From Farmers Day to Tent City

By on February 28, 2018
An early photo of the livestock show when it was still held uptown during fair week, near Washington Avenue. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley

An early photo of the livestock show when it was still held uptown during fair week, near Washington Avenue. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley

The following is the second in a series of articles leading up to the 100th anniversary of The Ephrata Fair in September

In 1919, residential Ephrata was very different from today.

To the west, the town stopped at the Cocalico Creek. The Mountain Springs and Spring Garden Street bounded the east. What is the Fulton Street school was the Winger farm and the beginning of the rural area, and to the north there were few homes after Pine Street.

The Eicher/Heinecke farm became Ephrata Park in 1913, and what is now King and Queen Streets was a farm until the 1930s. Surrounding the town in every direction were small farms. In the early years of the 20th century, the family farm was the backbone of the economy. Even within town, almost every home had a vegetable garden and many had a coop with a few chickens. Leonard Sprecher, hardware store owner and a founder of the fair had three hives of bees, a large vegetable garden, and a chicken house behind his home at 221 E. Main St. Everybody was much closer to what they ate. It is little wonder that a primary part of the early Ephrata Fair was the display of farm produce and the exhibition of farm equipment.

Farmers Day

In the program for the “Farmers Day at Ephrata” published in the Oct. 17, 1919 edition of The Ephrata Review, it is advertised as an “Agricultural Event.” Among the demonstrations, lectures, exhibits and displays was listed “2:30 p.m. steer judging contest in baker’s lot.” Baker’s lot was south of the Eagle Hotel (now the Wissler building) on the south west corner of Main and State Streets. 140 head of cattle were shown and judged. At the end of the day some of the cattle were auctioned. The first animal sold was a heifer bought by the Ladies’ Auxiliary Welcome Home Committee, which was raising money to provide a proper homecoming for the men serving in Europe during the first World War. The seller refused payment for the animal, so the ladies sold raffle tickets for the heifer, raising $88.66 ($1,156.13 in 2018 dollars) for the cause.

In I.G. Sprecher’s warehouse, rabbits and poultry were displayed and judged. Up and down Main Street, 700 exhibits were on display in store windows. These were the exhibits fair goers find today, with the addition of three-to six-foot stalks of sugar cane which was being grown on a farm near Denver.

“50,000 People Attend Ephrata’s Big Farmers Day Event” was the headline in the Oct. 25, 1929 Ephrata Review. What follows is a glowing article praising this celebration of agrarian prosperity. It makes for rather melancholy reading when you remember that four days later on Oct. 29, 1929 the stock market crashed starting the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in the history of our country. Even more poignant, the Great Depression would hit the small farmer hard. When it was finally over, at the onset of the second World War, the state of the family farm would be forever altered. The Farmer’s Day, held on the 17th, 18th and 19th of October 1929, was Ephrata’s last big event of the Roaring Twenties. This, the tenth, befitted its era.

Ephrata had recently opened a Community Hall on the corner of Locust Street and Washington Avenue. To celebrate this facility, livestock waere shown there and displays were expanded to include beef stock, dairy cows, several breeds of poultry, rabbits and dogs. The fruits of the agrarian cornucopia were on display in store windows on Main Street. A confectioner displayed choice leaves of tobacco, a shoe repair shop prize winning cabbages. Abe Chon’s store displayed eggs, milk, butter, and corn. Royer’s drug store had flowers. Rettew’s restaurant had potted plants. Sprecher’s hardware had apples, grapes, pears and other fruit.

Every store had some display of the harvest.

In 1929, the fair committee organized a parade on each of the three days of the fair. The Saturday parade was “Agricultural and Commercial.” Along with numerous automobiles, trucks and commercial floats, there was an entry by the Ephrata Grange showing snitzing and apple butter preparation, a “Merry Milk Maid” float from the Fairview Dairy on Lake Street, teams of horses and mules and squads of mounted riders. Also on Saturday, there was a livestock sale during which 129 head changed hands.

A New Deal

By October 1939, (the 20th Farmers Day at Ephrata) “Happy Days Were Here Again”…well, almost. The worst of the Great Depression had passed, especially for the small farmer who was feeling the benefits of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the form of the Agricultural Adjustment Act which set prices for certain products guaranteeing farmers a minimum income for the crops they produced. Additionally, agricultural extension services were expanded offering farmers’ technical advice and new ideas on land use, increased production and conversation.

The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 for the first time brought regular electric service to farms. The small farmers around Ephrata were indeed seeing the light. Sure there was trouble in Europe, but it had been dark for too long. And to top it all off, Prohibition was repealed three years earlier. It was time for a celebration.

The Ephrata Farmers Day committee decided to do it up in a big way. Three free programs and a Mummer’s parade were booked for entertainment. In 1939 there were two cattle shows. Since 1932, the cow show and auction had been held at the “Farmer’s Market and Auction north of Ephrata,” which we now call the Green Dragon.

A total of 54 cows were sold and the grand champion Holstein sold for $180 ($3,169.80 in 2018 dollars). The steer show and sale was held at the Reading Company stockyards, today the parking lot at the head of Winters Park. 68 steers were sold for a total of $4,850 ($85,408.50 in 2018 dollars).

A poultry show was held adjoining the Market House on State Street, where 82 different birds were shown. The state agriculture agent set up a soil conservation exhibit in the basement of Good’s Hotel (now the newer part of the Ephrata National Bank). It was estimated that 75,000 persons attended to view 3,508 exhibits, which were displayed in the widows of the stores on Main Street between Lake Street and Park Avenue.

WWII ends

When the 31st Ephrata Farmers Day came around in 1949, the community was again coming out of a trying time. The second World War had ended four years before, and the GIs were home and reestablishing their lives. The Cold War was on people’s minds, and food prices reached an all-time peak in August of 1948, which was great for the farmer, but they had begun to slip and unemployment had people tightening their belts.

The 1949 Farmer’s Day dialed it back a bit. Cattle showing was limited to 4-H baby beef competitions, and 16 heads were judged at the Ephrata market. The winner received $25 ($255.75 in 2018 dollars). There were fewer entries, so poultry, flowers, vegetables, crops, and other 4-H projects were housed in the Ephrata Borough garage behind Abe Cohn’s building at 48 E. Main St. Art, fancy work, canned goods, and baked goods were to be found in select shop windows around town.

In 1959, our country was at a peak of prosperity which was to show itself at the 41st Farmers Day Fair. The Ephrata Review reported record setting attendance and dedicated two pages of the paper to listing recipients of awards given to exhibitors. The 4-H baby beef exhibits were in the Keller building at the rear of what is now the Ephrata Review office. That year, the judging of this event was the best attended in the history of the fair, and judging extended not only to breed; awards were given for showmanship and fitting. Agriculture exhibits remained in what had been the Borough Garage at the rear of 48 E. Main St. The other exhibits were distributed in store windows along Main Street.

A modern day look at Tent City near the ball diamond in Grater Park, doesn’t even begin to show what a massive part of Ephrata Fair week the agricultural area has become over the years.

A modern day look at Tent City near the ball diamond in Grater Park, doesn’t even begin to show what a massive part of Ephrata Fair week the agricultural area has become over the years.

Tent City

A completely unrelated occurrence in 1961 was to profoundly affect the Ephrata Fair. That year, the new Ephrata High School building opened on Oak Street. This larger facility allowed for expanded curriculums, including a regional vocational agriculture program and a Future Farmers of America (FFA) club. Lew Ayers and Charlie Ackley were hired to set up this program, which was to more than double in size over the next ten years.

It was only natural that they should become involved in the agriculture aspect of the fair. Lew Ayers first participated in the fair in 1961. At that time, student participation was primarily the 4-H baby beef shows.With more students involved in FFA, there were more projects in more areas. More space was needed.

In the summer of 1964, the FFA and the 4-H had its showing in the Ephrata Park. When it came time for the 1965 fair, two large tents were set up on the ball field behind the pool and the agriculture exhibits were moved to what was to become Tent City.

In fact, on that day two parallel events occurred in Ephrata during the last week in September. On Main Street, there was a carnival, fundraising stands, displays of arts, crafts, and entertainment all called the Ephrata Fair. In the Ephrata Park was a totally different event, celebrating the agricultural community called Tent City. What was once a display of 4-H baby beef had expanded to include dairy beef, sheep, goats, pigs, dairy cows, rabbits, and poultry.

Food, glorious food

A successful hot dog stand by FFA led the young farmers to set up a tent to feed hungry attendees. For many, their Tuesday night pork chop feast is a yearly must. They were soon joined by the Baron Stiegel Lions with their food trailer. That year, seven food vendors were expected.

Kid friendly

Another tent was set up to house the “Barnyard Academy.” This child friendly exhibit is designed to introduce younger children to the joys of rural living. Hands-on exhibits allow kids to learn about agriculture through play.

There is also a commercial aspect: Tent City allows companies offering agribusiness goods and services to show their wares. Tractors and farm equipment are on display.

The big draw to Tent City are the contests. In 1932, there was a horseshoe pitching contest in conjunction with Farmers Day. These competitions continued sporadically over the years. Tent City would become the perfect venue: there has been turkey calling, cow milking, pie eating, water balloon tossing, quate and corn hole contests. Unfortunately for various reasons, two of the most popular contests, the greased pig chase and the tug of war, are no longer held. The antique tractor pull, the peddle tractor pull, BERG pedal go-kart race, and the family fun contests still draw crowds to tent city.

There is entertainment every night, but the big draw which has people riding the shuttle bus to the park from Main Street is the animals. There is something about lovingly raised and beautifully groomed animals which has drawn a crowd for 100 years, and continues to attract us even as more of what was lush farm land has become the lawn for tract houses.

Phil Eisemann is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review and one of the primary contributing authors to the special 100th Anniversary of the Ephrata Fair book, available later this year.

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