Where does the cancellation of the State Fair in 2020 fit into its history?

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — What started in a two-story building on Salina Street in 1841 has transformed over the years into what New Yorkers now know as the Great New York State Fair. The 2020 fair was officially canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic on Monday for just the second time in its history. 

“The State Fair was canceled for the only time in its history between the years 1942 and 1947 as a result of the Second World War,” Bob Searing, Onondaga Historical Association’s Curator of History, said. “But other than that, since 1841, when the first was held here in Syracuse, the State Fair has never been canceled.”

Until Monday, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the long-awaited announcement during his daily briefing. 

“We are not going to open the State Fair in Syracuse, this is a really tough one,” Cuomo said.

Monday’s announcement from the governor also put the coronavirus into perspective, because the fair wasn’t even canceled during the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s.

Searing said, “World War II was the only other thing that could derail it, which then really put the scope of what we’re dealing with, with the COVID-19 pandemic. It puts it into perspective, just how it’s affected every aspect of everyone’s lives, and then too, the ramifications that it has for the state, for the economy of Syracuse.”

According to Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon, the county is already down $23 million for its 2020 budget, and the cancellation of the fair is another huge blow to the economy. 

However, the county is lucky to even have the fair in the first place, because the fair traveled to different cities across the state from 1841 until 1890.

“Folks in Syracuse, business leaders, political leaders, came together to basically give the state the land next to Onondaga Lake, but also Syracuse is the central city,” Searing said. “We are almost literally the geographic center of New York State.”

Since then, for 130 years, the Great New York State Fair has called Lakeland home, but it was almost destroyed and moved after the Solvay Process Company had a 500-foot break in one of their sludge beds that flooded the city in 1943. 

“It was an absolute disaster,” Searing said. “The Army had to spend millions of dollars and it took years to clean it up. So, suffice to say, when the war is over and the army leaves the fairgrounds, there were folks that essentially had been talking about, ‘Let’s get the fair out of there.’”

To clean up and fix the fair after the disaster would have been expensive, and New York was looking to expand and move the fair. So in 1946, State Assemblyman Clellan Forsythe created the Forsythe Commission to look at the possibility of changing the fair’s location, to where the current Hancock International Airport lies.

“There were going to be all new buildings, a 50,000 seat stadium,” Searing said. “All-in-all we had six new buildings that were going to showcase New York State agriculture, technology, the idea was to really make it open year-round, as sort of a constant trade show.”

However, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the city of Syracuse was already involved in a bunch of other public work projects. The War Memorial was being built, the Thruway was being constructed, as well as the airport. 

“I think ultimately what sunk it was the fact of the price tag,” Searing said. “Overall, this new Empire State Exposition, that the Forsythe Commission puts out there as the plan, is going to come with a $52 million price tag. $52 million in 1949.”

To restore the current fairgrounds after World War II would only cost the state about $2.6 million, and that was the plan the state ultimately decided to run with, and it’s how the fair has stood in its current location for 130 years. 

“It’s going to be an event that I think will be sorely missed, and obviously the historic nature of its cancellation is something that will maybe spur a little bit of interest in some of these histories,” Searing said. 

Syracuse avoided the potential Mattydale Fairport in the mid 1900s, and this year’s cancellation just adds to the fair’s history as residents anxiously wait for it to return for the 180th year in 2021. 


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