Skowhegan State Fair History
Updated December of 2012
“Organized in late 1818, the first, of what was to be an unbroken succession of 195 Skowhegan fairs, was held (of all time) in January 1819, by the original organization known as the Somerset Central Agricultural Society; a name that was continued until 1942 when the official designation became the Skowhegan State Fair. While no record is in existence of what the weather was in January of 1819, it apparently wasn’t a determining factor in the attendance as a history of Skowhegan records that the fair attracted the largest crowds ever to have assembled in Somerset County. It is interesting to note that at the time, Somerset County was located in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Maine not having become a state until 1820. The name of the first president of the fair was reported as being Eleazer Coburn who was succeeded in 1820 by one Richard Sawtelle. One of the expressed purposes of the fair was to improve the breeding of livestock, with particular emphasis being placed upon the betterment of breeds of horses and cattle, an objective that has been constantly maintained by succeeding fair management.
With no agricultural colleges or extension services being in existence in those early days, fairs became the means by which farmers and home makers were kept informed of the latest methods of better farming and home making and the latest in farm equipment that might be available. Experts in these fields were on hand to meet with and discuss problems with interested fair patrons.
Like present day fair-goers, those attending the early fairs were interested in harness horse racing and the pulling of draft horses and oxen, as well as entertainment of a different nature, including games of skill and chance, and the viewing of dancing girls in what were known as the HOOCHY-KOOCHY SHOWS, which seem to prove that human nature basically doesn’t change too much with the passage of time.
It is doubtful if the organizers of the Skowhegan Fair, one hundred and eighty-eight years ago, ever envisioned that it would exist over such a long span of years that would see the nation engaged in wars, boom times, the computer age, depression years and yes the internet! The fair however, has been kept alive and active by successive generations of dedicated men and women in the area.
The present fairgrounds were acquired in 1856 and over the years the original boundaries were extended from time to time, as additional acreage became available. It was on these grounds that past generations viewed models of the first elephants, elegant carriages, displayed by artisans who took pride in their craftsmanship, farm machinery of every description, the early automobile, talking machines, airplanes bicycles, motorcycles and other objects invented and built for better living. In 2005 the fairgrounds was extended once again with the purchase of a lot on Beech Street.
Today we find the same history still being made, with fair goers walking around with cellular phones and exhibitors displaying their latest products with lap top computers. An early news item tells of an elegant wagon that took first prize at the fair of 1844 and was subsequently sold to a New Brunswick Government official for $150.00 which represented a tremendous sum in those days. In September of 1911, William Rood brought his Blerlot monoplane to the fairgrounds, but due to mechanical trouble, it failed to take off. In 1912, Aviator D Kennalie originated a flight at the fairgrounds, which covered a distance of two miles with the plane being badly damaged upon its return landing.
A program of a fair held in the late 1800’s indicated that racing, livestock exhibits, etc. were held at the fairgrounds but that displays of needlework, canned and cooked foods and similar exhibits were held in Coburn Hall, on Water Street, in a large building which burned in the early 1900’s in a spectacular night fire.
It wasn’t until the advent of the almost universal use of the automobile and the development of good highway that the Skowhegan Fair began to show a growth from a small two or three day fair, attended for the most part by those living within easy driving distance by horse and buggy to an event of longer duration, expanded growth in all departments, and wider appeal. Over sixty six years ago the concept of night shows, before the grandstand developed and through the years the Skowhegan Fair patrons have witnessed a succession of elaborate productions that brought to the area some the greatest names in the entertainment world and through these people the fair’s name spread throughout the nation. The fair annually draws thousands of patrons from all over the nation and Canada, many of whom plan their vacations to coincide with the fair’s dates.
Exhibits at the fair come from exhibitors from more than one hundred towns and cities in Maine as well as from many states throughout the nation and as far away as the State of Washington. These people are competing for prize money offered by the fair, exceeding $200,000. That contrasts with approximately $3,000.00 that was offered over 60 years ago. Exhibition workers and performers now number over 7000 with some of the most famous appearing for example, 1997 saw the Joey Chitwoods auto thrill show and the nations popular country group, Asleep at the Wheel, on stage.” Over the years many more popular performers have appeared on stage such as; Tricia Yearwood, Aaron Tippin, Blackhawk, Blake Shelton, Darryl Worley, Tracy Byrd, Phil Vassar, George Canyon and many more.
In 1999 a tragic fire totally destroyed the Skowhegan State Fair "Grandstand" and nearby "Constitution Hall" in the early morning hours. The fire started in the grand stand building and then spread to the constitution hall. Many stored vehicles were inside, such as RV campers, boats and automobiles; they were also destroyed in the blaze.
The Grandstand, built in 1935, replaced the previous grand stand that succumbed to fire in 1934. This structure was renovated in the early 1990’s. Constitution Hall had also been recently upgraded. Arson was the cause and a suspect turned himself in and then was charged shortly after the blaze was reported. The State Fire Marshal's Office was on the scene investigating.
Since the fire in March of 1999, new buildings have been built, beginning with the Grandstand and Constitution Hall in the summer of 1999; they were finished just in time for that years fair, thanks to the many generous donors of the “Fair Time ‘99” Fundraiser Program. Also in 1999 a new Horse Barn was built. In 2001 The Stable, also known as The Beer Garden, was set up in the Midway Hall after being destroyed in the 1999 fire. In 2001 the Flower Building was built, named the Donald Eames building in August of 2005 for his longtime dedication to the fair. In 2002 a new Race Paddock was built, named the Forrest "Bud" Stevens Memorial Paddock. In 2003 a camping area was added to the grounds, we are now able to accommodate 200 campers, plus many small tents. There are water, electric and some sewer sites available. In 2004 a second Horse Barn was built to replace the older barns.