “Farm Show weather.” Some agricultural organizations and journals have favored changing it to November, on the theory that animals groomed for showing at the string of summer and fall county fairs would already be in good condition to compete at the statewide event. However, many farmers still harvest their crops in late autumn and prefer to keep the show in mid-winter.

The Large Arena saw use during only four Farm Shows before World War II suspended all agricultural use of the complex. Scarcely more than a month after the 1942 Farm Show ended, the commission leased the Main Exhibition Building for the training of aircraft mechanics to repair military planes. The 1943 show was canceled, but the commission wanted to maintain some semblance of tradition and coordinated a series of meetings. Agricultural organizations conducted their usual gatherings in Harrisburg during what would have been Farm Show week, using an old routine – meeting in various rooms, halls and auditoriums around the capital.

In early 1944, the mechanics’ school was phased out and replaced by an Army Air Corps aircraft engine repair shop. When it was fully operational as part of a large aircraft overhaul center at Olmsted Field in nearby Middletown the shop employed sixteen hundred to twenty-three hundred workers. With four assembly lines, the shop could turn out a reconditioned engine for a fighter, bomber or transport plane every ten minutes! Hostilities ended too late in 1945 to allow time to convert the facilities back to peacetime use, and the commission began planning for a triumphant return in 1947.

The postwar years quickly became the golden era of Pennsylvania’s Farm Show, with burgeoning attendance, worldwide fame and unprecedented media attention. Hundreds of agricultural experts and students traveled from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America to see the show firsthand. Officials traveled from other states to consider starting similar shows.

Since there are no paid admissions, no turnstiles and no one to check the dozens of entrances and exits, no one actually knows how many people attended any of the Farm Shows. The first show after the war, in 1947, attracted an estimated “record 545,000 people, and the numbers rose steadily throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But with no means by which to accurately measure attendance figures, latter-day Agriculture Department officials – in the interest of credibility – stopped issuing estimates after the figure reached 750,000 visitors in 1976. In fact, they strongly suspect that the estimates – particularly after the mid- 1930s, when the count jumped sharply from 240,000 to 400,000 – were exaggerated as a means of justifying the annual state appropriation that helps defray the extravaganza’s expenses. Even so, the postwar popularity of the show was undeniably visible and traced in part to the farmers’ need to replace war-weary farm machinery.

In 1951, the Farm Show commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the pioneering agricultural exposition held in Harrisburg in 1851. It also marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the state show of 19l7, and the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Main Exhibition Building.

A young United States senator from California made an appearance in connection with the 1952 show, but his prominence in American political history would not be fully known for another two decades. Sen. Richard M. Nixon spoke to the Pennsylvania Cooperative Potato Growers’ Association banquet at Zembo Temple, a few blocks west of the Farm Show complex. His uncle, E. L. Nixon of State College, was active in the potato growers’ group and widely known for his knowledge of improving crop yields. Senator Nixon railed against the communist threat and urged farmers to become involved in politics. More important to the Keystone State’s agriculturists, the potato growers announced that year that they had sold the one millionth Farm Show baked potato! Sales of baked potatoes were a tradition that had begun in 1923, when they sold for a nickel. A National Geographic writer and photographer visited Harrisburg in 1954, and the show was later highlighted as part of a lengthy report on state fairs.

The 1955 show honored the centennial of the founding of the Pennsylvania State University, whose College of Agriculture and Extension Service remain intimately involved in the Farm Show’s operation. Each year the college and extension service dispatch more than a hundred staffers to help register and weigh animals, assist with press coverage and generally make the show a smoothly functioning event.

As the 1960s approached, the Farm Show complex was opened to even more uses. A portable basketball floor was acquired in 1959 for use in the Large Arena. Three governors – David L. Lawrence, William W. Scranton and Raymond P. Shafer – were inaugurated in the Large Arena. Governor Shafer hosted his inaugural ball in the Main Exhibition Building.

Probably the last bit of truly national attention the Farm Show garnered occurred in 1960, when Governor Lawrence fell off a milking stool while posing for photographers during the annual governor’s preview tour. An unflattering photograph appeared the next morning in newspapers across America, including The New York Times. The affable – and unflappable – Lawrence took the incident good-naturedly, and said he was glad the incident had brought the Farm Show such widespread publicity.

The late 1960s and the 1970s brought turbulence and turmoil for the show and the buildings that housed it. Ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary show occurred in 1966, but about the same time, a long series of studies began that projected abandoning the Farm Show complex site and building a new exposition center on a three hundred acre site about a mile northeast of the complex. Times had changed, however, from the days when many state legislators were reared on farms (or farmed themselves) and harbored sympathetic support for agricultural projects. The new complex was proposed and duly debated time and again, but never passed the stage of an architectural rendering.

Two events within as many years confirmed that the Farm Show would remain put. In June 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes flooded the building even more severely than had the flood of 1936. The water damage was followed by a Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry inspection in early 1974 which uncovered many safety and structural deficiencies. State legislators decided to authorize major repairs and reconstruction, costing tens of millions of dollars, rather than opting for a new structure, which would cost a minimum of one hundred and fifty million dollars.

Many other aspects of the Farm Show have changed over the course of time. No longer is there a horseshoe pitching contest or a log-sawing competition. The Rural Talent Festivals, in which hundreds of performers came together to sing and dance – without a single rehearsal – disappeared in 1957. Bans on poultry and swine have come and gone with the arrival and departure of Newcastle’s disease, avian flu and hog cholera.

More shows held on at the facility have made the complex more self-supporting than at any time in its history. Farm Show crowds are not as large as those of the great postwar crush, but interest remains high. Prospective exhibitors face a five year wait for space because demand simply exceeds supply. Today the amount of premiums awarded to exhibitors totals nearly two hundred thousand dollars – a far cry from the $735 offered in 1917. New display areas highlight the importance of the food processing industry. Last year Farm Show officials announced plans for the construction of a new exhibition building between the Main Exhibition Building and the Large Arena, a structure that was purportedly approved during the administration of Gov. George Leader in the late 1950s.

Yet with all of these changes, the Farm Show still remains the “annual meeting-place of the farmer and city-dweller,” as a newspaper described it in 1939. It remains central to the Keystone State’s agricultural life and culture. So long as the auctioneer’s gavel on Fridays of show week sounds the sale of grand champion baby beef, farm youth will be assured of college educations.

During dedication ceremonies for the original main building in 1931, Governor Fisher made an observation that has remained timeless – and timely. “This show,” he said, “is the romance of Pennsylvania agriculture.”


For Further Reading

Cupper, Dan. 75th Farm Show: A History of Pennsylvania’s Annual Agricultural Exposition. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commis­sion and Pennsylvania State Farm Products Show Commission, 1991.

Fegley, H. Wi11slow. Farming, Always Farming: A Photo­graphic Essay of Rural Pennsylvania German Land and Life. Birdsboro, Pa.: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1987.

Harvey, Cecil. Agriculture of the American Indian. Washington, D. C.: Science and Education Administration, 1979.

Kelsey, Darwin P. Farming in the New Nation: Interpreting American Agriculture, 1790-1840. Washington, D. C.: Agri­culture History Society, 1972.

Schlebecker, John T. Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-1972. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975.


Dan Cupper of Harrisburg is a freelance writer and editor, whose special interests include the history of transportation, particularly railroading. His articles have appeared in American Heritage and Pennsylvania Magazine. He is the author of two books, The Pennsylvania Turnpike: A History and 75th Farm Show: A History of Pennsylvania’s Annual Agricultural Exposition.