In 1809, Woodstock, Brooklyn and Pomfret founded the Pomfret United Agricultural Society, the first in Connecticut. The name was changed to Windham County Agricultural Society in 1820 and fairs were held every other year in Pomfret and Woodstock. The Fair when it was held in Woodstock held the cattle exhibition on the site of Elmwood Hall, the present site of the Library, and handwork was displayed in the Academy Building. Esquire McClellan "took the first premium for plowing as he plowed the fastest". The Fair took place in Pomfret on the land near where the Vanilla Bean is presently located referred to as Overlock's Four Corners. It later moved to Brooklyn, reorganized in 1852 and continues as we know it today as the Brooklyn Fair. There has been a longtime controversy about the Brooklyn Fair being the oldest. Because they continued to operate as the Windham County Agricultural Society they can make that claim.
So it was decided in 1858 to organize an agricultural society in Woodstock and to hold an exhibition. A constitution was drawn up and adopted setting rules and regulations regarding organization, meeting dates, fees, etc. There were 211 people who became members of the society in 1859 for the cost of fifty cents annually. Anyone desiring to become a life member could do so by paying five dollars. Many of those original members have descendents who are actively involved in the Fair today. The first meetings were lectures on fruit and fruit culture which was just becoming an exact science. The meeting reports that all present resolved to plant more trees.
The first exhibition was held in 1859. Fruits, flowers and manufactured goods were exhibited in the vestry of the South Woodstock Baptist Church. There was a ten cent admission fee. Cattle were in pens on the common near the church and trotting and carriage horses were on exhibit under the McClellan Elms. It was recollected by Colonel Alexander Warner who was appointed Marshall that first year that the pens for the livestock were made of rails and slabs tied together with old discarded telegraph wire. Everyone was climbing to the top of the pens to see the cattle and began to stir them up with whatever they had in hand, be it a cane, umbrella or whip. You can imagine what happened as a result of this agitation of these hungry, tired animals. Two bulls charged the barricade and carried the pens that enclosed them along with the people on them. Excited spectators, men, women and children were all mixed up with cattle, horses, sheep and swine. Despite this episode the Fair was declared a success.
The Fair was held from 1860 to 1871 in Daniel Warner's Hall located near the old South School now the Legion Hall, or in Fenner's Hall by the bridge over Saw Mill Brook. That building is the present Masonic Hall which was moved by a team of horses to its present location. The cattle continued to be shown on the Common. In 1867, a committee of three was appointed to find a suitable permanent place to hold the Fair.
The Fair was held for one day in the middle of the last week in September. There were premiums awarded for draft horses, geldings, fillies and walking horses. There was competition in plowing by teams of cattle. Price of admission went up to fifteen cents and no one was allowed to enter the fair on the same ticket more than once unless he was a member.
In 1870, the present site was purchased. Alden Southworth offered land for $100 per acre and a lot was available from Thomas Warner for $1,500 for ten acres and $100 for each acre in addition to that. The privilege of using a road two rods wide from the main road was included. The lots were surveyed and noted that 16 acres would be required for the desired half mile race track. The lots were fenced as soon as a bond was procured. Loans of $100 or more were solicited from the members to pay for the land. Fifty sturdy pens for cattle were built of chestnut posts 6x6 inches, 6 feet long.
The price of admission was raised in 1870 to 25 cents for adults, 10 centers for children under ten and 25 cents for a single horse and 50 cents for double teams. Marshals and their horses were provided with meals the days of the Fair.
The three story Exhibition Hall was erected in 1871. The hall was filled with displays of fruit and garden produce, homemade breads and baked goods, fancy needlework and floral displays. Chester May of East Woodstock was reported to have exhibited 75 varieties of potatoes. An arm chair composed entirely of flowers won national attention. Cotton, figs, peanuts, sugar can and sweet potatoes were all displayed. It was required that all entries had to be grown by the exhibitor. Exhibits of draft, carriage and saddle horses, long and short horned cattle, hogs, and sheep covered a large portion of the fairgrounds. Premiums paid for entries were surprisingly high which shows the importance attached to quality entries.
A three day fair, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, in the middle of September was held in 1876. A judges' stand and spectator seating was proposed for viewing the race track. Harness racing and parades were an important part of the Fair. This was approved and would be ready for the next Fair. Entertainment by the East Woodstock Brass Band was provided at this time. Additional pens were built for cattle and some were built to exhibit poultry.
The purchase of additional land was considered in 1879 as well as an addition to the Exhibition Hall. A shed 100 feet long and 8 feet deep to be divided into apartments to accommodate swine and sheep was voted in favor. The constitution was amended so that widows of deceased members be entitled to the same privileges from the society that their husbands had during their lives.
In 1879, the 21st Fair was held on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Each department was headed by a Committee of Arrangements. Wives and minor children were allowed to compete for premiums without joining the Society. The Women's Department was non-existent at that time but the ladies were in charge of butter, cheese, bread, honey, canned fruits, floral, fine arts, wax work, and the Househould Manufactures. That was the name given to housewives who entered homemade articles in the Fair. A life membership was still five dollars, an annual membership increased to one dollar, a season ticket was seventy five cents, a single ticket (admitting once to the grounds) twenty five cents, and children under 10, ten cents.
In 1888, a grandstand and dining hall was planned. This building was later given over to the ladies department and is today where the junior and food departments exhibit.
The constitution was amended in 1883 to read that the object of the Fair is the improvement in agriculture, horticulture, and the mechanical arts. In 1885, it was voted to expand the Exhibition Hall 36 x 36 feet, two stories high. Also, the building of ten sheds for horses was approved.
The ladies department was formed in 1900. The Fair was in debt $800 and the women offered to give up there premiums that year. In return for this generous gesture the Society voted to allow the ladies to form their own department with their own officers, directors and superintendents. They organized and quickly set categories and premiums for exhibits to the Ladies Department. This would include handwork, food, floral, artwork and children's and youth entries. There were Spring and Fall meetings at which time the ladies elected officers and went about the business of adding and deleting classes and setting premiums. This continued as a separate department later changing its title to the Women's Department and eventually Creative Arts. Through the years more and more items were entered by more and more people. There were problems with room for adequate display, security and staffing.
In 1915, the price of admission went to 50 cents, children under 12 for 15 cents and if they entered on the second day they would be admitted free if accompanied by a parent. In 1917, the fair was held one day. The previous day being entry day.
During World War I, the Fair was restricted to one day with the emphasis on the war effort. The cover of the 1918 premium book stated "All must do their part in the ware at home. Help the Red Cross; buy a Liberty Bond; get a War Saving Stamp; visit our Fair. We are going to look for you. Don't miss it." That year will long be remembered as a year of hardship for the farmer and his family. Windham County Farmer's Association printed and distributed conservation recipes for the war effort. The war was won but the elements defeated the Fair that year as the Fair was postponed causing a great financial loss.
The return to a three day fair was in 1920, the first day being entry day. At sometime in the early 20's a small tornado went through the village that moved the exhibition hall off its foundation. As a result a new foundation was constructed under its new site.
In 1931, the constitution was amended to increase the number of directors from twelve to sixteen. Two years later on the 75th year of the Fair, electric lights were introduced. The idea of holding a night fair was explored.
In 1933, the constitution was amended to read twenty directors. These additional four spots would be filled by women. It was also the first day and night Fair and the largest attraction was a fireworks display. When that happened, the Fair was held for two days and nights. A Merry-Go-Round and Ferris Wheel appeared that year to the delight of the children. A clause in the liability insurance had prevented their use until that time.
The night fair was here to stay offering band concerts, wood chopping contest, milking contest, tug of war and horse show along with fireworks. The advertisement featured a grand midway, contests and entertainment.
A winter Fair was held in addition to the fall fair in 1936. It was very successful. These efforts at having fairs at different times of the year eventually petered out.
The 1938 hurricane hit and did considerable damage to the cattle and poultry barns and the grandstand and exhibition hall. All repairs were completed for the next fair at a cost of $769.39.
There was no fair held in 1942 and 1943 because of World War II. It was resumed in 1944 with some difficulty, the ware being in full swing. Gasoline and tires were rationed and the weather didn't cooperate, however, they were able to break even. Meat was rationed as well and local farmers butchered some cows so the fire department could sell their usual hamburgers. The next year they went back to a three day fair changing it to Saturday, Sunday and Labor Day. It was a resounding success. Vaudeville acts, big rodeo, Old Time Fiddlers and the Warren Indians, Square dancers and Barber shoppers were featured in subsequent years. The horse sheds were built for the race horses.
The 1944 was the last time the Fair was held on a Tuesday and Wednesday. The 1945 Fair moved to Labor Day weekend. The only change since 1944 was in 1994 when we became a four day fair, opening on Friday.
The alley booths attached to the Exhibition Hall were built in 1948 and it would now cost $10 to become a life member.
Improvements to the fairgrounds in 1953 included wash basins and running water to the toilets, a combination sheep and poultry barn, and new sheds were built for show horses.
The fairgrounds played a large part in the recovery efforts after the devastating 1955 flood. The Fair was cancelled on the recommendation of state and local health authorities. Salvation Army and the Veterans of Foreign Wars set up relief activities headquarters in the buildings and grounds for a month. Furniture, clothing, food and other supplies were warehoused and distributed to hundreds of people of Putnam, Thompson, Rogers, Dayville and nearby Massachusetts.
On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary in 1960, a telegram was received from President Eisenhower and a letter of congratulations was sent from Governor Ribicoff. A special edition of the premium book was published including some stories of the past 100 years.
The Fair property was expanded in 1961, by the purchase of the property known as the Pepin Land, between the Masonic temple and the house on the south border now owned by the Millers. The price was $5500. This allowed a much better entry onto the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds was used for several years for the 4-H Fair.
Admission to the fair increased to $1.50 in 1967.
The Women's Department introduced an Apple Pie Contest sponsored by the Quinebaug Valley Fruit Growers Associates in 1968. We still offer this competition; the only change is the Society now sponsors it.
In 1969 Fair admission was $2.00. This was also the last year for a separate 4-H department.
In 1979, the First Aid Building was constructed across the street and the old one was converted into the Secretary's office. The next year the stage, bandstand and Security Office was built.
In 1979 the first scholarship to a graduating Woodstock Academy student was awarded. This number was increased to five in 1983. This year, 2000, there will be five $1250 scholarships given. Things went along smoothly for several years, each year with increased attendance, increased expenses and general maintenance and capital improvements were made.
The horse show was moved to its present sight after much controversy, discussion and expense. Looking back it was a wise decision because it now attracts so many horses, is much safer and it freed the land on the main grounds for use for concession space.
There has always been an underlying belief and commitment that we must not lose sight of our major purpose, that being the promotion and support of agriculture. Several committees to study the replacement of the cattle barns were appointed. This finally became a reality in 1999 at an enormous undertaking and financial commitment on the part of the Society. These replaced the ones built originally in 1910 which were remodeled in 1951.
Over the years the same concerns and needs reoccur periodically. There is a constant updating of plumbing and electrical. The demands on the systems become bigger with the increasing numbers of concessions and attendants. The blacktopping of roads and building maintenance is ongoing. Exhibition space is always at a premium as the entries increase yearly. There is always a concern about weather. A washout can have a significant affect on the fixed financial commitments of the society.
With the advent of the Woodstock Agricultural Society reorganization in 1992, the Creative Arts Department disbanded and became incorporated into the society with representation on the board of directors and was no longer a separate entity. Their last meeting was in 1993. The by-laws were changed to increase the number of directors to twenty seven. All officers must be a director. The management cannot be directors. There are monthly meetings when only the directors can vote. The Annual meeting, held on the second Tuesday in December is for all life members for the election of nine directors for a three year term.
In 1994, an agricultural exhibits tent was added. This is committed to displaying the agricultural industries in our area and educating the public to the importance of agriculture. The next year the society took advantage of the sewer running by our property and connected to it. This allowed us to build some much needed modern, spacious and clean restrooms. It was probably one of the nicest and most appreciated additions to our grounds that was done to add to the comfort of our patrons. The trailer park was relocated and now have a large display of Antique Farm Machinery and Equipment and Autos as you enter the Fair.
Information taken from:
The Record of Minutes of the WAS starting in 1859
The Premium Books starting at the 21st Fair
The "History of the Woodstock Fair" by Lloyd R. Williams in about 1953
"History of Woodstock" by Henry C. Bowen
"Looking Back" by Annette Hamilton