In 1846, the Ohio Legislature created the 53-member Board of Agriculture. One of the Board’s first acts was to establish a District Fair. The resulting 1847 District Fair at Wilmington and the 1848 District Fair at Xenia were both successful, thus warranting a State Fair.
The first Ohio State Fair was planned for September 1849, but an outbreak of Asiatic cholera forced the cancellation of those plans. The following year, later dates were set to lessen the risk of cholera. Even so, Darius Lapham, the superintendent of the grounds, died of the disease just a few weeks before the opening date.
Camp Washington (two miles east of downtown Cincinnati) was the site of the first Ohio State Fair, Oct. 2 – 4, 1850. The site was described as 8 to 10 acres with grass slopes, shade trees and numerous tents. The grounds were enclosed by a 10-foot-high board fence. Cattle were tethered to a railing along the carriage road.
The railroads offered strong support to the early state fairs. Special rates were offered whereby exhibits were transported without charge, and the exhibitor rode for half fare. Several central Ohioans contributed to the first Fair, including Alfred Kelley, owner of the Columbus and Xenia Railroad Company.
Cash premiums at the first Fair did not exceed $20, with the exception of an award of $50 given to the winning essayists on the topic of “Improving the Soil.” During the early state fairs, winners received medals, not ribbons, as awards. In 1850, the silver medal was valued at $3.
The public was admitted only on the second and third days of the first Fair. Day one was devoted to setup and judging. Admission was 20 cents, but exhibitors could buy a $1 badge for admission for their families. A visitor could also buy a $1 badge for one gentleman and two ladies.
The two-day attendance was estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 people.
Transportation around Ohio was difficult. Therefore, the majority of exhibitors lived near the Fair. In 1886, the Fair moved to its current home at what is now called the Ohio Expo Center. The main entrance to the site was at the southwest corner of the grounds along Woodward Avenue. The OHIO Gate entrance is currently located at 11th Avenue.
The Ohio State Fair has been canceled a few times throughout history – including during WWII (for four years – 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945). At that time, the Board of Agriculture canceled the Ohio State Fair and allowed the war department to use the grounds and buildings for handling airplane parts and equipment for World War II. The Army Air Corps rented the facility for $1 per year. The Ohio State Fair was also canceled in 2020 during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The Fair has been held in the following cities:
1851 Columbus (on the site of Mt. Carmel Hospital)
1855 Columbus (on the site of Mt. Carmel Hospital)
1860 – 1861 Dayton
1862 – 1863 Cleveland
1864 – 1865 Columbus (on the site of Schiller Park)
1866 – 1867 Dayton
1868 – 1869 Toledo
1870 – 1871 Springfield
1872 – 1873 Mansfield
1874 – 1885 Columbus (on the site of Franklin Park)
1886 – present Columbus (Ohio Expo Center)