By Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
Today a Fair evokes thoughts of carnival rides and the midway with cotton candy, giant corndogs, and other deep-fried delights cooked on a stick. In the late 1800s, the fair was an opportunity to share the fruits of your labor with your friends and neighbors. Everyone in the community knew who made the best fried chicken and if there was any doubt that Aunt Mamie’s cherry pie was the tastiest, you could get yourself a slice at the fair and find out for yourself.
The fair was an annual social ritual where community members gathered together to share food and entertainment and exchange knowledge about agriculture and homemaking as well goods and services. Traditionally the county fair is the largest agricultural activity of the year. It brings together citizens of all communities in the county to share knowledge and strive for excellence through competition.
Throughout the 20th century the fair became a representation of the agricultural enterprises of the county and the state. Today’s county fair inspires exhibitors to improve their skills and techniques through three major components: education, competition, and entertainment.
The Payne County Free Fair officially celebrates its centennial this year, but there were earlier fairs held in the community of Stillwater. According to the OSU Centennial History series, the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College had exhibits and maintained an information booth in 1897 at the Payne County Fair in Stillwater and at the Territorial Fair in Guthrie. Within a few years, more than sixty county fairs were being held each year, plus two state fairs, one at Oklahoma City, and the other at Muskogee. OAMC provided the principal source of judges for these fair exhibits along with other government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Very early in the history of fairs, OAMC provided its own exhibit hall near the center of the Oklahoma City fairgrounds. The hall housed college exhibits as well as educational demonstrations by faculty and students for fairgoers.
Another account of an early fair comes from Ward Hays, a lifelong resident of Stillwater, who remembers one fair from his boyhood, “In the fall of 1904 at the Payne County Fair, which was held on Stillwater Main Street in those days, the first car came to Stillwater to take people for rides during the fair. The car had high wheels like buggy wheels, a rather flimsy type of car. The car had two seats and would ride you around the block for a dime. The car was full from morning until night, that is, until it broke down on the second day.” Entertainments like carnivals were already starting to appear around this time as well. Ward continues his recollections, “Many street carnivals came to town with all kinds of rides and games. Men would go up in gas-filled balloons; women road the loop to loop enclosed in a large ball rolling down a long ramp.”
Later, the Payne County Fairgrounds moved south of town behind Washington School located on 12th Avenue across from today’s Southern Woods Park, before eventually being relocated to its current location on HWY 51 and Fairgrounds road east of Stillwater.
The rides and exhibits of the early 20th century fair were a far cry of today’s modern carnival, but the spirit of the fair remains the same when those earliest fairs were first held in Oklahoma Territory. The fair remains a community gathering inspiring excellence through education and competition.