When the first Richland County Fair was held, Zachary Taylor was President of the United States and baseball had been around for only 10 years. Agriculture as much different in the mid-19th century. Imagine if you will, no electric milking machines, no tractors and of course no computers to tell us when crops need to be planted. Today’s Richland County Fair is a seven-day event offering entertainment of all kinds, but the first fair was a one-day affair, held on October 26, 1849. This year’s Richland County Fair will be the 168th edition, which makes events like the Kentucky Derby (1874) or the Indianapolis 500 (1911) seem like relative newcomers. In fact, in 1849, there were only 30 states in the union and Ohio was part of the northwestern part of the nation, not the Midwest. The Richland County Fair has been at three different Mansfield sites during its long existence. The first location was at the corner of Bellville and Lexington roads. Those Roads have since changed names and are now known as South Main Street and Lexington Avenue. The fair was held at that location in 1865, when gate admission was only 10 cents. In 1869, the fair was held at a new site on Springmill Street just up from Harker Street. It remained at that location until 1957. By the way the Ohio State Fair has not always been held in Columbus. Mansfield held the event in both 1872 and 1873.
Harness racing was the reason for moving the state fair to Mansfield. The track at the Springmill Street fairgrounds was considered the best half-mile in the state at the time. Moving the state fair to Mansfield did not help the county fair, in fact, it hurt considerably. The agriculture society was forced to sell the grounds in 1875. However, the fair continued to be held at the Springmill site. A new society was formed on April 25, 1875, with S.B. Sturges elected as president. It was decided to drop the word “county” from the title and let the fair be known as “Richland Fair”. The fair had some rough financial times in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but remained in operation.
Since 1849, there has been only one year when there was not a fair in Richland County, and that came during one of the darkest periods of American history. The pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was destroyed in a surprise attack by Japanese on December 7, 1941 and suddenly the country was at war with Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy, President Franklin Roosevelt mandated and the citizens supported the appeal for all of the energy of the country to be devoted to the war effort. It was decided by the Ohio State Department of Agriculture not to send out any state exhibits to county fairs in the summer of 1942. Later that same year. there was more bad news for the fair board as the grandstand at the Springmill fairgrounds burned for the final time on November 29, 1942. In 1943, no senior fair was held, only a Junior Fair, which remained the case until 1954.
Shortly after the grandstand burned, talk began about moving the fair to a new location. The State Department of Agriculture told the county fair board if they wanted to again host a senior fair they should move to a better and larger location. Years of heated discussion followed, with at least one board member voting not to move. Finally, On August 30, 1955, the fair board voted to sell the Springmill property in order to purchase ground for a new fairgrounds. The first fair to be held on the current site on Home Road was in 1957. That decision ushered in what might be referred to as the modern age of the Richland County Fair.
There really wasn’t much to the fairgrounds that first year except tents. Only five building stood on the grounds: the Lantz Road, also the bank barn, a pole building a poultry building and a restroom facility. The restroom building was later converted into the senior fair entries office in 1984. The pole building, meanwhile has been used for a number of exhibits during fair time over the years. They include: youth, merchant, and agriculture displays. Currently, the building is used to house both diary and beef cattle. The poultry building has remained just that, a poultry building, since it was rebuilt in early 1957 after being moved from the Springmill Street site. The next year the current swine and sheep barn was constructed. This particular building has undergone a number of renovations in 40 years, including the building of a new show arena in 1984 and the inclusion of a cement door in 1989. The Youth Building-Cafeteria complex was built in 1961, originally used not for youth, but merchant displays. Since its construction, this building has been the main base of operation of the Fairhaven Auxiliary, which has operated its cafeteria here every year since 1961. They paid for the addition of restrooms in 1971 and an updated kitchen in 1994.
In 1964 the fair board put up seven new buildings at the cost of only $41,000.00. All of these buildings were used for animal exhibits. They are as follows: junior swine and sheep barns parallel to the existing senior swine and sheep facilities, senior and junior beef barns, a dairy barn plus barns for horses, ponies and goats. As we have already said, 40 years brings a lot of changes and these buildings are no different. Now pay attention, this may get confusing and there will be a quiz later…. The junior swine and sheep barn now houses our always curious buddies, the goats. The original senior beef barn hosts the Junior Fair activity program and was renovated to include public restrooms, a drooped ceiling, and air conditioning in 1994. It is named in honor of long time board member and 4-H leader John Hartz. The dairy building is now used to show off part of the large draft horse display, meanwhile the original goat barn now provides shelter for our furry friends, the rabbits. Senior sheep have now taken over the former junior beef barn. But that’s not bad news for the cattle, since a new steer barn was built in 1991. The horse and pony barns are the only ones to be used for the same purpose they were built for in the 60’s.