Evolution of an exhibition

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PAINESVILLE, Ohio – There are decades of economic and social and personal histories crammed into a cardboard box in the Lake County fair office.
The box, overflowing with paperbacks of all sizes, looks like a packrat’s dream, simply clutter strewn among the rest of the paperwork in the office. But it’s full of little tidbits of information that may be viewed useless unless you’re a die-hard fair fan.
A die-hard fair fan like Albert DiIorio, secretary-treasurer of the Lake County fair board and director in charge of the board’s collection of dozens of historic county fair entry books.
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The Lake County Fair started as a four-day fair in 1852. The 1893 fair entry book shows the fair ran Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 that year.
By 1947, the fair was five days – DiIorio isn’t sure why the board changed the run – but in 1948, the exhibition went back to its four-day format.
In 1953, it became a five-day fair; in 1968, it expanded to six days, and it’s been that way ever since.
“You maybe don’t care how many days the fair was in a particular year, but it’s fun to think why it might have changed,” DiIorio says, noting economics and weather as possible reasons.
“And adding more days, that was probably to get all the activities in!”
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It’s amazing to compare the older books to today’s versions. Line-drawn advertising has been replaced with fancy computer-designed doo-dads.
The books have expanded, doubling, tripling and quadrupling in page numbers. Fair board directors now have their pictures emblazoned on the pages for future generations to see.
There are more classes and divisions today, too. The 1893 book listed 62 classes on a mere 72 pages. In contrast, the 2006 book is 168 pages and the classes too numerous to even number anymore.
Still, one thing is constant, DiIorio says.
“It’s all about the ribbon.”
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There’s no copy of the entire 1914 fair book in the collection, but DiIorio says the board does have a special pull-out printed “Boys and Girls Agricultural Contest” in the collection.
DiIorio says 4-H hadn’t arrived in Lake County by the 1914 fair; the contests were the county’s earliest versions of today’s 4-H program here.
The little book details all the rules of the competition, going as far as to say the young people must do the work themselves.
There were contests for corn, onions, potatoes and fancy poultry. For girls only: cut flowers and canning.
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“Looking back, we were all over the place on dates,” DiIorio quips.
And it’s true: Over the years, the fair has ranged anywhere from the beginning of August all the way through early September.
But now, the fair is always in mid-August, DiIorio says. It’s always right before students head back to school.
It’s been that way since the mid-1930s. The books tell him so.
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DiIorio, on the fair board since 1995, values the collection for the books’ historical significance.
There are pictures of what the 55-acre grounds and specific buildings looked like filled to the brim during fair week, and there are photos of buildings that no longer exist.
The 1929 book shows an aerial photo of the grounds, completely surrounded by sprawling farmland. Today, there’s not much open space in Painesville, DiIorio laments.
One old-time photo shows a crowded midway during fair week.
“You’d never see a crowd like that here these days,” he admits.
The older books show what’s changed over the years, he says. It was a much easier time back then. There weren’t so many activities to take up a family’s summer like there are today.
“It used to be the county fair was a big, big deal for everyone. Not so today.”
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Lake County isn’t necessarily unique in keeping a history of its fair and grounds through entry books. DiIorio said every fair board he knows of typically keeps 10 or a dozen copies of their own book every year, and counties trade among themselves.
But this county is among a select few that displays its memoirs.
New for the 2007 fair, the board has reappointed the fairgrounds’ log cabin as the new historical museum. Visitors will be able to check out the collection of books there, as well as other fair paraphernalia, like harness racing hats, trophies, and silk shirts, entry tags from exhibits and ribbons.
And there’s also a secretary’s log, scrawled page by page with different handwriting to detail the business of the fair board from Jan. 6, 1866, through Feb. 12, 1896.
The mementos speak of a day gone by, but also reflect the same reasons fairgoers still come: Because to some, the Lake County Fair’s history and future are a big, big deal.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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