The Butler County Agricultural Society held its first gathering around the public square in Hamilton, Ohio on October 13-14 in 1836. That first fair was far from the expensive, neon-lit whirlwind exhibitions of today. Consisting mainly of a few wagons displaying the latest in farm implements (hoes, scythes, sickles, and grain tables) as well as small exhibits of produce and livestock, the fair was then considered a farmer’s holiday. People rode in from all over the county to view the exhibits, watch horse races and plowing matches (which often involved gambling), and to see the award winners.
On January 1, 1851 a committee met to reorganize the Agricultural Society under state law. The first fair under this reorganization was held on October 2-3 of that year. The location had moved from the courthouse square to a small oak grove north of the Hamilton canal basin. Exhibits at this fair consisted of small numbers of horses and cattle, and a large showing of swine. Collections of home spun fabrics, paintings, and other articles were also on display. Financially, the fair was also a success, taking in a total of $320 after expenditures.
Due to continued growth more space was required for the 1852 fair. The location was moved once more to an area then known as Bigham Grove, where it would remain until 1856. During those years the fair grew tremendously. In 1852 the fair generated a total of $594.43 in revenue. This was followed by $751.10 in 1853, and $1,101.10 in 1854. In 1855 the fair was moved from October to September and now encompassed three days instead of two. To account for their growing pains, the Agricultural Society purchased thirty acres of woodlands for a new fairgrounds. Livestock numbers continued to increase, but it was in swine that Butler County excelled, leading every other county in the state.
By the time 1856 rolled around, the Agricultural Society had acquired a total of thirty-nine acres in Fairfield Township. The purchase price was $3,700. This piece of land remains as the center of the present day fairgrounds and the home of the Butler County Agricultural Society. In 1857, the fair was moved back to the second week of October. During the mid-nineteenth century the fair continued to enjoy growth and financial success, faltering only during the early years of the Civil War. By 1868 it had entered into a period of fame. That year the eighteenth annual fair surpassed all other fairs in the state of Ohio in entry numbers, attendance, and general interest, rivaling even that of the State Fair.
Expansion came once again on February 11, 1871 when the Agricultural Society purchased thirteen acres of adjoining land for $5000. Five years later the Butler County Commissioners agreed to lease the Agricultural Society enough land on the east side of the property for the construction of a horse track. The lease would run for ten years at a cost of $15 an acre per year. The Commissioners would also pay the Society $150 annually for pasturing the original grounds and $9 an acre for ground used for hitching purposes. On July 1, 1876 plans were drawn for a race track 714 feet long and 380 feet wide, or approximately one-half mile. The construction of the track was awarded to Henry Frechtling & Co. for a bid of $560.
Over the next sixteen years the Butler County Fair continued to grow and prosper. During those years entries multiplied and to accommodate those increases numerous permanent buildings were constructed. On September 16, 1891 the Agricultural Society purchased an additional thirteen acres of land for the purposes of expansion. But despite success and growth, the Agricultural Society found itself suffering from financial hardship. In 1896, unable to borrow further funds to continue holding its annual fair, an independent counsel was appointed to manage its affairs. Permission to hold the 1896 fair was granted only after a liquidation of bonds valued at $25,000. Fortunately, the fair was a great success and by March of 1897 the Board of Directors was once again granted complete control of all financial assets. By the turn of the century, the Butler County Fair was again one of the most successful and well respected fairs in the state of Ohio.
In 1913 a decision was made to construct a new grandstand to replace the wooden structure destroyed by fire that same year. A painting of this wooden structure, donated by Charles Howald on February 19, 1898 can still be viewed in the present fairgrounds office. The cost of the new 3,000 seat facility peaked at $33,000 and was constructed by Garver Contractors. It is believed that the grandstand, which remains as the centerpiece of the present grounds, was the first of its kind in the United States constructed entirely of concrete. With this new addition, Butler County would become a focal point for Thoroughbred and harness racing.
Continuing the movement from wooden to more permanent structures was the completion of a new secretarial office in 1920. Over the next thirty years further improvements were made such as the construction of a larger hall for floral and produce exhibits, as well as new barns for swine and cattle. In 1955 the Agricultural Society entered into an agreement with the Hamilton Racing Association, Inc. Under this agreement the Association would use the fairgrounds for the purposes of conducting a series of race meetings under the laws of the state of Ohio and under the rules of the Ohio State Racing Commission and the United States Trotting Association. During this period the fairgrounds became known as the Hamilton Raceway and drew participants and spectators from around the nation. The agreement lasted until 1976 when the Association moved to the neighboring Warren County Fairgrounds. After the Association’s departure and the loss of racing in Hamilton, the Society focused inward. During the next two decades a new secretary’s office was constructed in addition to new buildings for goats, sheep, cattle, and youth activities.
Today the Butler County Agricultural Society and its annual fair remain as excellent examples of the strength of agriculture in Southwestern Ohio. Every year the fair continues to expand and prosper. Attendance for recent fairs has ranged between 90,000 and 100,000 for the now week long event. Butler County also boasts a strong Junior Fair program with over 1400 members. Today’s fair, with its games, rides, livestock exhibits, and other attractions encompasses the whole of both rural and urban cultures of the county. The Butler County Fair has come along way from plowing matches and horse races around the courthouse square, but it remains to be, as it was then, an event to be longed for.