For over 40 years the Arlington County Fair has been an important community event in both the County and Northern Virginia.
Arlington held its first County Fair in 1977, led by a nonprofit, all-volunteer group, which organized and operated the event.
The idea for the Fair emerged from the County’s community gardens program. Resident gardeners had been planning a Harvest Day to display the produce from the program’s 10 community garden plots. One thing led to another, and the idea expanded to involve more members of the Arlington community.
The First Arlington County Fair
The inaugural Arlington County Fair began on Friday, August 26, 1977, at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center. It started with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon and ended at 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 28.
It was noted at the time that Arlington's fair was the only event of this type held between Gaithersburg, MD, and Manassas, VA. It was also billed as one of the country's rare “urban fairs” – combining the elements of a traditional county fair in an urban setting. Anticipation for the Fair brewed around this melding of the new and old, as one reporter noted in an August 25, 1977 Washington Post preview:
“Where can an exceptional chrysanthemum raised on the tenth-floor balcony of the Crystal House apartment complex in Arlington receive its just due? Until this week, nowhere. However, if entered before 9 a.m. Friday it could be a blue-ribbon winner in the First Annual Arlington County Fair.”
Among the activities at the first Arlington County Fair were ribbon competitions in home arts, preserving, crafts, cake decorating, produce, flower arranging, individual flowers, paints, photography, sculpture, clothing, and baked goods. Also featured were exhibits and demonstrations of arts and crafts, as well as booths from groups such as the Arlington Office of Consumer Affairs and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The Arlington County Fair, according to Ware Page - the first chairman and a local freelancer in consulting and advertising - was designed to appeal to the diversity of Arlington’s population:
“Our fair is unique. It will reflect Arlington’s pluralistic nature. There will be religious groups, business interests, local gardeners, charity and community groups all under one roof.”
While there was a limited livestock showing at the event – two pigs, two sheep, and two goats imported from the 4-H club in Loudoun county – there was plenty of flora and fauna to go around. About 270 families were farming loaned plots established by the community garden program, and many of them participated in activities.
Like today, entrance to the first Arlington County Fair was free, and a variety of items were available for purchase among the many booths and vendors. But another important element of the typical rural fair (and today's County Fair) was missing in 1977 - a midway.
Excerpts from the compilation of winning recipes from the baked goods competition, 1981 Arlington County Fair.
Arlington County Fair "premium booklets" from 1983 and 1988 include information about shuttle buses, competitions and schedules.
Rapid Growth in the 1980s
By 1983, only five years after the Arlington County Fair began, more than 200 booths and exhibitors were registered to exhibit over the Fair weekend. By 1984, the live entertainment boasted a diverse range of performers including a ventriloquist, the Old Dominion Cloggers, barbershop quartet music by the Arlingtones, bluegrass, jazz, big band music, and Hungarian folk songs. Karate demonstrations and aerobic dancing were also performed.
Livestock Out, Thrill Rides In
Livestock mostly ceased making any appearances after 1977, with a few exceptions (such as pony rides and racing piglets). Midway rides were added in later years.
The Thomas Jefferson Community Center, where the Arlington County Fair has taken place since 1977.
"Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow"
The Arlington County Fair has become one of the largest free events on the East Coast, with attendance reaching over 84,000.
After the first few years, each County Fair has had a theme: “Arlington – Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow” (1986); “The Many Faces of Arlington” (2003); “Groovy Since 1977” (2016), which payed tribute to the County Fair’s origins, are just a few.
What will this year's theme be? We'll find out this summer when we see you at the County Fair!
To learn more about Arlington's history, visit the Center for Local History on the first floor of the Central Library.
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