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The State Fair was created in 1851 when the Indiana General Assembly passed “An act to encourage agriculture” which included a new board...the State Board of Agriculture. One of the first things the Board did was work to create the first Indiana State Fair. This year (2007), the Indiana State Fair Commission is celebrating the 151st Fair. Bad math, you say? No. Three wars (Civil War, Spanish-American, WW II) have canceled fairs.
The first fair in 1852 was held in what is now Military Park in downtown Indianapolis. Indiana was the 6th state to begin holding state agricultural fairs. The first fair was a resounding success. Other Indiana cities and towns housed the Fair through the years. (In order) Indianapolis (Military Park), Lafayette, Madison, Indianapolis (Military Park), New Albany, Indianapolis (Camp Morton), Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, then Indianapolis (Camp Morton) until 1892. In 1892, the Fair began at its current site which was quite rural in 1892. The first electric interurban trolley in Indianapolis (and Marion County), travelling to Broad Ripple from the city, had a special line to serve fair goers. Also, the Monon Railroad had a siding for cattlemen and farmers to drop off goods at the Fair, as did the Nickel Plate (diagonal line, now running the Fair train). The Monon built a depot on 38th St. in 1922, so passengers from Northern or Southern Indiana could disembark right by the Fairgrounds. The Monon Depot still survives today.
Why a State Fair?
Agricultural products were the most important thing (value-wise) that Indiana made in the 19th century. The entire economy revolved around farming or products that originated on the farm, or making things to improve agriculture. Most of the population lived in rural areas or on farms, until about 1925. Having a State Fair gave farmers a way to come together, exchange new ideas for improving yields, and see the latest ideas in farming techniques and show their best products. Over 150 years later, the Fair still serves this purpose. Agriculture, with its many products, though not as central to the economy as it once was, is still one of Indiana’s most important businesses and adds millions to our economy.
State Fair Architecture
Like Indiana’s farms themselves, the fair grounds buildings of the early 20th century are seemingly full of nostalgia, yet, they are also hard-working technological wonders. Architects cloaked exteriors in elements that create a sense of whimsy and celebration. Towers, arched windows, tile roofs, and decorative brick work are part of the vocabulary that architects shared over decades of work.
The sense of fun came by way of details – animal portrait roundels (disks) on buildings or corn designs on metal grill work, for example. Behind showy facades, architects used the latest ideas and materials: Poured concrete floors, banks of steel sash windows, and steel framing and trusses for large, fire-resistant and sanitary spaces for the animals.