The First County Fair in Elkhart County, Indiana
From: Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana
With Sketches and Stories
By: Henry S. K. Bartholomew
Press of the Goshen Printery
Goshen, Indiana 1930


ELKHART county's first fair was held in the court yard October 24 and 25, 1851. The Elkhart County Agricultural Society had been organized in the early part of the summer of that year with Judge Ebenezer M. Chamberlain as president, Charles L. Murray secretary and Nathan Smiley treasurer. It was under the auspices of this society that the fair was held.

The exhibits bore little resemblance to those which the people of the present generation are accustomed to see when they attend a fair either at home or elsewhere. There were plenty of horses, cattle, sheep and hogs, but not one single pure bred animal among them. The prize bull was a quarter blood Durham, unhitched from a breaking plow to be brought in and exhibited. The animal was the property of Philip Shettrin. The hogs were the old time elm peelers which have been described to us by our fathers and grandfathers and no doubt would have won premiums in the South where fleetness of foot is counted one of the highest qualities and where a hog is considered worthless if it cannot outrun a nigger. The sheep, too, were scrubs, not even as good as the old greasy merinos which were discarded in this county more than a generation ago. The horses were no better than the other stock and inferior to the plugs of today.

The only grains exhibited were wheat and corn. The varieties of wheat for which premiums were awarded were Polish, China and Soule, all of which ceased to be grown here long ago. There were apples. pears and peaches but no other fruits. The committee which passed upon the fruit, H. H. Fowler, Azel Sparklin and Michael Weybright, complimented the fruit growers very highly upon the variety and quality of the fruits exhibited. What would they have said could they have seen the displays of fruits which have been made at the fairs in recent years, or even forty years ago when George Milburn and D. N. Stutsman were the leading competitors for honors in horticulture? From that humble beginning over three-quarters of a century ago Elkhart county has developed into one of the leading counties in the state in the production of fine fruit. Elkhart county led the state in aggregate output.

The exhibit of manufactured articles was also very light. There were then no farming implements except such as were used by the pioneers. Grain was harvested with the cradle and grass mowed with the scythe. The reaper and the mower did not make their appearance until some years later, so there was nothing of that kind to be put on exhibition.

There was not a single dairy cow in the county at that time, and dairying as it is carried on now was not thought of. The fine herds of dairy cattle. Jerseys, Guernseys, Holsteins and others are the products of recent years. Occasionally there were to be seen a few Jerseys fifty years ago, but at the time this fair was held and for years afterward they had not been thought of.

In the list of exhibitors were the names of many of the leading farmers of that day - men who were well known all over the county as the most enterprising of its citizens, but nearly all of them are now forgotten. Those individuals who have had enough interest in pioneer history to delve into the old records and the old newspaper files will recognize them, but very few others will. Those names ought not to be permitted to pass wholly into oblivion, for they were the men who made the beginning of this excellent county and are entitled to a place in our memories and our affections- Here are some of those that were the best known. Irvin Vincent, George P. Rowell, Ozias Stotts, Samuel H. Weyburn, Elias Purl, Lewis Hoops, Isaac Abshire, Azel Sparklin, Dr. M. M. Latta, Peter Fetters, James Caton, William Vesey, John W. Violett, Henry G. Davis, Thomas Miller, Abner Blue and B. F. Cathcart.

The committee in charge, of exhibits consisted of Robert Lowry, Abner Blue, Thomas G. Harris, Samuel H. Weyburn and David B. Mather. The judges for part of the exhibits were Cephas Dunning, Christian Schrock and Michael Weybright.

Besides the exhibits there were several addresses by prominent Men. The president of the agricultural society, Judge Ebenezer M. Chamberlain, delivered an excellent address, telling something about the agriculture of Elkhart county at that day and offering suggestions as to how to make the county fairs helpful to the farmers of the county. The principal address was delivered by Hon. Joseph R. Williams of Michigan, discussing agriculture in many of its phases and urging the farmers to study both the science and art of agriculture in order that they might equip themselves better for their work. Even at that early day the leading thinkers were beginning to realize that farming is not merely a muscular occupation, and that to win the most substantial success the farmer must study and think as well as work. Dr. M. M. Latta, a prominent member of the society and a tireless worker in its interest, also delivered an address telling something about the purposes and work of those who constituted its membership and offered suggestions as to how the fairs might be made most helpful to the farmers. Dr. E. W. H. Ellis, a prominent citizen of the county, then serving as auditor of state and residing at Indianapolis, had been invited to address the people at the fair, but was unable to be present. He wrote a letter describing the hardships and difficulties under which the pioneers labored and traced the progress of agriculture in Elkhart county from its settlement up to that time. The fair, therefore, partook somewhat of the nature of a farmers' institute and was very helpful to those who saw the exhibits and heard the addresses. The letter of Dr. Ellis and the addresses of Judge Chamberlain and Mr. Williams were published in the first report of the Indiana State Board of Agriculture and constitute a valuable survey of Elkhart county agriculture at that time. The secretary of the society, Charles L. Murray, made an -extensive report of its activities which was also published in the same volume.

The fairs continued to be held annually thereafter, with the exception of the four years of the civil war, until 1894, when the society became embarrassed financially and disbanded. That they were the means of bringing about great improvements in farming from year to year can not be questioned.

One of the results of this first fair was the introduction of an improved breed of cattle into the county almost immediately afterward. That came about in this way. The board of county commissioners consisting of John D. Elsea, D. Schrock and Alonzo Gilbert, with P. M. Henkel, county auditor, as its clerk, was in session at the time the fair was held. The board adjourned for several hours to look over the exhibits. When they went back to the court house Mr. Henkel suggested to Mr. Elsea that he go south and procure some purebred cattle and make a beginning toward improving the stock of the county. Mr. Elsea was one of the leading farmers of Benton township at that time and took very readily to the suggestion. He went to Wayne county and bought of Gen. Sol Meredith a heifer and a bull of the Shorthorn breed. The next year he exhibited them at the fair and they attracted a great deal of attention. These were the first purebred cattle ever brought into Elkhart county. Mr. Elsea kept them for a number of years, grading up his common stock and raising some purebred animals each year until he was able to dispose of his grade animals and keep an entire herd of purebreds. Some of his most enterprising neighbors began to follow his example and improved their herds from year to year. The blood of the first sire, York, which he placed at the head of his herd helped to improve many of the herds in this community and there is little doubt that some of that blood is still to be found in Shorthorn herds in Elkhart county to this day.

Note - The present fair association dates from 1908. Concerning the recent fairs nothing need be said as most of the people of the county know about them. The fair in this centennial year was one of the greatest if not the greatest ever held in Elkhart county.

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