HARRISBURG – During the cold winter of 1917, about 5,000 people flocked to Harrisburg to see the latest in farm machinery at the first Pennsylvania Farm Show.
The three-day event, held in a three-story brick building at 10th and Market streets in Harrisburg, also offered 440 competitive exhibits. Admission was free, although many of the 5,000 visitors had to wait outside to get into the crowded building.
A century later, the Pennsylvania Farm Show has become bigger than life. Next Saturday, this eight-day show will open in a 24-acre complex at Cameron and Maclay streets in Harrisburg.
The show will feature more than 300 commercial exhibitors, 13,000 competitive exhibits, thousands of sheep, swine, cattle, horses, goats and more, entertainment ranging from square dancing to rodeos, baking contests and a popular Food Court offering tasty Pennsylvania food. Admission remains free.
The Farm Show, like Pennsylvania itself, has evolved over the years.
The country’s largest indoor agriculture event had simple roots. In 1916, state Agriculture Secretary Charles E. Patton and various farm association officials wanted an educational agricultural event. Farmers wanted a show where they could see the latest in farm machinery and show off some of their commodities.
The first Farm Show, called the “Pennsylvania Corn, Fruit, Vegetable, Dairy Producers and Wool Show” and held from Jan. 22-25, 1917, had 44 commercial exhibitors and 440 competitive exhibits such as corn, wool, apples, vegetables and dairy products.
That show was successful – one farm implement dealer credited that Farm Show with his making more than $100,000 in sales. The second Farm Show initially was canceled due to farm labor shortages because of World War I, then officials decided to hold the show after all.
Soon, the Farm Show outgrew the implement building and spread out to various Harrisburg schools, churches and other buildings. Livestock judging, added in 1922, took place at area farms. By 1925, the show had grown to four days and was held in 15 locations.
Three years later, after Gov. John Fisher visited all the sites of the Farm Show, he asked the state legislature for funds to build a permanent home for the Farm Show. Many communities wanted to host it—Altoona, Sunbury, Williamsport, Lemoyne and Middletown.
The state Farm Products Show Commission finally selected a 40-acre site the state owned at Cameron and Maclay Streets in Harrisburg. Over the years, that land had hosted the Dauphin County agricultural fairgrounds, bordered Pennsylvania’s Civil War training camp and served as a pasture for the nearby mental hospital’s dairy cows.
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Officials broke ground for the $1.4 million Farm Show Complex on Jan. 31, 1929, days after the stock market crash that began the Great Depression. The 10-acre complex opened in 1931 just in time for the Farm Show. Officials said that more than 255,000 people attended that show. The Large Arena was built in 1938 and open in time for the 1939 Farm Show.
By 1942, the United States had entered World War II. Shortly after the end of the 1942 Farm Show, the Farm Show Commission leased the Main Exhibition Building of the Farm Show Complex to the military – an arrangement that lasted until 1946.
During those years, the War Department first used the complex to train aircraft mechanics to repair military planes. In 1944, that training was completed. Then, the Army Air Corps turned the complex into an aircraft engine repair shop. Up to 2,300 people worked there on four assembly lines reconditioning engines from Army Air Corps planes at the nearby Olmsted Air Base in Mechanicsburg.
The Farm Show went back to its old ways during the war years and was held as farm organization meetings off-site. The “regular” Farm Show returned in 1947, to the delight of 545,000 visitors.
The next several decades were times of growth for the Farm Show with entertainment, food and increasing numbers of exhibits. The show was lengthened to five days, six days and finally eight days.
Square dancing, sheep-to-shawl, rodeos, carriage racing, baking contests and other events were added, quickly gaining in popularity. Butter sculptures and the Food Court both came to the Farm Show in 1991. The PA Preferred Culinary Connection brought in chefs from throughout the state and nation and hundreds of visitors attended these unique cooking lessons.
In 1993, the Pennsylvania Farm Show Scholarship Foundation began presenting scholarships to Farm Show exhibitors who are 4-H or FFA members. Those members sell their Farm Show junior market animals at the Sale of Champions, possibly the best attended Farm Show auction.
Over the years, the Farm Show Complex more than doubled in size from its original 10 acres. The Northeast Hall was added in 1990. Officials broke ground in 2001 for an $86.2 million expansion that added eight acres to the complex and modernized other parts of it.
Visitors were charged for parking – the initial cost of $1 a vehicle in 1975, which steadily increased until the most recent price hike to $15 a vehicle for the 2016 show.
As it did in 1917, the Farm Show at 100 continues to showcase the best in Pennsylvania agriculture. Long may it live!