History of the Columbiana County Fair
In 1845, citizens of Columbiana County met to discuss organizing a county fair. Soon, a constitution and by-laws were adopted and the Columbiana County Agricultural Society was established at what was then known as New Lisbon, Ohio. The purpose of this organization was to promote interest in scientific farming practices.
To the best knowledge available, the first fair location was on vacant land next to the planing mill and across from the Thomas & Sons Pottery along East Washington Street in Lisbon.
On March 5, 1851, the Society was reorganized, and in early 1853 the present grounds were purchased from John McClymonds. The plat drawn shows 7.5 acres in the original parcel obtained by the Society and 5 acres and a fraction in the tract acquired from the Jesse Holmes Seminary. A small parcel was also bought from Joseph Strawn. The sale was consummated for $1,800 for the entire tract.
In the spring of 1853, plans were commenced for buildings and fences on the new fairgrounds site. Workmen started in April and worked through the summer months completing buildings, making fences at 55 cents per linear foot and getting the 1/2 mile racetrack ready, all in time for the first edition of the county fair at its handsome new grounds in late September, 1853.
There were few winners at the first fair, and premiums totaled less than $17. Some of the winners were for best one-horse buggy, best set of chairs, top of the list boots, best yoke of oxen, farm implements, outstanding saddle and finest quilts.
Premiums were also given for women's riding habits. Unfortunately, that was the first and only time during this early fair era that lady equestriennes were permitted to compete. A major furor broke out over the idea of handing out prizes to female riders. Finally, officials knuckled down under pressure and announced that women riders would no longer be able to compete. Women would only be permitted to ride in the ring when nothing else was going on. Obviously, times and attitudes have long since changed.
The wagons, most of them outfitted with makeshift seats stretched across the beds, were drawn up around the track for the day. People coming in from miles away often stopped at the homes of friends to heat up coffee and breakfast in the wagons. Horses (and later, cars) were parked in the racetrack infield. At noonday break mothers were often seen spreading tablecloths and fathers were hoisting wooden tubs filled with food from the wagon beds. By afternoon, the crowd started to thin out so farmers could drive many miles to home and chores.
Over the many years since, several tracts of land have been added to the original purchase, bringing the total size of the current fairgrounds property to almost 90 acres. The fairgrounds property was greatly expanded in the latter half of the 20th century with the purchase of property north of Saltwell Road, now utilized for parking. The most recent acquisition in 2003 added several acres fronting on Vista Drive, on the westerly side of the fairgrounds, allowing for a major expansion of midway and amusement ride space.
Over the last 174 years, structures and improvements at the fairgrounds have continually been added, renovated and even entirely replaced. In more recent times, these changes and additions have included: a new speed barn, new arts/crafts building, the "Items of Yesteryear" historical museum, three show stages, a scenic camping area, the 320' x 80' state of the art J. Herbert Thompson beef complex, the beautiful rabbit, turkey and chicken (RTC) complex, and a 2017 addition, the completely renovated dairy barn milking parlor. Many years ago, the fair secretary's office, an old train station, was moved from downtown Lisbon to its current location at Gate A adjacent to the fair's signature entry arch. The redesigned rides midway, completed in 2010, is another significant improvement. In 2017, a new fair administration building and board meeting room was built and opened at Gate D. With the aid of a lottery system for the order of naming rights, and the County's Township Trustees Association, all the roadways in the fairgounds were recently named in honor of the 18 townships that make up Columbiana County. Considerable investment also continues to be made for the hidden infrastructure of the fairgrounds, including extensive upgrades to electrical service and water lines.
On December 14, 2014, the historic wooden grandstand at the fairgrounds, a fixture at the fair since the early days and considered to be one of the oldest remaining grandstand structures of its type in Ohio, was torn down due to its deteriorating condition to make way for the construction of a new centerpiece for the fairgrounds: the G. Allen Dickey Family Grandstand, dedicated on July 25, 2014.
In 2017, the Fairgrounds became the new home for the historic bow truss steel arch bridge formerly spanning the Little Beaver Creek on South Market Street in Lisbon. This magnificently restored piece of engineering history is now an iconic symbol of the Fairgrounds. In 2018, construction of a new state of the art restroom facility in the vicinity of the new grandstand was completed. During the long history of the Columbiana County Fair, unique entertainment has included ostrich races, combine demolition derbies, auto thrill shows, circuses and John Oliver's famous hot air balloon exhibitions. Harness racing has thrilled fair audiences since the construction of the original racetrack in 1853. Rides have included the merry-go-round (which in earlier times was worked by a horse driven around a center pole holding up the canvas), and the ever-present fair favorite, the ferris wheel. The fair has also enjoyed top flight musical entertainers, with such stars as Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, Porter Waggoner, Tex Ritter, Lorrie Morgan and Jake Owen who have performed here over the years. Tractor and truck pulling contests have been a popular attraction at the fair, and the auto demolition derby has been "packin' them in" for over half a century. In 2007, the film "Country Crush" was produced by documentary film maker Molly Merriman telling the entertaining story of one of the fair's most popular and unique attractions: the combine demolition derby. The film has been shown on PBS television and has been featured at documentary film festivals across North America and Europe.
The fair is rich with history, but the pursuit of progress and improvement never stops. Although much has changed over the years, the Board of Directors of the Columbiana County Agricultural Society strives to continue the proud traditions that have been established, and to create even better fairs and happy memories for future generations. As 2020 approaches and our wonderful old fair prepares to celebrate its 175th birthday, let's hope Columbiana County fairgoers will continue to "wheel on down" for many generations to come.