It's State Fair Time!

"Well, reader, here we are at Indianapolis to witness one of the most interesting exhibitions ever made in the State." These words, from Monroe County Delegate Lewis Bollman's report to readers of the Indiana Farmer in November 1852,
concluded his enthusiastic description of the horses, cattle, swine, vegetables, fruits, flowers, crafts, arts, and inventions on display at the first Indiana State Fair. Over a century and a half later, these agricultural and manufacturing displays remain at the heart of the nation's sixth oldest state fair.

Incorporated by the Indiana General Assembly in 1851 for the "encouragement of agriculture," the Indiana State Board of Agriculture organized the first Indiana State Fair at Indianapolis in the fall of 1852. Held on the present-day site of Military Park, the fair featured 1,365 entries, attracted thousands of visitors to the city, and was a financial success. In an effort to spread the wealth, the fair moved to Lafayette the following year. Unfortunately, it was not a financial success; neither were the majority of the other state fairs held outside of Indianapolis, including Madison (1854), New Albany (1859), and Fort Wayne (1865). The 1867 fair at Terre Haute was the last state fair held outside of Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis fair remained at Military Park until 1860, when the Board purchased Otis Grove, a 36 acre site located north of the city. Soon to be known as Camp Morton, this site served as a fairgrounds only once before the Civil War required its use as a recruiting camp and later as a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. The state fair returned to its previous site in Military Park for the duration of the war.
After the Civil War the fair moved back to Camp Morton, where it grew eventually to cover 56 acres. A two-story brick Exposition Building was constructed in 1872.

The number of fair-goers and exhibitors continued to increase and in 1891 the Board purchased 86 acres and leased an additional 134 acres at the Indiana State Fair's present location at East 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway. A new fairgrounds, including a 6000 seat grandstand, a one mile race track, and buildings for the women's, horticulture, and agriculture departments were soon erected.The new fairgrounds officially opened on September 19, 1892.

Over the years the State Fair added many innovations, including automobile shows, hot-air balloon races, and appearances by popular entertainers and musical groups. Another feature was the Better Baby
Contest, begun in 1920 to promote improved health care for children. The fairgrounds underwent another major wave of expansion in the 1920s when the architectural firm of J. Edwin Kopf and Deery planned the present day Exposition Hall, Home and Family Arts and Agriculture-Horticulture Buildings, and the Horse, Cattle, and Swine Barns. The current Coliseum was built in 1939 by the WPA.

A legislative act of 1921 concerning the State Board of Agriculture gave the state title to the fairgrounds property. Numerous acts over the next two decades attempted to clarify the relationship between the board and the state. In 1947 the Indiana General Assembly created a new State Fair Board. In turn, this board was abolished in 1990 and a new Indiana State Fair Commission and a new fair board created to operate the fairgrounds and the annual fair. An ambitious program of improvements to physical facilities and year-round use of space has been inaugurated.

The State Fair Collection

In 1990 State Fair officials began a systematic transfer of historic records to the Indiana State Archives for preservation. The indispensable introduction to the history of the fair is the annual reports of the State Board of Agriculture (1852-1907). The minutes of the board from 1851 to 1924 and the historic research files kept by fair staff are also useful. The Archives has a rich collection of printed literature from the fair, including most of the premium lists dating back to 1870, and thousands of programs. Publicity materials and lists of results and awards are available for the period after 1952. Among the State Fair artifacts are hundreds of colorful ribbons awarded to premium winners. Architectural drawings for fair buildings have been carefully rolled on acid-free tubes and boxed.

The heart of the Archives' State Fair collection is the approximately 50,000 photographs amassed by the fair. These include the special photographic albums commissioned annually (1927-1948) from well-known photographers
like John C. Allen, George Aker, and the Bass Company. Still prints and slides document the more recent years, including the Beatles two appearances at the State Fair in 1964. A searchable database to State Fair photos permits searches by subject and date.

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