Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The superior, extraordinary fair

Exhibition building at the 1882 state fair
in Jacksonville. Credit: Florida Memory
County and state fairs are rural mainstays that still draw crowds in postmodern times. But back in the day, 1879 to be exact for this blog post, a fair was a centerpiece of country society. On Dec. 31, 1879, The Florida Agriculturist newspaper devoted a full three-and-a-half columns of its front page to coverage of the Central Florida Fair. The entire front page was only five columns of type.

The event was deemed a "complete success" with bright prospects for the future. Exhibitors' products were lauded as being of superior quality, splendid, very fine, extraordinary ... and so on. Beyond the superlatives, though, the article is a gem for what it reveals about the fruits of pioneer labor. People were judged, for example, on the quality of butter they churned: Exhibitor Mrs. Houstoun showed "a plate of country butter, golden in color and beautifully prepared" and Mrs. R.G. Parkhill exhibited "five pounds of extraordinary butter."

The entire write-up focuses on who exhibited what, and on the quality of the products. Some highlights:

  • A Mrs. W. H. Gibson submitted 355 items, all homemade by her. They included 117 varieties of preserves, 82 varieties of jellies, and 26 different ketchups. A glass of cherry jelly was "filled with beautiful and perfect crystalizations (sic) of every conceivable form." Mrs. Gibson also displayed a jar of watermelon citron preserves that was 25 years old (meaning she made them in 1854!). The reporter noted that they "were still fresh and beautiful."
  • Mrs. W.H. Scott wasn't far behind. She showed 220 types of jellies, syrups, preserves, marmalades, and other items.
  • Benjamin Falina showed a "huge" citron, weighing more than six pounds, that he had grown at Orange Bluff in Volusia County. The citron "received considerable notice."
  • Mr. N. W. Eppes of Leon County "made quite a nice display of rice, oats, rutabagas, egg-plants, snap-beans and other fresh vegetables." I include that entry only because I wonder if Eppes was of the Tallahassee family connected to Thomas Jefferson.
  • Mr. J.M. Auld showed something called the egg orange,  so named for its shape, along with displays of "biscuit-shaped" tangerines, the Maltese orange, mandarins, lemons, limes, and grapefruits.
Other showcased items ranged from cornmeal, cotton, corn, Florida syrup, and loaves of light bread, to white turkeys, native boars, and other livestock. Several people exhibited the LeConte pear that seems to have been the only pear variety of the time. Reading about all the food made me hungry for a slice of fresh bread with butter and marmalade. But hold those watermelon citron preserves.

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