History's Headlines: Hi-ho come to the Great Allentown Fair of 1928
by Frank Whelan (a CWRT Board Member)
We’re in the midst of another Allentown Fair. It is time to stand in line for the waffles and ice cream, climb on to the thrill rides and enjoy once more the voice that attempts to lure passers-by to see the three-legged calf. Others, of course just want to see their favorite artists at the grandstand shows. But like any institution that has been around over 150 years, the fair has seen a lot of changes since its Lehigh County Agricultural Society founders held the first in 1852 at 4th and Union streets on the vast lawn that had once belonged to the Allen family. And perhaps during no decade has the Allentown Fair undergone greater change than in the 1920s.
During World War I there was no Allentown Fair as the Fairgrounds were being used by the Army as Camp Crane, where it was training ambulance drivers. And the first fair that followed in 1919 was still very similar to those in the pre-war era with a lot of emphasis on the agricultural exhibits and horse harness races. But by the latter part of the decade it was clear that it was a new fair, one that reflected the changing nature of the times. Here is a look back at the fair of 1928 and the changes that marked the decade.
Ladies, grab your cloche hat, and gentlemen, your hip flaks for a trip back in time. You might want to bring your raccoon coat as well, in those days the fairs were held in late September and nights could get chilly.
One of the biggest changes from just ten years before was the arrival of the automobile. Although many people still came by the streetcars of the city’s excellent public transit system, Model T and Model A Fords were filling the grounds around that fair.
By 1928 automobile speed races were a big attraction. Begun in 1923 with an exhibition of auto-polo (believe it or not, drivers in cars with mallets hitting balls), it had evolved into regular speed races.
By 1928 the Allentown Fair was hosting what it called Automobile Day. A group of race car drivers that went from fair to fair had a following. “Yesterday,” noted the Morning Call on Sunday, September 23, 1928, “designated Automobile Day, brought out a big throng and the speed events of the petrol chariots attracted a capacity crowd. The thrills of the afternoon were augmented by the thousands in the grandstand when it was announced that Ray Keech had equaled the track record made by Ira Vail in 1924.”
Before World War I the Allentown Fair had attracted a large daytime crowd but was not as active at night. Bur the Roaring 20s were to witness the arrival of the night time shows. These productions were sort of a cross between the Ziegfeld Follies and a Hollywood spectacle featuring women in tights and spangles and men in evening clothes, a touch of the big city at home. The show that year was run by William B. Collins and traveled a county fair circuit around the country for many years. How popular were these productions? Well here is what the Morning Call had to say on September 21, 1928 under the headline “IMMENSE CROWD ATTENDS NIGHT FAIR; MORE CARNIVAL-LIKE THAN AT DAY:
“The nightcap to Big Thursday – The Frivolities of 1928 – was the magnet that kept the Fair Grounds a hive of activity until the lights were put out in order to get the last of the crowd out of the grounds on the second evening of the night affair. There is something different about the crowds that attend the night fair, from those who visit the exposition during the day. Whatever the difference, this difference was some 80,000 people, ten thousand of them in the grandstand and paddock to see the revue which featured the Schooley and Collins extravaganza.”
The newspaper story went on to note that Fair officials were thrilled with the show and the new crowds of younger people it seemed to bring in. “This is the first year that a theatrical attraction so unique as the Winter Gardenish offering being presented has been undertaken.” The reference here was to the Winter Garden Theater in New York where Al Jolson, perhaps the most popular male Broadway performer of the decade, regularly performed. Allentown residents had seen him several times in that era at the Lyric Theater, now Miller Symphony Hall. Something like Jolson’s Winter Garden shows, that put the star on a stage that went into the midst of the audience, might also be meant.
The reporter noted that an innovation like a musical revue added a new audience to the fair. “It serves a double purpose,” he noted. “First, it brings crowds to the grounds in the evening to see a stellar attraction who otherwise would not attend: second, it keeps a large portion of the day crowd in the grounds to round out the pleasure that can come only from the frivolity bred by a night carnival.” These type of revue shows were to remain popular at the Fair into the 1950s.
All of this did not mean that agriculture was forgotten in the 1920s. There were still a lot of farmers in Lehigh and Northampton County and for them the animal and vegetable judging were what the Fair was all about. Poultry fanciers flocked to their exhibit presided over by W. Theodore Wittman, long time superintendent of the show. Wittman gave first prize that year to a Bluff Plymouth Rock owned by Harry C. Conner of Stockton, New York, that apparently was raised by a local breeder.
There were 3,698 exhibitors at the horticultural exhibit, over 700 more than there had been a year before. And Willow Brook farms, run by Colonel James W. Fuller of Catasauqua, scored heavily in the horse exhibit.
These bucolic happenings were sometimes mixed with other news that week. Crime was making headlines. It included three gunmen invading the Blue Mountain Inn near New Tripoli, making off with $1000. Most of it came from Indiana tourists. If they were just passing through or had stopped at the fair the newspaper did not say. Many local roadhouses of the day were known to offer “liquid refreshment” in the form of apple jack far from the eyes of law enforcement. The Allentown police kept an eye out and managed to make two arrests at the fair itself: two young men were found drunk and disorderly on their bootleg hooch and were taken into custody. It was a not an uncommon charge in the Prohibition era, when, as one old timer was to later recall, “Allentown and Lehigh County floated on a sea of booze.”
There was, of course that bane of all fairs: bad weather. “Dawn on the Wednesday of fair week found the skies dimmed by heavy rainclouds and shortly before nine o’clock there developed a drizzle which broke with equinoctial fury around midday,” noted the press.
But this was the Roaring 20s after all and such things were taken in stride. “Though it rained throughout the day, “the newspaper noted, “there was plenty of pep in the fair fans who did turn out. This was not born out of enthusiasm resultant from the things they saw but rather was caused by the necessity of keeping on the move to prevent being chilled to the marrow by the frosty air of a nasty wet September day.”
Fortunately, however, around noon the next day “old Sol (the sun) started to do his stuff in real earnest to prove the weathermen can be wrong,” and so closed the 77th Allentown Fair.