As early as the 1720s, agricultural fairs held in the South Carolina lowcountry were the forerunners of today’s State Fair. During the early nineteenth century, local and regional agricultural societies sponsored fairs featuring competitive events with prizes for the best crops, livestock and homemaking skills. In 1839, the State Agricultural Society was organized to establish a statewide fair, and state fairs were held in Columbia from 1841 to 1845 and again from 1856 to 1861.
In 1869, the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society of South Carolina was created to sponsor a state fair. Held on the pre-war state fair grounds on Elmwood Avenue on property provided by the city of Columbia, the revived State Fair not only promoted the agricultural interests of the state, but it also recognized the need to encourage industrial development. Every year since 1869, except for 1918 when the influenza epidemic was raging across the nation, the Society has sponsored a state fair. By 1903, the fair outgrew the Elmwood Avenue location, and in 1904 the annual fair moved to its present location on Rosewood Avenue (presently, Rosewood Drive).
From its founding in 1869, the State Fair has been an important economic contributor to the local economy. Beginning in the 1870s, the carnival component of the fair was held on Columbia’s downtown streets, flooding the area each evening with thousands of visitors enjoying the restaurants and retail stores, of all which stayed open each night. Each winter from the 1890’s until 1969 the fairgrounds provided winter quarters for hundreds of racehorses and their support personnel from northern racetracks. Even before the annual football contest between South Carolina and Clemson began in earnest in 1909, “Big Thursday” was the peak day of fair week, culminating with the State Ball on Thursday evening. By the middle of the 20th century, Thursday of fair week was a state holiday centered-around the football game. The last Carolina/Clemson “Big Thursday” game was in 1959.
In many ways the South Carolina State Fair is a typical state fair. But it also has had its unique characteristics. While it is the official state fair, it is not connected in anyway with the state government but is a private non-profit organization with a self-perpetuating governing board. Most state fairs did not operate every year during World War II, but our State Fair was open every year during the war. From 1909 to 1969 the week following the State Fair the fairgrounds were used by the Colored State Fair Association to host a state fair for the African American community.
Today’s State Fair welcomes almost 500,000 visitors each year. While most fairgoers attend to experience the most recent midway ride or sample the latest craze in carnival food, the State Fair continues its sponsorship of premiums in a wide variety of fields from 4-H students showing their prized farm animals to senior citizens competing in home crafts and gardening categories. Education remains an integral part of the State Fair’s mission and is reflected in the $300,000 in college scholarships awarded to students each year.
Since its conception, the State Fair has not only promoted agriculture and industry, but it has also reflected the culture and mores of the state. The essence of the State Fair was captured in an editorial in The State newspaper on October 18, 1960: “The South Carolina State Fair may mean different things to different people… In a very real sense it is the opportunity to take stock within our state as to where we stand in agriculture and industry, in science and art and history. It is foremost the reflection of our educational values and where we put our faith.”
NPR Podcast: State Fair a S.C. Tradition for Nearly 150 Years