By Mark Simonson Contributing Writer
---- — One might call Elkanah Watson what is known today as a consultant. Back in the 1800s, Watson was largely credited with the organization of the Otsego County Fair, which dates back to 1817. Quickly approaching its 200th anniversary, this year’s fair will begin Tuesday in Morris.
Calling itself the “Best Six Days of Summer,” the fair will open with “Dollar Day Admission.” Fair goers that day will get to experience a new kind of horse racing, not seen in this area before. The races begin at noon, and will feature Racing Under Saddle, described by the United States Trotting Association as a “hybrid” type of horse racing, combining elements of Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing. It is racing with riders and a saddle, not drivers and a sulky. Standardbreds have been racing under saddle since the early 1800s, and “Monte” racing, as it is called in Europe, is common.
Ashley Eldred of Burlington Flats plans to participate in the first Otsego County exhibition race. The 19-year-old has been racing under saddle for a more than a year and has participated at various race tracks and fairs getting experience.
“My goal is to win a race next year,” Eldred told The Cooperstown Crier in October 2012.
She has since reached that goal. She won a race at the Afton fair and placed second at a race in Saratoga. Eldred said she believes under saddle racing is good for harness racing because it is something different that is bringing people to the tracks.
Judy Harris, Otsego County Fair manager, said the most popular attractions would be back from previous years. The fire service parade and fireworks will be Tuesday following the races. Each day the fair will feature animal shows. At noon, the Gillette Shows Midway Carnival opens. On Friday, Aug. 2, 100 donated new bicycles will be given away during Children’s Day. Youngsters will sign up beginning at 1 p.m. and the drawing will begin at 3 p.m. On Saturday, Aug. 3 the “My Favorite Culinary Delight Cook Off” will begin at 10:30 a.m. in Floral Hall. Also that day at 3 p.m. the 4-H Livestock Auction will take place.
Grandstand entertainment includes the K-F Rodeo on Wednesday, demo derbies on Thursday and again at 1 and 6 p.m. on Sunday, a tractor pull on Friday and truck pulls on Saturday. The fair concludes on Sunday.
According to organizers, the fair prides itself in remaining a largely old time agricultural and family-friendly event, while maintaining a practical side with some modern features in order to pay the bills.
Watson was a native of Plymouth, Mass. He originated the Pittsfield Fair in 1811 in the western part of that state. Apparently he was discouraged with the lack of cooperation he received there, and moved to Albany around 1817. Somehow he got connected with two Otsego County residents who were planning a first agricultural exhibition, and moved here to assist. He later moved on to help other counties organize their fairs, among his other entrepreneurial endeavors that included promoting the construction of the Erie Canal.
The first exhibition was held at the Presbyterian Church in Cooperstown on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1817. The Otsego County Agricultural Society prospered for a few years but eventually the organization was abandoned. However, a legislative act was passed in 1841 that distributed $8,000 among the counties across New York for the promotion of agriculture. This served to reorganize Otsego and many other county societies that had become extinct.
The exhibition resumed that year, and was held in Cooperstown until 1852. That year a proposition was made to merge the agricultural society in Morris and adjoining towns with the county society. The fair was held in Morris that year and alternated with Cooperstown a few years.
Whether it was Cooperstown or Morris, the fair was popular. In 1855 it was growing apparent that the fairgrounds needed to be enlarged and the county society once again reorganized.
It was decided to select a permanent location for the exhibition. Cooperstown got the most votes by a majority of one. The 1856 exhibition took place near the end of Fair and Pioneer streets, near today’s Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital. A lease on that property expired in 1872 and the grounds were becoming increasingly inadequate for crowds and exhibitors.
The society purchased 27 acres on the southern limits of the village, not far from today’s Cooperstown Central School. For many years the fair was a financial success, but in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, income fell far behind expenses. The property was sold in a foreclosure sale. The last fair held in Cooperstown was from Sept. 7 to 10 in 1931. There were briefly no exhibitions until relocating to Morris for the new permanent home.
As for Watson, his successes with fairs were many. He died and was buried in Port Kent. The tombstone is inscribed, “Father of the County Fair.”
For complete details about events and times, visit www.otsegocountyfair.org