The nation’s oldest fair: 196th annual event set for July at Coffeen Street grounds

An aerial view of the Jefferson County Fair, ca. 1950s, at the present-day Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds on Coffeen Street, Watertown. Photo from Watertown Daily Times Archives

After the long, grueling north country winters there are few Northern New Yorkers who don’t look forward to summer. Warmer months bring barbecues, days on the river and, perhaps, the most famous harbinger of summer: the Jefferson County Fair. Lauded as the longest continually operating fair in the country, the fairgrounds along Coffeen Street in Watertown is transformed each July into a teeming gathering of people, young and old, who come to enjoy food, rides, crafts, exhibits and farm animals.

Many local fairs are, or were at some point, connected with an agricultural society. Agricultural societies were initially developed in Europe during the Enlightenment, a period during the 18th century of intense scientific discovery and intellectual growth in the Western world. The expressed common goal of agricultural societies was the promotion and development of agricultural techniques. With the scientific spirit of the age, early society members conducted experiments in soil rejuvenation, crop rotation and breeding, animal husbandry and the study of weather patterns. The results of these experiments were then disseminated among local farmers in the hopes of improving farming techniques, technology and crop yields. As a forerunner to the agricultural fair, early agricultural societies offered premiums for new research on field topics, such as innovative methods for eradicating pests that threatened crops.

By the late 1700s, the agricultural society concept had already been imported to North America and was quickly adopted. Because of its local nature, it is difficult to determine when the first agricultural society was established in North America. One of the earliest, however, was the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, founded in 1792.

The first settlements in Jefferson County began to appear just before 1800. In 1808, $80 (approximately $1,000 in today’s currency) was offered for the best quality woolen cloth produced in Jefferson County. The premium was funded by the county in an attempt to encourage agricultural production as well as the settlement of more farmers in the area. Less than 10 years later, in 1817, the Jefferson County Agricultural Society was formed. It was only the second agricultural society formed in the state; the first was the Otsego Agricultural Society located in the Southern Tier. Membership in the JCAS could be obtained for $1 per year and was held by some of Jefferson County’s most well-known citizens, including James LeRay de Chaumont, Jacob Brown, Egbert TenEyck, Hart Massey, Noadiah Hubbard and Roswell Woodruff. Former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both southern plantation owners and agriculturalists, also were members. The presidents were awarded membership to the JCAS by its members in recognition of their support and passion for American agriculture.

A year after the JCAS was formed in 1817, the first Jefferson County Fair was held. As dependable roads were mostly non-existent and the trip into Watertown could be long and arduous, a traveling viewing committee was formed. This group of five men visited nine towns in the county in order to examine entries and award prizes in a number of categories. All manner of livestock, domestic and farm products and even entire farms themselves were included in the judging. Prizes took the form of engraved cups, goblets and spoons.

The first fair was a modest affair, lasting only two days in September 1818. The first day was reserved for the exhibition of prize-winning livestock and domestic goods. The second day featured a plowing match between teams of horses and oxen and a subsequent parade. The fair of 1818 came to be known as the Jefferson County Fair and was held annually thereafter.

In August 1851, the executive board of the JCAS resolved to purchase 10 acres of land on the Brownville Road, known today as Coffeen Street. The area was fenced and a building was built to house fair exhibitions.

This lot has been home to the Jefferson County Fair since.

Lenka P. Walldroff is former curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She is a former museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She lives in Jefferson County with her husband and daughter. Her column appears in every issue.