Editor’s Note – This is the fourth in a series of articles and presentations by the Highland County Historical Society on the history of agriculture in Highland County.
The Highland County Fair has a rich and interesting history. The Highland County Agricultural Society was organized on Oct. 3, 1845 as recorded in “Ohio Cultivator.” The society was then organized under state law in September 1848 and the first fair was held at Leesburg on Oct. 19-20, 1849. However, the original society disbanded in 1897.
Prior to the 1930s, several fairs were held in Highland County. Earlier fairs had been held in Rainsboro, Greenfield, Hillsboro, and in the southern part of the county at Roberts Park. In the ’30s, there was an effort to revive the county fair. In 1937, the Highland County Agricultural Society held a fair in Greenfield and again in 1938 at Roberts Park, located on the eventual site of a state roadside park on U.S. Route 62 south. In 1939, the fair was held on the streets of Hillsboro; however, the fair effort was put on hold during World War II. After the war, a group of concerned citizens formed the “Grounds Committee for Fairgrounds Campaign” and in 1946 they formed the Highland County Agricultural Society. Society memberships were provided to anyone contributing $1 or more and the society mailed membership cards that year to an impressive 1,067 members.
A permanent site was badly needed for the growth of the fair. A 20-acre fairground in Hillsboro was owned by local businessman Birch Riber. It was rough and covered by trees and had a few old buildings and part of a grandstand. As the grounds had not been used during the Depression and World War II, Riber offered the use of these grounds temporarily to restart the fair. In 1946, Riber deeded the grounds to the county commissioners with the understanding that the land would be used for an agricultural fair and that the management and supervision of the grounds be vested in the fair board directors.
The first fair was held in September 1947 and all exhibits were under tents. Through 1947 and 1948 there was much discussion and effort made by the society to buy a parcel of land for a permanent fair site. They eventually purchased the 20 acres for $3,000 and it became the present Highland County Fairgrounds site. Much landscaping, tree removal, and building demolition was done and the land was then ready for new buildings. In 1949, The Ohio National Guard approached the society with a proposal to build a 52-foot by 128-foot concrete block building for equipment storage. The building was be used by the society during fair week and is still in use today.
In 1954, the first Beef Bar-B-Que was held to establish a permanent fairgrounds building fund. In 1955, a new 78-foot by 144-foot dairy barn was built and a secretary’s office was completed. The next year new swine and sheep barns were built. In 1957, the Highland County Grange finished a block building to house its meetings and it included the fair’s first kitchen. The 4-H clubs constructed a concrete building next to the Grange Building and added a lobby connecting the two facilities. A Grange Hall and restrooms were added by the Grange and the hall is still being used for exhibits. Area merchants supported and financed the first Merchant’s Building, and the 56-foot by 128-foot building was completed in 1958. Later, a similar building was built on the north side of the grounds to house arts and crafts and the flower displays, and space at the fairgrounds was soon being rented for events and offseason storage to help raise funds.
In 1959, the Hillsboro Rotary Club built a ticket office at the front gate. Rotary has manned the ticket gates since 1947 and continues to do so today. The county farm implement dealers erected an entertainment pavilion to accommodate singing groups, the queen contest, and demonstrations. Dairy and beef wash racks were erected in 1959 and in 1960 a new horse barn was added.
In the 1960s the fair board purchased additional land to expand the fairgrounds, and there was an effort to change the date of the fair from September to August. The week of Labor Day remained and continues to the present time. Students in Hillsboro and Highland County have often been excused from school to show, display, and attend the fair.
“This unique situation reflects the strong commitment to a vibrant Junior Fair,” said Dave Stratton, longtime board member and supporter of the fair. “The Junior Fair provides opportunity for youth to learn and participate in numerous educational and social activities. Hundreds of youth and their families are involved each year and the Highland County Fair is widely known for its quality Junior Fair program. Youth from various school and community organizations are able to exhibit projects in dozens of project areas.”
In 1962, a new show ring was added and it continues to be a focal point for many shows, sales, and events during the fair. The Trail Blazers horse club built a new building and horse show arena. That building served as a meeting room as well as a place to serve food during the fair. In 1963, a set of restrooms with running water was constructed.
The Hillsboro First Methodist Church constructed a permanent food booth in 1966 that was used by numerous groups over the years for serving food before it was eventually razed. In 1968, a second swine barn was added. In 1976, the second clear span metal building was erected to house Junior Fair exhibits. A second beef barn was also added since participation in the beef show was growing so rapidly. In the 1970s, the fair board moved a small house onto the grounds to house the secretary’s office. The old office was turned over to WSRW radio as a broadcasting center until a new broadcast barn was erected for WSRW in the 1980s where the station started daily live broadcasts from the fair.
In the 1980s, the Highland County Dairy Goat Club built a new barn to house the growing goat exhibits. The W.G. Wharton Building was also constructed to house various exhibits. Wharton served the fair as secretary for 30 years and also as president of the Ohio Fair Managers’ Association.
The 1990s saw new restrooms and new chain link fence surrounded the grounds.
“The fence solved so many problems at the fairgrounds, including the drastic reduction of vandalism on the grounds,” said Stratton. “Before the fence was installed it seemed like we were replacing broken lighting every year.”
A 64-foot by 104-foot multipurpose building was added to provide space for livestock shows and entertainment. The old entertainment pavilion was remodeled by the local garden club and it was then used as a floral hall. As the poultry and rabbit shows grew rapidly in recent years a new barn was constructed for those species. This facility is used extensively throughout the year. One of the most recent buildings constructed was the Junior Fair and Sales Committee complex. The lower floor houses the Junior Fair office and the second floor houses the official Sales Committee facilities. Both of these groups provide invaluable service to the fair and its many participants.
“The fair has changed as agriculture has changed, with much more emphasis on small animals and Junior Fair participation by non-farm youth,” said Stratton. Kathy DeRose, fair board secretary, and Stratton both agreed that one future goal is to realize a Highland County Agricultural Museum.
“I have had several discussions with fellow historical society trustees about the possibility of a museum for our agricultural and manufacturing history in Hillsboro and Highland County,” said John Kellis, HCHS trustee.” Maybe we can work together with groups such as the Fair Board to make that a reality someday.”
When asked what the current priorities at the fairgrounds are, Stratton commented on the expansion and improvement of the extensive camping sites at the fairgrounds.
The fairgrounds facilities are used throughout the year by schools, church groups, rodeos, tractor pulls, flea markets, horse and other livestock shows, fundraisers, and many others. The fairgrounds has grown from its original 20 acres to more than 100 acres today. The attendance now averages between 40,000 and 50,000 gate admissions each year and the annual budget often exceeds $500,000. The Highland County Fair is truly a countywide event that impacts the entire population as well as the local economy.
Information for this story was compiled from various sources, but most of it was found in a book provided by the Ohio Fair Managers’ Association entitled “The History of Ohio Fairs.” Much of the local history was compiled by Mary Wharton, Laverne Holbrook and Dave Stratton. Current fair board secretary Kathy DeRose also provided some of the recent statistical data.
Jim Faust is a member of the Highland County Historical Society and its Focus on Ag Committee. He can be reached at 937-288-2235 or Pjames.firstname.lastname@example.org.