July 10, 2024 at 12:00 a.m.

Jay County Fair has a rich history

Back in the Saddle


Editor’s note: This column is being reprinted from July 27, 2011. The Jay County Fair kicked off Saturday, with the Blackford and Randolph county fairs to follow the next two weeks. Jack was always a big fan of the fair. He also loved Jay County history. This piece combines the pair.


One of these days, the sign will have to be changed.

Ever since the Roundhouse at the Jay County Fairgrounds was restored in 1986, it has had a sign marking it, “Floral Hall 1891.”

Trouble is, it was built in 1883.

That’s one of the surprising bits of Jay County Fair history that Rosie Grapner, wife of longtime fair board member Ralph Grapner, has unearthed while reading her way through the minutes of the Jay County Fair Association.

Grapner, an amateur historian and co-chair of the Jay County Historical Society ’s annual Heritage Festival with Sandy Bubp, began digging into the fair’s history earlier this year.

“In January, the fair (board) members go to the fair association state convention,” she said. “One of the round tables was on, ‘What have you done to preserve the history of your fair?’” 

The speaker was from a county fair that had lost most of its records and memorabilia due to a serious act of vandalism. That was all the spark Grapner needed. She prodded Ralph, who has been on the fair board since 1977, and other board members to search for items that would shed light on the past. 

“History wasn’t their thing,” she said. “I decided this (the secretary’s minute books) would be the first place to look.” 

In 19th century handwriting, line after line and page after yellowed page of the records has been reviewed, with Grapner taking note of changes and milestones in the fair’s history. 

“I’ve gone through three books,” she said. “My biggest surprise was that Floral Hall was built eight years earlier.” 

Along the way, she’s learned: 

•That Jay County’s first attempt at a fair — held on what was then the Hearn farm and is today West Main Street — was in 1853 but only lasted a few years. 

•That in 1871 the fair association was born. Eight hundred shares of stock were sold at a price of $25 to raise capital for the event. Harvey Bergman bought the first two shares, and Jonas Votaw bought the next four. 

•That in 1872 the Jay County Commissioners acquired 40 acres of farmland, making it available as the county fairgrounds. The first fair on the current site was held in October of 1872 and the second in September 1873. 

•That in 1876 the fair association built the first “amphitheatre,” a grandstand, at the racetrack at a cost of $630. 

•That in 1891 the Jay County Fair was considered the biggest in eastern Indiana and drew more than 38,000 people over the course of four days, this in an era before the automobile. 

•That in 1896 Portland-born inventor Elwood Haynes and one of the Apperson brothers brought their horseless carriage from Kokomo for a demonstration of its operation at the fair.

And much, much more. 

“There’s just no end,” said Grapner. “I don’t remember all the dates. There are just too many of them.” 

As she worked, county historian Jane Spencer keystroked her notes into a computer. Volunteers Debbie Gillespie and Cindy VanSkyock then worked with the two of them to develop a display of photos, artifacts and memorabilia that’s on display all this week in the Women’s Building. It includes vintage fair posters, badges and ribbons as well as memorabilia from the career of Jay County harness racing legend Jerry Landess.

There are also vintage photos which reveal that the Roundhouse originally had a large cupola. That was removed at some point and dormers were added.

And the building’s price tag when new? $732.

PORTLAND WEATHER

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