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Originally an agricultural fair begun in 1821 and held at irregular intervals, it had evolved into a permanent event by 1869 when Rundle and White, hat manufacturers, organized an association to buy property for a Danbury Pleasure Park. This same year the Danbury Farmers & Manufacturers Society was formed and made arrangements to use the grounds of the park for a fair which opened in October with a record-setting 900 entries.
Later the Society purchased 100 acres of the park grounds. Admission was 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. Back then the Farmers' Tent offered everything from leaf tobacco and 12 types of pears to home-brewed wines made of wild cherry, elderberry, and raspberry for the lucky judges to sample, while the Manufacturing Section included everything from hats, boots, and saddles to carriages, wagons, churns, and stoves.
As its fame and popularity spread, the Danbury Fair attracted huge audiences; the locals coming by streetcars and automobiles; those farther away traveling by special trains. As many as "157 coaches of passengers" were brought in during the 1901 Fair Week.
What really made the fair the extravaganza that it became was the entrepreneurship of John W. Leahy. With his "unerring sense of great showmanship, what was once a dirt-pathed exposition of farmwares was transformed [into] a virtual city of paved expanses, modern exhibit buildings and midway attractions." Year after year, wearing his magnificent ringmaster's uniform, John Leahy led the daily Grand Parade. The harness races of earlier years were replaced by midget car races which in turn were replaced by stock car races.
The final year of the Great Danbury Fair was in 1981.
As we head into "Fair Season" here in New England, we'll be installing an outdoor exhibit showcasing the early days of Danbury's fair. Danburians of a certain vintage are familiar with the beloved fair as assembled by John W Leahy, but the roots of this grand tradition are equally interesting.
To kick off our celebration of 200 years of fairs in Danbury, we're sharing a few gems from our extensive postcard collection in an online exhibit (below) called Wish You Were Here: Postcards From the Danbury Fair. These cards reveal the importance of the fair in the yearly calendar of the citizens of greater Danbury. Some were mailed to farther afield destinations like Newark, NJ, others, closer to home, to neighbors in New Milford. All, however, express the same sentiment of wanting to share the fair experience with friends, neighbors, and relatives. Scroll through the images below to see not only early views of the fair, but to see how the reverse side of postcards changed across time.
Postcards that have been mailed are easy to date. But the other ones? They can be tough and we are left looking for clues within clothing, cars, or architecture. Looking for more information on the history of the postcard? Check out The Chicago Postcard Museum for more tips and hints.