Rides, food, fireworks, music and farm animals have made the Delaware State Fair a standout event.//Courtesy of the Delaware State Fair
Having experienced eight decades of Delaware State Fair festivities, 80-year-old Leroy Betts can tell you about the days when fairgoers dressed in their finest attire, dodged speeding car races and subsisted on hot dogs and hamburgers.
As the longest-serving fair director, Betts has attended the fair since he was a young child and served on the board since the 1980s. He still lives on the farm where he was born and raised, four miles outside of Harrington.
Betts has witnessed significant evolution over the decades, from grounds expansion to the growth of food offerings, livestock showcasing and entertainment. And he looks forward to participating in the fair’s biggest year yet as it celebrates its 100th anniversary this July.
Although the event has evolved to include concerts and a demolition derby, the fair remains true its roots as a celebration of agriculture, horticulture, mechanical arts and the rural and domestic economy—all of which have maintained a strong presence in Delaware for centuries.
The first mentions of the fair go back to 1869, but the true iteration of the official State Fair dates to 1919, as an idea conceived by a few neighbors at the Harrington railroad station.
Leroy Betts, 80, the longest serving director of the Delaware State Fair, has been a fairgoer for a good portion of its century in existence.//photo by Maria Deforrest
According to the written history, the original purpose of fair was to be “an exposition for the purpose of promoting and encouraging agriculture and of giving pleasures and diversions to the inhabitants of rural communities within the State of Delaware.” A century later, the 10-day celebration of state culture has become a mix of high-tech enterprises and small family operations.
The festival boasts attendance of more than 300,000 on the 300-acre fairground encompassing The Centre Ice Rink and the Harrington Raceway and Casino.
As always, educational exhibits and demonstrations are aimed at the advancement of livestock, horticulture and agriculture with a special emphasis placed on educational activities such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America. The fair’s relationship with 4-H—the national network of youth organizations with a focus on agriculture—is especially significant as Delaware has the highest per capita rate of 4-H participation in the nation.
Betts says he takes special pride in two aspects of the festival—keeping the earned money within the community to continually improve the festival buildings and the integral support of volunteers. The non-profit organization, which depends on volunteer support, remains committed to promoting agricultural heritage and values of southern Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Courtesy of the Delaware State Fair
Livestock has always been the heart of the fair, offering opportunities for children and adults to showcase the best of the state’s animal husbandry and the opportunities it affords both businesses and families.
Betts says the showing of livestock is not just great for the fair, but a positive experience for the children who show them, with the blue-ribbon winners featured in the “parade of champions.”
“If a child is showing a goat, it draws their grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles to the fair,” he says. “But it’s also a good forum for the kids to learn to win and lose and to take care of other animals.”
Betts also notes that over the years, they’ve significantly broadened the types of animals shown at the fair, which leads to increased opportunity to show.
“A few years back we had a young director that was into showing around the country, and he said we should start showing pygmy goats and meat goats,” he says. “Before that we only had a one-day milking goat show. Now we have so many goats because children can show them without having a great big barn. We actually have to split up the goat shows throughout the week.”
Robert Moore, who helps manage livestock at the Delaware State Fair.//Photo courtesy of the Delaware State Fair
Robert Moore started showing cattle from his family farm in Bear in 1962 and has been on the fair board since 1975. He now serves as livestock committee chairman and dairy superintendent and director.
The fair is fortunate to have significantly grown its numbers in livestock, Moore says—the goat department alone has gone from 20 animals to more than 700. Over the past decade, there’s been a tremendous expansion of market animals like sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle through the 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs with animals of all species going on to national shows.
“Kids can get an animal in the spring and grow it through the summer,” he says. “Once they show it, the top animals to go into auction and the public can bid on them.”
Photo Courtesy of Delaware State Fair
The children realize that being “sold to market” means these animals may be used for food, but Moore says it’s all part of the learning process.
“Sometimes it’s hard to let go when you are close to an animal all its life, but that is the purpose of the project and they know that going into it,” he says.
There are also dairy farms that lease animals to kids through 4-H, so the child takes care of the animal and shows it before returning it to the dairy.
He says many of these kids go on to become active in agricultural fields that they never would have gotten into otherwise.
“Everybody goes with the hope of winning, but I have found through experience that there are amazing friendships built even through competition,” he says. “Everyone looks forward to coming back to compete year after year.”
Photos courtesy of the Delaware State Fair
As with most state fairs, amusement rides and carnival games have been a staple of the Delaware State Fair since the beginning. In the 1970s, more rides and games were brought in by an outside company, and now the carnival has evolved to feature everything from kiddie rides all the way to mega drops, roller coasters and even a bungee simulator.
But Betts says one vestige from the fair of the 1920s that has disappeared is the automobile racing that filled the grandstand and occasionally endangered onlookers.
“There was very little safety when you look back at it,” he says. “People were lined around the inside of the track and as a kid I saw those cars run right through farms.”
But now that safety and insurance has become priority, the demolition derby and monster trucks satisfy the thirst for action. After all, no fair would be complete without the must-see spectacles of deliberate vehicular destruction.
There’s also harness racing, a form of horse racing where riders are led by the horse in a two-wheeled cart. The race takes place at no charge at Harrington Raceway on July 25 for Governor’s Day at the fair.
Photo courtesy of the Delaware State fair
Musical performances are always a big draw to the state fair mainstage, and this year welcomes pop and country stars Reba McEntire, Dan + Shay, Sugarland, Darci Lynne (Winner of 2017’s “Americas Got Talent”), Brantley Gilbert and Brothers Osbourne as well as a foray into classic R&B with the legendary Gladys Knight.
Food offerings, which in early days were limited to typical festival fare like hot dogs and funnel cake, have broadly expanded to include favorites liken fried turkey legs, waffle sandwiches, Italian sausage and roast beef sandwiches.
Freund Family Foods is a traveling food concessions company that has been bringing its specialties to the Delaware State Fair for the past 12 years.
Owner Lenny Freund, who travels to fairs around the country, says the fair continues to impress his team and raise standards for the industry. “This year’s concert series is the strongest lineup that I’ve seen at any state fair,” he says.
Freund says the company brings two popular items to the fair: U Do It Slush Factory, where the guests get to make their own multi-colored and flavored slushy, and Outlaw Fries, thick potato chips topped with cheese, bacon, sour cream and green onions. They also sell onion straws, fried pickles and fried jalapeno peppers.
Photo courtesy of the Delaware STate Fair
What does he notice as the key difference in the taste buds at the Delaware State Fair compared to other fairs? “Lots of malted vinegar for the French fries,” Freund says.
Leroy Betts is blown away by the growing food offerings as well.
“They’ll just put dough around anything and fry it now,” Betts says.
As someon who’s seen a lot in the way of culinary invention among the fair’s food vendors, he says the most surprising thing he’s seen so far has been alligator meat.
The Roost Beer and Wine Garden is a newer addition to the fair, highlighting regionally produced beer and wines. This year will feature a specialty festival craft beer brewed in partnership with Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes.
And for a centennial sweet treat, the festival is partnering with nearby Pennsylvania company Tastykake for a Butterscotch Krimpet birthday cake.
Photo courtesy of the Delaware State Fair
Betts takes special pride in the beauty of the fair buildings themselves as they’ve grown in both size and design. No longer wooden barns and dirt floors, the indoor fair areas feature hundreds of booths with food and crafts, both for show and for sale.
Competitive exhibits abound, from garden fruit and vegetables to pie and cake, woodwork, needlepoint, basket weaving, ceramics and just about anything else you can grow, make or build with your hands.
“I’ve been to fairs from Florida to Alaska and I’d put those fair buildings up against any in the country,” he says. “And, of course, not many state fairs have a casino beside them.”
One thing Betts finds remarkable is that while the grounds have gotten much cleaner, the dress has significantly changed.
“If you look at old pictures of the fair, you see men with ties and suits and summer straw hats and women dressed up,” he says. He finds it interesting to note that gone are the days of folks getting dirty in their formal attire, as casual clothing is now the norm.
(FROM LEFT): Photo courtesy of the Delaware State Fair.; Danny Aguillar, the fair’s assistant general manager and director of marketing, says the fair’s popularity remains because it represents people from throughout Delaware.//photo by MAria Deforrest
The fair’s 100th anniversary has been encapsulated from book to screen, says Danny Aguilar, the fair’s assistant general manager and director of marketing.
“Treasured Tradition: Delaware State Fair Centennial – 100 Years of Family Fun” by Robin Brown chronicles the fair’s history in paperback, while the documentary “Delaware State Fair Treasured Memories Video Storybook” will be viewable at the fair and available to view online.
There will also be a centennial display of memorabilia at the state archives in Dover as well as a video and display at the fair’s exhibit hall.
The centennial will also be celebrated with special contests and competitions. With more than 400 RVs on average parked on the campgrounds over the course of the festival, thousands of people take advantage of the fair’s unique camping opportunity. This year there will be a campsite decorating contest, where campers can compete to win Delaware State Fair cornhole boards.
The usual two nights of fireworks has been upped to eight, with extensive displays exploding in the air at the conclusion of all evening concerts.
Aguilar says this celebration will emphasize how the fair is such an important part of the landscape and traditions of Delaware and a rich part of its history.
“The state fair is Delaware and people are connected to it in so many different ways—that’s why people love coming back year after year.”