By MIKE ARGENTO, Daily Record/Sunday News
York, PA - For years, the York Fair has billed itself as "America's Oldest Fair" and "America's First Fair."
In fact, the fair has trademarked both expressions -- they are exclusive to the York Fair.
But is it "America's First Fair" or "America's Oldest Fair"?
Not according to the people who run the Fredericksburg Fair in northern Virginia, just off Interstate 95 about halfway between Washington and Richmond. That fair bills itself as "America's Oldest Agricultural Fair."
"We gotta get it straight," said C. Travis Bullock, the Fredericksburg fair's general manager, in a southern accent just dripping with gravy and grits. "Only one of us can be the oldest."
Truth be told, neither fair could credibly lay claim to the title of being the oldest fair in America. Fairs in what were then the untamed colonies were held in just about every village and township, usually around harvest time, giving farmers a chance to trade and sell their wares, according to the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions.
The notion was imported from Europe. And it didn't originate there. The first recorded mention of fairs dates to 500 B.C., chronicled in the Biblical book of Ezekiel: "Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the kinds of riches with silver, iron, tin and lead, they traded in thy fairs."
The association, in a history of fairs published on its website, says, "Ezekiel's account of the destruction of Tyre, supposedly written about 588 BC, describes Tyre as an important market and fair center."
Neither York Fair nor Fredericksburg can claim Biblical documentation of their respective fairs' origins. But both do have documentation.
The York Fair points to the charter granted the fair in 1765 by Thomas Penn, William Penn's son.
"We actually have the document that was signed by an actual guy," said fair president Gene Schenck. "We have papers."
Fredericksburg also makes that claim. It was established in 1738, according to its website, "when the Virginia House of Burgess authorized, and directed, that 'fairs should be held in Fredericksburg twice a year for the sale of cattle, provisions, goods, wares, and all kinds of merchandise.'"
If there is a distinction, it is this: "We claim to be America's oldest agricultural fair," Bullock said.
York claims to be "America's Oldest Fair." Which is capitalized and framed in quote marks because it is a trademark of the York Fair.
And when the York Fair trademarked the phrase -- along with "America's First Fair" -- the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office did not find any other entities that had laid claim to those phrases, Schenck said.
The fair association is staying out of the dispute. Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the Missouri-based trade organization, said it's a hard thing to pin down. There may be even older fairs that lack documentation or whose histories have gone unrecorded.
On thing is certain, he said, "they've both been around a long time."