The first memory I have of 4-H was in 1937. Perhaps eight or 10 young people were invited to a Lockport Kiwanis luncheon in the spring. We were each given six baby chicks and a bag of feed. We were to take the chicks home, raise them and in the fall bring one bird back to another Kiwanis luncheon.
We brought the birds in bushel baskets or boxes to be auctioned off. The money raised would pay for our chicks and feed, and provide funds to pay for chicks and feed for more young people the following spring.
The Kiwanians wanted to take the chickens out of the containers so they could be seen, but were afraid they might misbehave. They tried to put rubber pants, the kind babies used to wear when they wore cloth diapers, on the chickens. It was quite a job to get both legs in the holes and tuck the feathers in.
It didn't work. They just held the birds up and cleaned up the mess later.
The Kiwanians who purchased the chickens were ready to go back to work at the bank, the store, the schools or if a doctor or lawyer, to their offices. They really didn't want to take the birds with them or leave them at home for their wives to butcher and dress for supper, so they gave them back to us.
This was a good experience for me, to receive the chicks, raise them, go to two Kiwanis luncheons, and get my chicken back. Kiwanis was one of the early supporters of 4-H and still is.
The first county fair in the United States was organized by Elkanah Watson of Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Mass. Watson was an entrepreneur and his first fair was so successful that they were held each year. He also wrote a book on fairs to guide other counties in holding fairs, as well as acting as a consultant to those wishing to hold a fair. It was known as the Berkshire System of County Fairs. Even today, every county fair is patterned after that 1811 fair.
In 1821, a group of interested farmers and business men formed the Niagara County Agricultural Society to promote and hold fairs. Fairs were held off and on for the next few years at various locations in the country.
In 1845, it was decided that the fair should be held at Lockport because of its central location and the facilities available.
One of the premium books shows the following:
Best half-acre of flax $5.
Best yoke of oxen $5.
Best half-acre of hemp, $5.
For plowing the greatest quantity of ground, in the best manner, with a yoke of oxen in 30 minutes, $5.
The fairs were held in the public square, which is now occupied by the courthouse. In 1858, the association purchased 20 acres of land in the city, bounded by Washburn Street, Willow Street and Beattie Avenue. Exhibit buildings were erected and a racetrack and grandstand installed, as well as stables for the horses. Fairs were held here until 1917.
The 1908 premium book listed the following fruits eligible for awards: 50 varieties of apples, eight of peaches, 38 of grapes, 22 of pears, 13 of plums, four of quinces. We raise 14 varieties of apples now, and I can think of 17 varieties from former years.
The book listed 168 varieties of potatoes.
Regulations weren't as strict back in the early 1900s as they are today, but that many varieties made packing and labeling a nightmare.
By 1917, the fair was experiencing financial difficulties. We were about to enter World War I, and the association sold the fairgrounds to Mr. Morrow for $20,000. Mr. Morrow subdivided the property, put in Morrow Avenue and Regent Street, and started selling lots and building homes.
In 1922, the Association decided they should start having fairs again. In April 1922, they purchased the Bewley farm on Lake Avenue. This farm was owned by Richard "Dick" Bewley, who also owned the canning factory on the corner of Lake Avenue and Canal Road and who also built the Bewley Building after the Hodge Opera house burned in 1927.
The farm purchase price was $13,000. After paying off their debt, the Association used what was left over from the sale of the old fairgrounds and from the sale of bonds to purchase the farm and put up exhibit buildings, a grandstand, fenced racetrack and stables.
On Wednesday, Sept. 27, 1922, the first fair was opened on the new fairgrounds for a six-day run. There was a Ladies Department listed in the premium book, but no 4-H or Junior Department.
In 1932, the 4-H agent from Genesee County came to the Tuscarora Indian Reservation and formed a 4-H club. The Harris Seed Company furnished seeds for the garden project. In 1936, Roger Silsby, with the help of the Niagara County Extension agents, formed the Orangeport Rangers 4-H Club.
Perhaps these two events prompted Dan Dalrymple, the County Extension agent, to ask my father, John A. Hall, to resign from the Farm Bureau Board and form a 4-H Board. This board was formed in the fall of 1936, and their mission was to hire a 4-H agent and seek out funds to pay his salary. In January of 1937 John L. Stookey was hired as the first 4-H agent in Niagara County. By 1938 there were 38 clubs and 426 4-H'ers. The Board of Supervisors, which is now the County Legislature, appropriated money for John Stookey's salary and over the years have been very supportive of 4-H and extension programs.
Now there were enough 4-H clubs and members and leaders so that there had to be a 4-H department at the fair. Unfortunately during the Depression the fair was in money trouble again and with World War II coming on, the fair was scaled down, then suspended during the war.
The agricultural building, which is now the training center, was converted into a labor camp for offshore farm labor in 1943. A kitchen was installed, toilets and showers and enough bunk beds to accommodate 125 men.
They were Jamaican and Bahamian men. The farmers would contract for however many men they needed and pick them up each morning. The workers ate their breakfast at camp and carried a lunch. They were returned to camp at night.
On V.J. Day, Aug. 14, 1945, the Poultry Improvement Association held the first chicken barbecue at the Wrights Corners Fire Hall serving 300 chicken halves. In 1945, there were 2,314 4-H members. Also, 1,555 had Victory Gardens, ranging in size from 30 square feet to 10 acres, a total of 220 acres. The value of the vegetables was $113,000.
There were 122 enrolled in the poultry project raising 32,694 birds. Eggs and birds were worth $48,678.
Now think back to the story I told you about eight or 10 young people each receiving six chicks and a bag of feed in 1937. Eight years later, 122 young people raised 32,694 chickens. That's real progress.
A fair was held in 1946, but was not successful. The debt on the fairgrounds was $64,920, and in 1947 the bondholders brought foreclosure precedings against the Fair Association. At an auction held July 13, 1947, Fred Beyer, representing the bondholders, had the high bid of $45,000.
In 1947 the 4-H held a fair at the Wrights Corners Fire Hall, which consisted of a display of vegetables, woodworking projects and dresses and sewing projects.
Four of the 4-H events that I remember were the one-act play, square dancing, talent contests and the dress reviews. The dress reviews had more than 100 girls modeling their clothes. The plays, dancing, and singing gave the young people a chance to participate in something other than pulling weeds and feeding animals.
During this period the 4-H and extension offices were on the second floor of the Old Post Office on the corner of Elm and East Avenue. If we wanted to hold a large event we had to depend on the churches in the county. We held a great many dinners at the Baptist church in Newfane and the Baptist Church in Lockport and Emmanuel Methodist Church in Lockport. Four and five clubs would go together for achievement night and the play contest. The Methodist Church gymnasium had a stage at one end, and was ideal for the play contest. I was in charge of this event for 1948. I think it cost $15 to rent the Methodist gym for the night.
Arvilla and I started dating in 1947. For some reason in the winter of 1947-1948, I decided I didn't want to date anymore. In the spring when the play, dancing, and talent contest were held, I needed a piano player. Arvilla was, and still is, a good piano player, so I called her and asked if she would play. She said she would if I would pick her up. I said yes and we went to the play contest. After the program was over, I took her home and pulled into her driveway to let her out and she said, "Are you coming in?" I said yes, and to make a long story short we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in June 1999.
There were discussions among the Extension Service folks concerning the purchase of the fairgrounds, but no decision was reached. The bondholders owned a fairgrounds with no fair, so they tried to develop a harness horse racetrack. The New York State Racing Commission ruled that with a harness track in Batavia and another in Hamburg, this corner of the state didn't need another one. They rented the grounds for various activities, including the motorcycle races, horse shows and picnics, and they sold the agriculture building to Ferguson Oil Company to be used as a warehouse.
In 1948, the New Niagara County Fair Association was formed with these officers: John K. Silsby, president; John A. Hall, vice president; Edward Gruen, treasurer; and George Ferris, secretary. Directors were John Galvin, Carl Sentz, John Leinbach, Joseph J. Volker and Anthony Pusateri.
On Aug. 30, 1948, The New Niagara County Fair opened with the Grange and area farmers furnishing exhibits and the 4-H members furnishing a large number of exhibits. Elmer Barrett was hired as manager. This rental to the new fair association produced a little money for the bondholders.
At the 1949 fair, the Blackman Family was the Honor Farm Family and two teen-age boys received 18 blue ribbons exhibiting fruit from their fathers' farm.
In 1951, John Stookey was asked by the U.S. government to go to Germany for six months and work with the German Ministry of Agriculture to organize rural German youth along the lines of 4-H. Hitler had organized the German youth to spy on their parents and teachers, so the German people were suspicious of a stranger who wanted to organize children.
John was patient and persistent and before he left for home he had some leaders trained and a few clubs formed. By 1953, 200,000 German youth were enrolled in a program similar to our 4-H.
This same year the new Niagara County Fair Association put together a humdinger of a fair. The Union Sun & Journal for Saturday, Aug. 11, 1951, listed the highlights:
Monday -- Cattle judging, Joey Chitwoods Auto Dare Devils.
Tuesday -- More judging, All Star Wrestling.
Wednesday -- Selection of Grand Champion Cattle, Ward Beam's Worlds Champion Auto Dare Devils.
Thursday -- Fireman's Day, mammoth volunteer fireman's parade in the evening, with 2,500 firemen expected to march.
Friday -- Youth Day. All children admitted free. Jack Kochman's "Thrill Drivers."
Saturday -- Horse show in the afternoon and All Star wrestling card in the evening.
A great fair, but they lost money and this was the last "hurrah" for the Niagara County Fair as we knew it.
Next week: The Riddle of the Griddle
JOHN K. HALL is a lifelong resident of Niagara County whose grandfather founded Hall Apple Farms on Ruhlman Road.