Slasor relates history of Burgettstown fair

BURGETTSTOWN – It was a full house for the latest of the Fort Vance Historical Society’s lectures on local history.

Kathryn Slasor, noted local historian, was the featured speaker Aug. 10 at the Burgettstown Community Library. Slasor discussed the Burgettstown Agricultural Fair, sharing the fair’s known history and her own and other’s personal recollections of the fair.

Slasor spoke about how a typical farming family would spend the day at the fair, likely getting up at dawn to see to the farm chores and pack a picnic lunch, as the early fairs didn’t have the food vendors that are attracted to today’s events.

“When it came time to eat, they spread blankets out in the grass,” she said.

She added that many families would have taken horses or mules and wagons, while others would travel from throughout the Tri-State Area by train to Burgettstown – during fair days, special trains would run from neighboring communities to Burgettstown.

“They came from miles around on trains or by foot or on horse back or in a wagon,” Slasor said.

It wasn’t all fun and games – Slasor recounted several incidents where fair-goers or vendors were arrested for illegally selling alcohol at the fair. At one point, the fair organizers asked the town’s saloon keepers to shut down during the fair, but they were denied.

At least once, fire damaged a stable and a horse was killed. Slasor also recalled an incident in which a horse escaped the race track – and capture – until running into an automobile full of women, who were frightened by the impact. However, no one was harmed, including the horse, and it was finally captured.

The fair also saw at least one death – Alden Miller was thrown from a sulky during a race and trampled by horses Sept. 12, 1936, dying a few days later from his injuries.

Slasor said many oddities were featured at the fair, including elephants and air planes, from its earliest days. Many of the fair’s details were gleaned from old issues of the Burgettstown Enterprise, which often listed prominent people attending the fair and interviewed those who attended the fair yearly for extended periods of time.

“Some of them came year after year for 61 years,” Slasor said.

Thomas Vance, W.P. Vance and John B. Phillis founded the Union Agricultural Association, which operated the fair from 1856 to 1939, at first where Shady Avenue is now located, and later at the Sutherland Lumber Co. site.

“We know they wanted to have a fair, but there’s no real record why it happened,” said Slasor, adding that accounts seemed to indicate the three men began discussing the possibility in the storeroom of one of their businesses.

The fair began as a two-day event and was later expanded to four days, with an estimated 5,000 people attending each year. In addition, the fair grounds featured a race track, which was a big draw and also the source of many wagers.

“We don’t know why the fair ended, we just know it did,” said Slasor. “It may have been because of World War II.”

Also during the event, Fort Vance representatives discussed the group’s ongoing projects.

The library recently received a $15,000 grant from the Remmel Foundation, which the library and historical society will use to make the society’s materials available to the public in a meeting room provided by the library for the society’s use. Also with this funding, the society will make its materials available to historians, researchers and genealogical research.

The historical society also is digitizing its archives so they can be accessed from the library’s computer network. Those interested in making donations toward this project can ask at the library.

The society also is composing collections of old newspaper articles on various historic events and people. Volunteers are needed for the organization and collection of these articles. Volunteer hours are flexible.

The group will be available at the library from 10 a.m. to 4p.m. Wednesdays through November.

Society research assistants are available to assist with genealogical and historical information. To make an appointment, inquire at the library.

For information on the historical society, call (724) 947-5441.