Imagine a time when automobiles were a rarity and the primary means of transportation was by horseback. If we flip the pages of history back to 1919, that’s when the Branchville Riding Club was formed and, ultimately, the birth of the New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm & Horse Show. The fair returns August 7-14, this year, after taking a one year hiatus because of COVID.
It’s either 80 or 81 years old, according to president of the fair Joan Smith, but others beg to differ.
“I count the history back to 1940 when the Horse Show merged with agriculture and became The Sussex County Farm & Horse Show,” she said. “Looking at it this way, it would be year 81, but there was no fair last year so that could make it 80, however, there were years that the fair wasn’t held such as during World War II. Others date it back to when the Horse Show first began so that would be 85 years. Either way, we want people to know that we’re celebrating being back and contrary to some rumors I’ve heard, it’s not going to be something small: we’ll be as big and bold and fun as ever!”
If one were to date it back to the origins of the Branchville Riding Club, that would make the Fair 101.
The fair is famous for such things as the Rooster Crow, the Queen of the Fair, Beulah the elephant, livestock shows, carnival rides, fried Oreos, Bloomin’ Onions, bees, the agriculture and animals, the petting zoo.
Historical information about the fair was compiled by Lois Pellow, the fair’s historian who, along with her husband Harold have been in integral part of the Fair since 1945.
Four years after the Branchville Riding Club was created, its president and the owner of Rolison Farm in Culvers Lake, Walter R. Wright, and others organized a small horse show for Wright’s students at the farm. It was such a success, they created an open horse show at Ackerson Field, Ross’s Corner.
In 1926 the horse show was moved to a new ring on the William L. Bass Farm where, for 25 cents admission, spectators could watch riders compete.
1929 to 1932 the fairs were diminished because of the Great Depression. In 1933 they resumed on the grounds of Selected Risks Insurance Company (now Selective Insurance Group) in Branchville.
“The company’s founder was a horseman and competitor and graciously allowed us to use the property,” said Howard “Doc” Worts who has been involved with the fair since it was still in Branchville and has served as president as well as on the Board.
The show transitioned to include agriculture, in 1940, and rebranded as The Sussex County Farm & Horse Show.
“Among other things, we weren’t sure how much longer we would be invited to use the property,” Worts said. “So when McDanolds Farm land, in Augusta, became available, in the early ‘60s, the committee in charge purchased it.”
Construction began on the new property in the early ‘70s beginning with the creation of a pond and some access roads. It picked up several years later and with the coming of the bicentennial, so opened the Sussex County Farm & Horse Show, in the summer of 1976, at its new location.
What’s in a name
Fair Board member Howard Worts’ proudest accomplishment was getting the fair named The New Jersey State Fair.
“There was just something about obtaining that name that I knew would really take us over the top with attendance,” he said. “Of course people loved going to The Sussex County Farm & Horse Show, but when you add ‘New Jersey State Fair” it really becomes a destination.”
One small problem: a carnival company called Reithoffer Shows, Inc., which held a small annual fair in the Cherry Hill area, owned the rights to the name. Worts rolled up his sleeves, and after years of work with lawyers and the carnival, not only obtained the name but contracted the business as its carnival provider. Reithoffer comes in a week before the fair to set up and are off to their next event the day after the fair closes.
The name changed to New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm & Horse Show in 2004.
Hijinks and fun at the fair
Branchville resident, John Newcomer recalls some shenanigans with friends around 1969 to 1975 when the fair was held at Selective.
“Most all the kids knew to go down to the other side of the brook by the ball diamond, walk through the brook and go through fencing the fair installed each year,” he said. “We came through behind the dugout between 3rd base and home plate. The bigger kids cut the wires all the way down to ground. After we came through, we would roll the fence back into place to look as though it were never cut.”
Newcomer does recall one bad year when things were stolen from the 4-H display tent.
“It was mostly produce, ceramics and sewing projects,” he said. “Luckily they had already been judged.”
He also said that after the fair left, there were flies everywhere that had been attracted to the horses making area cookouts nearly impossible for a few weeks.
The Rooster Crow
Jules Marron started the tradition of belting out a “cock-a-doodle-do” on the opening day of the fair in 1942.
His reason? The fair had morphed to include agriculture, so he felt it fitting to open with the crow and he did so until he passed away in 1978. Warren Welsh took over until he passed in 2011. Since then, Aldon Sayre, the oldest member of the fair’s board of directors, has continued the crow.
The fair’s official rooster mascot is named Marron-Welsh-Sayers for the three crowers.
The Queen of the Fair
The first Queen of the Fair competition was held in 1935.Mary Rastelli from Culver’s Lake was the champion.
There are competitions in Sussex County towns to name a “Miss” of the town. Teenage girls, usually seniors in high school, compete in their respective towns and the winners are invited to compete for Queen of the Fair.
In 1963, Edna Powell, from Frankford Township, was crowned Queen of the Fair.
“We didn’t need talents back then and it was a little more low key than it is today,” she said. “You dressed appropriately but didn’t have to answer questions like they do now. After I won, during the fair itself, I walked around and talked with the public, and during the year I attended a few dinners including the Ag Board in Trenton.”
Andover Boro, Stanhope and Walpack have never won the Queen of the Fair title. Sparta has the most wins with nine.
There have been three mother/daughter winners and one sister team: Pat Gray, Fredon & daughter Whitney Redline, Fredon; Diane Danzer, Branchville & daughter Molly Gill Frankford; Debbie Competielle, Ogdensburg & daughter Kelsey Kistle, Sandyston; sisters Sarah and Kelly Lynch of Fredon.
“The Sussex County Beekeepers Association was created by a local group of honey bee enthusiasts and beekeepers in 1967 which was the same year as the first honey show at the Sussex County Farm & Horse Show,” said Marsha Ann Roemer, Historian/Recording Secretary of the Association.
“All of the volunteers at the exhibit are members, who with their knowledge of beekeeping, educate the public about honey bees and their importance to mankind,” she said. “Specifically, without the honey bee’s pollination work, the quantity and quality of many crops would be reduced and some would not yield at all. About one-third of the American diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants and honey bees are responsible for about 80 percent of that process.”
The honey bee exhibit offers a “bee cage” where a beekeeper gives demonstrations with an actual hive and an observation hive where fair goers can get up close and watch the bees interact among themselves.
The Agricultural Building
Since 1983, the Sussex County Agricultural Society has operated the Snook Agriculture Museum.
“It’s a memorial to my father, Jack Snook, who was a Lafayette farmer and agricultural leader,” Snook Smith said. “It features a great collection of antique farm tools from the turn of the 20th century, some interactive exhibits and kitchen circa 1910.”