Introduction to the Georgia State Fair
The Georgia State Fair began under the aegis of the Southern Central (later Georgia State) Agricultural Society in 1846 at Stone Mountain, later moving to Atlanta and Macon. After disruptions of the Civil War and its aftermath, the fair settled permanently in Macon's Central City Park in 1871, where it has continued a long and successful history up to the present. The Macon Chamber of Commerce purchased the Georgia State Fair in 1940 and conveyed ownership to the Exchange Club in 1982. The Exchange Club operated the fair from 1942 to the present. The Georgia State Fair helps Georgians appreciate the agricultural heritage of their state through exhibits and instruction, along with recreational activities.
The Middle Georgia Archives houses the extensive records of the Georgia State Fair, with a representative sampling available online via the Digital Library of Georgia. The following orientation essay helps viewers place these photographic images within a broader historical context.
Fair Traditions| Early Fair Moves Around | Fair Settles in Macon's Central City Park | Segregation and the Georgia State Fair | New Fair Owners | Boys' and Girls' Agricultural Clubs | Recent Developments
Fairs have an ancient lineage-- Romans spread these temporary markets across their empire to encourage trade, and large fairs later became very important commercial venues throughout medieval Europe. Commercial and transportation changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution eventually changed the nature of fairs and reduced their significance, but they still survive in Europe and America.
In the U.S., a state fair usually focuses on agricultural matters and takes place in a centralized location, often drawing from smaller county fairs held in rural areas. The state fair typically offers many exhibits of agricultural products-- usually with prizes awarded, and perhaps some modest instructional opportunities-- along with fair food, music, games, rides, and other recreational activities. Sometimes schools closed briefly so that students could attend the fair.
The Georgia State Fair in Macon draws upon these venerable traditions, with a very long and successful record dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1846, a group of prominent Georgians called for a fair which could appeal not only to Georgia farmers but to agricultural interests in adjacent states as well. They initially chose Stone Mountain as the location, holding the annual fair there from 1846 through 1849. Because the event grew very rapidly, it moved to Atlanta in 1850. Seeking a more centralized location, the fair moved to Macon in 1851.
The sponsoring group, initially known as the Southern Central Agricultural Society (although apparently not formally incorporated under that name until 1854), changed its name to the State Agricultural Society of Georgia in 1859.
After the move to Macon, the fair occupied the old fairgrounds site located south of Seventh Street (about 3000 feet west of today's Central City Park). During the Civil War, the fair ceased operations and the fairgrounds became the site of Camp Oglethorpe, used by the Confederate government as a prisoner of war camp. (This is the current site of the Norfolk Southern Brosnan railroad yard.) Immediately after the Civil War, the fair was held in other locations, including Atlanta.
According to legend, the manufactured version of the kazoo was developed in Macon in the 1840s and introduced at the Georgia State Fair of 1852. The mass-produced kazoo, a simple musical instrument loosely based on the African mirliton, became widely popular throughout America during the early twentieth century.
In 1871, the fair moved to its permanent location at Central City Park in Macon. The park, on the banks of Ocmulgee River, included 273 forested acres when established in 1826. Extensive new facilities erected in 1871 at the park included an entrance gate, seven exposition buildings, bandstand, horse racing track, and terraced river bank for viewing regattas.
A large fire struck the fairground in May 1904, causing severe damage to some of the original wooden buildings. Despite this setback, the fair quickly recovered, with several new brick buildings replacing the destroyed ones, offering construction more resistant to the threat of fire.
The fair was reorganized as the Georgia State Exposition in 1920 or 1921, which continued until 1940, surviving such potential threats as the Great Depression of the 1930s.
As a consequence of the rules of segregation, a related but distinct fair association, variously known as the Georgia Colored Agricultural and Industrial Association, the Georgia State Industrial Fair Association, or the Georgia State Colored Fair Association, provided African Americans with their own fair: the Georgia State Colored Fair. Although the collection covered by this project does not include items from the Colored Fair, it is important to briefly describe the Colored Fair in order to provide a more complete and accurate history.
In 1900 at the annual Colored Farmer's Congress (founded by Richard R. Wright, Sr. in 1898), farmers met at the Georgia Industrial College at Savannah (now Savannah State University) to discuss how to showcase their wares and to highlight the achievements of others in the African American community of Georgia. By 1906, the idea of a fair developed, and in October 1906, the first Georgia State Colored Fair was held in Macon.
The stockholders of the Georgia Colored Agricultural and Industrial Association met at the First Baptist Church on Cotton Avenue in Macon in 1907 to discuss the success of the 1906 fair and to plan for the 1907 fair. The original intent was to stage the fair in different cities each year. Unfortunately the fair association found that other cities were not so accommodating as the mayor and city of Macon.
In 1908, when Richard R. Wright, Sr. was seeking a permanent home for the fair, he looked to Macon and Central City Park. Upon receiving the approval of the Mayor and City Council and authorization of the Georgia State Fair, the Colored Fair found a home. The fair started with a parade that left from New Street and ended at Walnut Street going into Central City Park.
The Colored Fair contained many of the same activities as the regular fair which was usually held the week prior to the Colored Fair. The activities included tight rope walkers, balloonists, dog and pony shows, boxing matches, horse racing, and in 1910 even a re-enactment of the Battle of San Juan Hill. Exhibitions were held on farm products, canning along with quilting and sewing being judged. Fireworks closed the fair. Also, one unique event started in 1910 was the Ex-Slaves Day Reunion.
The fair continued at least through 1916. It appears that, with the departure of Richard R. Wright, Sr. in 1921 (he became a banker in Philadelphia), the fair lost its main supporter, and no further information about this unique endeavor has been located. African Americans later attended the regular fair, gaining fuller participation after the official end of segregation.
In 1940, the Macon Chamber of Commerce bought the stock of the old corporation and formed a subsidiary called the Georgia State Fair Association. The Chamber operated the fair in 1940 and 1941.
From 1942 to 1982, the Exchange Club of Macon managed and operated the fair on a percentage basis. In 1982, the Macon Exchange Club Fair Association acquired the fair from the Chamber and contracted with the City of Macon to use Central City Park for the annual event. The Exchange Club of Macon continues to operate the fair right up to the present, with profits going to charitable organizations.
Much of the serious agricultural content in any American fair comes from the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America. These clubs arose in the early twentieth century from federal assistance provided to assist agricultural extension services and rural vocational education. The programs encouraged rural children to understand and value agriculture, in contrast to the increasing urbanization experienced by most of society. The Georgia State Fair provided an excellent venue for these agricultural clubs.
The Georgia State Fair, the oldest state-level fair in Georgia, was traditionally held in the fall. Beginning in 2010, the Georgia State Fair will take place in the spring, to avoid competing with the Georgia National Fair, which was established at Perry in 1990. The Southeastern Fair, which began in 1916 at the Lakewood Fairgrounds just south of Atlanta, ceased operations in 1978. Other fairs, more regional- or county-based, take place in Hiawassee, Marietta, Conyers, Cumming, Savannah, and Albany.
The Georgia State Fair continues its long and successful traditions today. Visit the fair Web site at http://www.georgiastatefair.org to find out about the current event as well as historical information. In addition to the many historical photographs available online through this collaborative digitization project with Middle Georgia Archives, more images of the fair can also be accessed via the online Vanishing Georgia collection.