There are maybe three states in the country without a state fair to call their own. Somehow Pennsylvania, land of “America’s First Fair,” is one of them.
Or is it?
While internet searches only confirm our spot in the outlier’s club with Connecticut and Rhode Island, state officials told PA Local that Pennsylvania actually does have a state fair and has for 106 years.
It’s the Pennsylvania Farm Show, they offered, an annual event that’s held indoors in January.
Naturally, this inspired some quibbling. But Merriam-Webster’s definition of “fair” says nothing about summertime or the outdoors or the Tiger King aesthetics, graying hair metal bands, and throwing-star vendors I have come to associate with my cherished county circuit.
What’s more, the state’s Department of Agriculture registered the phrase “Pennsylvania State Fair” in 2018 as both a fictitious name and trademark, bringing the claim one step closer to being at least quasi-official.
“The department’s discussions are not to change the name of the PA Farm Show but to provide the PA Farm Show the opportunity to be branded as Pennsylvania’s state fair,” a spokesperson clarified by email.
Pennsylvania has 108 county and municipal fairs left. Eleven have gone the way of the dinosaur: The Allegheny County Fair, Pike County Fair, and Philadelphia County Fair are among them.
Those that remain also recognize the power of branding.
In 2019, York’s fair, billed as the oldest in the nation, changed its name to “York State Fair,” prompting some pushback from semantical hardliners, like myself.
“We get the occasional comment that ‘York is not a state,’” Marketing and Communications Director Montgomery Stambaugh told PA Local.
Before the name change, Stambaugh said fair officials did some research and found more than 60 counterparts across the country with “state” in their name. Of them, only half, give or take, were completely funded or operated by a state government or state agency.
(For what it’s worth, Pennsylvania fairs received roughly $3.5 million in state support last year.)
There were also a handful of similar city-state combos: Bangor State Fair and Greater Baton Rouge State Fair, for example.
It’s unclear how or if the “state” distinction impacts attendance or the kinds of performers and events a fair is able to attract. (The latter is a pay-to-play enterprise, so to speak, and York moved its fair up by two months when it changed its name, adding another variable.)
It is clear, however, that there are few rules around name changes like it.
“We were informed that we could call our fair whatever name we liked as long as we did not claim to be the Pennsylvania State Fair,” Stambaugh added. “There was no real process, and it literally took a couple of hours at the most to complete the phone or email conversations.”
So, what do you think? Is the Pennsylvania Farm Show a fair or a wintertime expo? What makes a fair a fair? What’s your favorite county fair in Pennsylvania? Which ones will you hit this summer? Tell us here.
—Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA