Since 1874, the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair has served as a celebration of family, community and tradition for the residents of Centre County.
Though the fair has taken various forms and included changes and upgrades over the years, the mission of education, entertainment and fun has remained.
Previous to the Civil War, agriculture served as the nation’s number one industry. As it was fought on farm fields by farmers, the war decimated the industry.
Noted agriculturist Oliver Kelley was asked by President Johnson to tour the south come back with recommendations on how to revitalize the agriculture. Kelley returned with the idea that farmers and rural families needed to have an organization to advocate for them. According to Grange Fair committee merchandise officer LeDon Young, Kelley joined with six other agriculturalists to create the Patrons of Coventry. The local unit of the organization became known as a Grange.
“All of the founders were Masons, so they thought a fraternal organization was needed, not a club, not a union, but a fraternal organization to which you pledged loyalty, not just something you paid dues to,” she said.
Leonard Rhone, a farmer who lived four miles outside of Centre County, heard of the Patrons of Coventry and thought it would be ideal for Centre County. He founded Progress Grange, the first local grange in Centre Hall in 1874. Rhone later went on to form nine more granges in Centre County.
In Sept. 1874, at a meeting of Progress Grange, Rhone suggested the organization gather the sister granges and have a ‘pic-nik,’ inviting everyone to come and learn of the grange movement. That month, near Linden Hall, the Grangers’ pic-nik was held. The event was such a success that Progress Grange appointed a committee to make arrangements for it to be held again the next year.
During this time, Young said a Centre County Fair was also held sporadically at fairgrounds in Bellefonte, usually in October.
Young said the third Grangers’ pic-nik was held in September at the Bellefonte fairgrounds. From then it was held in various locations, including Hort Woods on the campus of what was then the Pennsylvania State College.
“The State College was in trouble. It was in disarray, but Leonard Rhone and other members of the grange felt that it should be preserved and it should stay in Centre County,” Young said.
To aid the school, Rhone held a pic-nik on the campus and asked its president, George Atherton to serve at the main speaker.
The tradition of the pic-nik continued throughout the years. In about 1888, when the pic-nik was on top of the Centre Hall mountain, people began bringing tents.
“The tents were so popular that the committee on the pic-nik decided that they needed to have a campground. So 1890 is the first purchase of 20 acres. It is the new place of what is today the fairgrounds,” Young said.
The popularity of the pic-nik continued to grow, calling for headquarters and exhibit buildings to be built at Grange Park. In 1898, a telephone was installed in the headquarters. By 1900, Young said more than 200 tents were used by campers. Fireworks, bands and baseball games also became important parts of the pic-nik.
But Young said when the Centre County Fair ceased to exist sometime around 1914, the Grange Encampment assumed the Centre County Fair.
“About that time it is designated as the ‘Grange Encampment and Centre County Fair,’” she said.
In 1916 electricity came to Grange Park. Campers and vendors could pay $1 for a light bulb for their tents. Cook stoves were also installed behind every fourth tent.
“For many people that was their first experience with electric light,” Young said. “Grange has always been about technology. It was the idea of bringing the best of farm, field, orchard, dairy and home to put on display so that others could learn.”
In addition to education and technology, the Grange Encampment and Centre County Fair continued its focus on family.
“Leonard Rhone always wanted the pic-nik to be an affordable vacation for families. They could come and stay in a tent. Momma could cook and feed you,” Young said. “They could visit and play, but you didn’t have to spend a lot of money. You got an inexpensive vacation.”
With the 1900s came many changes. In 1917, Rhone passed away, leaving the local Granges to elect members to serve on a planning committee. In 1922, the committee decided to begin charging for fair entrance. A gate was built and the grounds were fenced in.
During the 1930s, a new exhibit building was built. More and more vendors came. Silent movies and Grange plays became integral parts of the fair’s entertainment.
The 1940s saw the creation of wooden bleachers, a platform for a stage and grandstands were built. Young said large displays of farm equipment became very popular. More than 400 tents were used my campers.
In the 1950s, there was a huge increase of people attending the fair in cars. In 1957, a second gate was built. It is presently known as ‘Gate 1.’ The fair playground was refurbished and the fair began pairing with country music for entertainment.
Young said the 1960s brought concessionaires who converted buses and vans into living quarters to go from fair to fair. The Winnebago became popular.
During the 1970s, the number of camper tents increased. Uniformity with 14’ by 14’ tents started. A new proper stage was built in 1978. More exhibit buildings were built.
“It just became such a tradition. People just want to experience this life. They might not want to go out and camp on a regular basis, but the opportunity to be here at the Centre County Grange Fair living in a tent is very sought after,” said fair general manager Darlene Confer.
In 1985, more grounds were purchased to increase the fairgrounds to 212 acres. A new gate, a horse range and the tractor pull area were also built in 1985.
The 1990s brought more updates to the fair with the conversion to flush toilets. The late ‘90s also brought young country acts to the fair with Garth Brooks appearing in 1998. In 1999, a 108-stall barn was built.
Young said the 2000s have brought with them the fair’s dedication to youth. A youth advisory committee has created ‘Grange Fair Idol,’ a contest where visitors submit cell phone pictures of the fair and a fair queen contest.
“We are trying to involved youth in not only ideas that are exciting about the fair, but let them be part of the fair,” she said.
In 2010, 59 more acres were purchased, bring the fairgrounds to 266 acres, making it the largest fairgrounds in the state. With the help of a grant from the state, a $1.1 million covered equine area was built in 2011.
“We are now one of the premiere equine areas in the state. Pennsylvania has a bigger horse industry than Kentucky. It’s worth $1.3 billion to the commonwealth. Grange felt that it would be ideal for us to participate in that industry and it would keep out fair involved with agriculture,” Young said.
For the 2013 Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair, Young said there will be 1,000 tents, 1,500 RVs, 300 concessions, two ride vendors and more than 8,000 items on exhibit.
“We anticipate over 200,000 people will walk through our gate,” she said.
In addition to the increased involvement, the fair’s budget has continued to growth since it began 139 years ago. Young said in 1890 the fair’s budget was $996.24. The 2013 budget is $2.2 million, with payroll alone exceeding $500,000.
The continued growth of the fair allowed it to put $1.8 million back into the local economy in 2012.
The fair’s appeal and family atmosphere has allowed for this growth.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, those are people you may only see once a year, but you are with them eight or 10 days. You are vacationing together every year. You see some of your family members. Kids grow up together and then they get married and have children. They come back and then the next generation does the same thing,” Confer said.
Young agreed, saying many feel as though the fair is like a home to them.
“You come home to see everybody. It’s a family reunion for all of Centre County. Everyone welcomes you. You are back home,” she said “As soon as you come to the fair you are made to feel welcome. You are made to feel that you belong here. As you walk back those tent rows and you see families, it makes you feel that indeed there is the continuing.”