Never in the history of the town were so many cars parked on its main streets.

The crowd of visitors that Thursday, Sept. 27, 1917, had easily outnumbered borough residents on the “big day” of the annual Carlisle Fair.

A century ago, The Evening Sentinel estimated the number of attendees at between 16,000 and 20,000, but noted how the throng was orderly with not a single arrest during the peak hours.

“It was a case of people, people, people on (the) grounds, in the buildings, around the racetrack, on the grand stand, in the side shows, (the) eating tents, standing in the midway, everywhere people,” the newspaper reported.

A brisk trade

They had arrived not only in cars, but also by train, trolley and scores of buggies that lined the thoroughfares like the olden days. The demand for transportation was so immense the Cumberland Valley Railroad had to run a special train eastward through the Cumberland Valley that arrived in Carlisle shortly after 9 a.m.

“The regular trains were packed and the trolley cars jammed,” The Sentinel reported. “Cars with motors were parked on the Square and in any convenient spot where they wouldn’t interfere with traffic. It was a big day for the traffic officers who earned all they will receive in wages.”

With the immense crowd came such a brisk trade in food and lodging that some restaurant keepers and hotel men in town had to turn people away. Fruit stands, candy stores, ice cream parlors and soda fountains were hard hit.

Small miracles of supply and demand were at work at the fair. “The McAlister church tent trade was excellent, and there was hardly sufficient food and ice cream on the grounds for the multitudes,” The Sentinel reported.

Free admission that day was a big driver of attendance, along with the popular races. The newspaper proclaimed in its opening day coverage that fast race horses were the big attraction of the 1917 fair.

Among the featured horses was “Hawthorne” who was picked as a favorite in the Kentucky Derby and sold a few years before for $30,000 – the equivalent of about $630,000 in today’s money.

“Brown Baby” owned by L. Brown of Mt. Clair, New Jersey, came to Carlisle after winning races in Cuba, Canada and the eastern circuit. “Monna Johnson” had recently left Hanover with first honors, while “Big Lumax” had bright prospects for a strong showing at the track.

‘The busiest spot’

Along with horses, the fair featured many fine grange exhibits such as one done by Newton area farmers. This elaborate display included four American flags made out of corn and popcorn along with a sign made of sunflower seeds that read “The world must be fed, and we are the storehouse.”

There were other noteworthy exhibits. William A. Jordan was employed at Dickinson College. He had on display a house on wheels that was available for rent and handy for hunting or camping. There was no mention of how large it was or how many people it could accommodate.

Fair coverage in the newspaper started on Monday, Sept. 24 and continued daily until the end. The first day story focused on set-up at the fairgrounds – “the busiest spot in Cumberland County.” The Sentinel played it up big with a sensory overload in the form of a run-on sentence:

“Horses, cattle, dogs, pigs, sheep, chicken, geese, ducks and other enthusiastic braying, bawling, bleating animals, yelping yodeling of busy men and boisterous boys makes one’s blood tingle with the joy of living and again facing all the excitement the Carlisle Fair always bring to life.”

Aside from food, livestock and the races, the 1917 fair had the usual Ferris wheel and Merry Go-Round, along with exhibits of the newest farm machinery, engines and automobiles.

Fair on the move

Early records stored in the archives of the Cumberland County Historical Society trace the origins of the Carlisle Fair to an announcement that appeared in the Carlisle Herald newspaper on April 18, 1806. The fair was held on May 13 of that year and went for two days “for the sale of horses, cows, sheep and swine, cheap goods and merchandise.”

The record assumes the clerk of the local farmers market managed the fair until 1820 when the Cumberland County Agricultural Society was organized. The society was formalized in 1844 under the leadership of Frederick Watts, a Carlisle area judge, attorney and gentleman farmer who was instrumental in establishing the Farmers High School in Centre County or what would later become Penn State University.

In 1857, the society purchased nine acres from Robert Noble on the road leading to Sterretts Gap. Six more acres were added in 1869 along with a half-mile racetrack. The 1917 fair was located on this land.

Two years later, the 16 acres were sold to C.H. Masland & Sons, which built a factory on the site. This displaced the fair, which was then held at Mount Holly Springs from 1927 to 1937 and then at Williams Grove from 1938 to 1941.

There were no fair activities during World War II. From 1945 to 1981, the Carlisle Fair was held on the present-day fairgrounds now used by Carlisle Events to host its annual car shows.

Eventually the New Carlisle Fair Association selected the Newville Fairgrounds as the site for the renamed Cumberland Ag Expo, which is held annually in August.

Email Joseph Cress at


News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.

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