Saturday, August 30, 2014

Newark's State Fair was a great state fair

Midwestern-born friends of ours admitted to being a bit confused at the hubbub advertised as the State Fair and held in the parking lot of the Meadowlands Sports Complex earlier this summer. I can't say I blame them: it wasn't a real state fair, with 4H exhibits, tractor pulls and judged livestock shows. That's held at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in August. The other one, technically named "State Fair Meadowlands," looks like a street carnival on steroids. No self-respecting livestock would step foot there.

Excuse me. Can you tell me how to get to the PATH train?
Interestingly enough, the East Rutherford version was a bit closer, geographically, to the first permanent home of New Jersey's premier agricultural exhibition: Newark. Yup, the state's largest city was once the place where farmers and their families learned the latest about livestock and crops, enjoying fun and games while they were at it. Technically, the site of the fair, the current-day Weequahic Park, was in Clinton, an small community that was yet to be absorbed by Newark. In the years before the site became a county park, it was largely farmland, neighbored by marsh instead of apartment buildings, highways and train tracks.

Clinton had a better deserved reputation for breeding mosquitoes than for crop production until James Jay Mapes came to town. A noted scientist with an interest in agriculture, he purchased an unproductive farm there in 1847 as a laboratory for his theories in crop rotation, fertilization and seeding. His work wasn't just successful, it proved the value of scientific agriculture in improving soil quality and crop yield.

Though many farmers had scorned 'book farming' before, the results were undeniable, and Mapes became the closest thing to an agricultural rock star as was possible in the mid 19th century.
Who wouldn't want to boost production on their own acreage, and who better learn from than the master himself? Mapes took to the speaking circuit, drawing on his considerable wit and speaking skills to present over 150 lectures on scientific farming. He also patented and sold his phosphate fertilizer branded as, what else, "Mapes Fertilizer."

The farm in Clinton became a popular draw for knowledge-hungry farmers, so much so that in 1866, the organizers of the New Jersey state agricultural fair chose it as the event's permanent site. Besides the usual seminars, shows and competitions, farmers and their families could enjoy food, drink, shows and games of chance at the newly-dubbed Waverly Fairgrounds. The grandstand and racing oval constructed for the fair proved so durable that it stood until 1960, evolving from a horse track to automobile racing.

Clinton's days as the capital (at least for a few days a year) of New Jersey agriculture ended in 1899, as Essex County amassed several tracts of land to become present-day Weequahic Park. The last bits of the township were annexed to Newark in 1902, completing a process that had gone back and forth for close to 70 years. In any case, the years of moos, manure and midways were over for the park, but it would later host significant events, including a celebration of the city's 250th anniversary in 1916.

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