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History of the SC State Fair

Sep 20, 2016

The South Carolina State Fair is best known for bringing 12 days of exhibits, competitions, food, midway rides and big-name entertainment to Columbia each October. It’s ranked one of the Top 50 fairs in the United States.

The organization, though, operates year-round. With six exhibit halls and 115 acres adjacent to the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium, the fair offers football parking and is a popular venue for major events such as craft shows, home and garden shows, boat shows, civic functions and charitable fundraisers.

A self-supporting 501(c)3 non-profit organization, the fair fulfills its mission to educate young adults by awarding scholarships and since 1997, has granted more than $3 million to South Carolina students.

The Board of Directors of the Fair is comprised of a president, vice-president, secretary/manager, treasurer, and a representative from each of the seven (7) State Congressional Districts and is committed to its mission of supporting youth, agriculture, and community. All revenue generated is reinvested into the Fair's various programs and to maintain the fairground and facilities.

The modern state fair attended by 500,000+ today got its start in November 1839, when the State Agricultural Society of South Carolina was organized in Columbia.

In 1869 it was reorganized as the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society of South Carolina, the fair received a $5,000 appropriation from the legislature and erected buildings at its first site on Elmwood Avenue. 

In 1861, Confederate authorities occupied the fair’s buildings, using them as a place to make war munitions.  In 1865, Sherman's army burned the buildings.

In April 1869, the Society was resurrected. The City of Columbia partially reconstructed the buildings, and private funds were raised to create a statewide fair. At that time, the legislature appropriated $2,500 annually to assist the Society.

As the state fair expanded, it outgrew its Elmwood location. In 1904, the Society moved the fair to its present location on Rosewood Drive.

In 1910 the main building on the fairgrounds burned.  In 1911 Columbia was selected as the site of the National Corn Exposition in January 1913.  The Society and Columbia located a large auditorium in Greensboro, North Carolina and purchased it for $25,000.  Originally constructed at the Jamestown Exposition in 1907 it was later moved to Greensboro for use as an auditorium.  Known as the Old Steel Building it served as the main exhibit space for the fair until it burned in 1966.  It was replaced by the Hampton and Ruff Buildings.   

In 1912, the Society bought the Hippodrome Building, which had been used for the 1908 National Republican Convention, and moved the building from Norfolk, Virginia, to Columbia.  The National Corn Show was held in the Hippodrome Building on the South Carolina State Fair grounds later that year. That building was destroyed by fire in 1966 and was replaced by the Hampton and Ruff Buildings.

In 1969, the South Carolina State Fair acquired a Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile (named Columbia) designed by Dr. Wernher Von Braun and built by Chrysler. The Rocket had been a gift to the City of Columbia from the U.S. Air Force in the early 1960s.  It’s become a popular landmark on the fairgrounds and a meeting spot for fair-goers.

Today, the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society of South Carolina has full responsibility for operation of the fair and its grounds, year-round. Though called the “State Fair,” it is not state-owned nor is the fair funded by any appropriations from the State of South Carolina.  It operates as a private non-profit organization with a mission of funding education and has provided more than $3 million in scholarships since 1997. 

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