History of the Reading Fair

2013-01-07
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When Reading was first laid out for a town in 1748 a tract of 83 acres was reserved at the eastern end on the slope of Mt. Penn for a "free and public commons." It remained an open commons until the Berks County Agricultural Society obtained a lease and fenced in the greater portion of it. For years the County claimed ownership, and in that time sold the portion North of Walnut Street upon which private dwellings and the Reading Intermediate High School are now located.

The Berks County Agricultural Society, which was organized January 13, 1852, held its first Fair on the "commons" in October, 1854. The site consisted of a circular coursing ring 600 feet in circumference, housing for the horses and cattle to be placed on exhibition, a small building for poultry, and a 120 by 44 foot building, named Horticulture Hall, divided into aisles by rows of tables on which the smaller exhibits could be placed.

Fairgrounds - Penn's Commons
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During the Civil War from 1862 until 1864 the Fairgrounds were taken and held by the United States government for a camp and military hospital. The main exhibition building was used as the hospital.

On October 2, 1865, the Fair was again opened for a three day exposition, the grounds being somewhat extended by moving the northern boundary from Washington to Walnut Street. The following year (1866) the race track was enlarged to a half-mile in circumference, and the grounds extended southward, in order to provide space for side shows and other amusements. In 1872 a grandstand, large enough to accommodate 500 people, was added to the track, and another large building, Machinery Hall, was provided to house farm equipment. In 1873 refreshment stands were installed at various locations in the grounds.

In 1887 the last Fair took place at the Commons. Legal controversy as to who held jurisdiction over the Commons, the County or the City forced the Agricultural Society to seek another location which it would buy.

Immediately after the 1887 Fair, the Agricultural Society opened negotiations for a piece of land, twenty-five and a third acres in area, owned by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and situated just outside the limits of the City at the end of North Eleventh Street. The selection of this spot was for two reasons: there was a railroad spur and siding extending to Stocker's Brewery, which was situated just across the street from the site; and the announcement by those who were operating the street railway system of Reading that these lines would be extended at least as far as Exeter Street, about four blocks from the proposed grounds; both of which could furnish needed transportation facilities for the fair.

Fairgrounds - 11th Street
On the right are the exhibition buildings, fairgrounds hotel,
and racetrack. On the opposite side of North 11th is the Stocker Brewery.
~Click Image to Enlarge~

The 1888 fair was omitted while the Agricultural Society and Philadelphia and Reading Railroad negotiated the acquisition of the land and while the construction of a race track and a hotel building could be carried on.

From the very beginning, the Fair on its new site seemed to be a bad choice. For two years, rain flooded the lower areas of the grounds, especially in the space between the main gate and the exhibition buildings. In 1890, a wind storm of cyclonic force hit the grounds, partially destroying the ornamental main gate, damaging the hotel building, and tearing down a number of trees in the grove near the entrance. In 1894 a fire destroyed all the stables built to house race horses.

Transportation to the new site also proved difficult because of the railroads lack of adequate transportation to the new site.

Accidents poised another problem at the new site. In 1891, a small building beside the Judges' stand inside the track collapsed through the weight of men and boys who had climbed upon it to better see the races. A few years later several accidents injured visitors who ran out on the track while races were taking place.

As equipment deteriorated and was not replaced, and with transportation a real problem, the fair became more and more unpopular. It became such a minor event that it passed almost unnoticed.

Damages sustained from the elements, the fear of possible injury to visitors because of deteriorating facilities, and a certain amount of disinterest resulted in deficits from 1906-1912. The increasing, or at least static, amount of indebtedness finally brought about a foreclosure of the mortgage, and the property passed into other hands after the 1913 Fair.

In spite of this turn of events, the Agricultural Society retained its interest in the annual Fair and proceeded to plan for the next one. Since this would be only a stop-gap until other plans, already in the thinking stage, matured, and since the facilities were still in position, the old Fairground was rented for $2,000; an additional expenditure of $500 was made for necessary repairs. The 1914 Fair was the last to be held on North Eleventh Street.

In February, 1915, plans were begun to secure a new site for future Fairs. One such place was in the vicinity of Wyomissing, another plan, more popular at the moment, was to take over Carsonia Amusement Park, complete with the latest in thrill rides and owned and operated by the Reading Street Railway Company. Finally this too was rejected.

The choice finally centered on two adjoining tracts of land in Muhlenberg Township, which seemed ideal since it was served by two railroads (the Reading and the Pennsylvania), a branch of the Reading Street Railway Company's lines, and two main highways, the Pottsville and the Allentown Pikes. On April 20, 1915, the two tracts, totaling 54 acres, had been purchased for $20,750. Several subsequent purchases increased the area to approximately 78 acres.

Fairgrounds - Muhlenberg Township
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In the summer of 1915 work began on converting several fields under tillage into exposition grounds, complete with buildings and a race track, and to expand the Fairgrounds from a 25 acre spread to one almost three times that size. Planning necessitated the visualizing of a proposed building site in terms of the possibility of expansion rather than of removal and rebuilding. All of it had to be done within five months calendar time (the fair was postponed to late October in order to provide an extra month for construction). The completed Fairgrounds consisted of exhibition buildings, a racetrack with a grandstand and amusement rides.

Fairgrounds - 1915 Grandstand
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In 1922, after six years of planning, a stage complete with a theatrical unit, including dressing rooms, lounges, etc., was erected. In 1947 a building designed for roller skating was added to the facilities.

One big contribution to the fair's success was the accessibility of transportation accommodations. There was a continuous shuttle service of trains from both Franklin Street and the Outer Station on the Reading railway, which also arranged excursions at reduced rates from places within the area bounded by Sunbury, Easton, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg.

When gasoline took the place of the railroad, the Reading Transit Company brought in fleets of buses from other cities. Ample parking spaces were also provided for motorists.

Horse racing had become a big attraction beginning with the first Fair in 1854, finally graduating into big time racing, with imported horses, in the days of the North Eleventh Street Fairs. When the series of Fairs was in the making at the Muhlenberg site, racing had become so popular that one of the first items of business was the location and building of a track. When the gates opened in 1916, there was not only a track, but a card of races extending over three days. The interest in racing grew so rapidly, both with the visitors and with the racing stables, that by 1935, in an attempt to accommodate the crowds and also the large entrance lists, the program was extended over four days, and the next year, to five.

A great variety of amusements to appeal to the taste of everyone who came through the gate was provided. From the beginnings of the Fair in City Park, the Fair included imported amusements of a carnival nature, including rides of various kinds, as well as those especially gifted in or trained for some, extraordinary activity, and animals.

The first auto racing stunts as a part of the Fair were presented in 1924.

Fairgrounds - Auto Stunt
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In 1932 a seven-horse pileup killed race jockey Roy McCann of Elizabeth, NJ.

Frank Sinatra performed at the Fair in 1950. Over the years other performers included Ray Charles and Pat Boone.

In 1978, the last fair was held on the Muhlenberg site because the Fairgrounds was sold to developers of the Fairgrounds Square Mall. The last full season of racing was held at the fairgrounds in 1978. The last race of the season was marred by a fiery crash that seriously injured driver Michael Grbac of New Brunswick, N.J. A month after the crash, he died of his injuries. He was one of several drivers killed at the Fairgrounds over the years.

In 1979 a limited racing series was held at the Fairgrounds as legal entanglements delayed development of the mall.

Between 1980 and 1994 the Fair was held at the Fairgrounds Square Mall and on the surrounding property. With the mall becoming too crowded, the Fair moved to Kutztown while Fair organizers searched for a new site.

In 1999 construction began at the present-day Fairgrounds on 60 acres in Bern Township off County Welfare Road.

 




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