HISTORY & ARCHIVES
Appalachian Fair History Facts
Fairs have been around for a long time. The first fair in Washington County was established in 1858 and was called the Washington County Agricultural Society.
In 1926, the “granddaddy” of the present Appalachian Fair, was established in the Gray Community by several families of the area.
Known initially as the Gray Community Fair, the event’s first few years were only half-day events. The premium list for the first fair was $45, compared to present Appalachian Fair’s $150,000 plus premiums offered.
The fair was moved to Johnson City for two years (1929 & 1930) where it was known as the Appalachian District Fair. Premium money offered was $6,000 and $5,000 was spent for free acts. The midway consisted of eight rides and ten shows. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. The fair was sponsored by Guy L. Smith, owner of the Johnson City Press Chronicle, who, unfortunately, fell victim of the great depression.
After the fair was discontinued in Johnson City, the Gray fair was reestablished with a two-day event in 1931. The fair continued through the 1930’s but was inactive during World War II for two years. Since that time, it has been in operation at Gray each year with the exception of 2020 when COVID forced closures throughout the country.
In 1936 a third day was added to the fair and it was incorporated as Washington County Fair. The first board of directors was elected.
During the 1940’s the fair expanded again, this time to five days.
The former owner of the land, where the fair is located, was Jimmy Gray, a civil war veteran. Prior to establishment of the fair, he owned 300 acres of land in the heart of what is now the Fairgrounds. (Other land was purchased by the fair from the estate of the late R. N. Brown.)
In the early 1950’s, Washington County Court purchased 13 acres of land in Gray community at a price of $450, thus giving the fair its first permanent fairgrounds.
After clearing the land, building began. The first structures were a dairy barn and a hog barn, followed by a small exhibit building with a stage. In 1959, the County Court appropriated $1,500 for construction of restrooms. Since then, the fair has continued to build steadily, adding buildings and improving present facilities.
In 1960, the State Commissioner of Agriculture declared it to be a district fair, thus the establishment of the name Appalachian District Fair.
In the middle 60’s the fair leased 55 acres of land from the City of Johnson City to be used for various purposes. In 1967, an additional 14 acres were purchased. In 1968, the fair became a six-day event.
Thus, by purchase or lease, the fair had access to approximately 90 acres for the year 1971. In 1972, the fair purchased an additional 12 acres, thus giving the fair about 100 acres.
Growth has been spectacular. In 1958, as a county fair, the event attracted 14,414 people. That figure climbed to 42,000 in 1965—and then really big growth began. The fair passed the 100,000 mark for the first time in 1969 with 101,500.
That growth resulted in another step by the fair association. In the fall of 1975, the board of directors voted to hire a full-time secretary manager for the first time. In 1976, the General Assembly elevated the Appalachian Fair to regional status. The board then turned to Niles Gray, long time president, to fill the position. After Gray’s retirement, Richard Shadden was hired and continued to hold the position until his untimely death in 2011. Phil Booher was hired in the fall of that year and still holds the Secretary-Manager position.
One of the biggest factors in the development of the fair has been the building of State Route 181(now I-26) between Kingsport and Johnson City. This provides easy access to Gray Community from both north and south into the fairgrounds.
Building and expansion has continued down through the years. The present facilities have more than 20 permanent buildings including two of the finest outdoor stages and seating facilities for approximately 6,000 people. One of the most interesting and unique buildings is an 8,000 sq. ft. Museum Building exhibiting hundreds of antique items produced in the immediate area. The fair is known throughout the southeastern part of the United States for producing outstanding livestock shows each year. Over 4,000 area people bring more than 12,000 exhibits to the fairgrounds each year to enter in competitive exhibits. One hundred and fifty commercial exhibitors establish their business by being associated with the fair.
In 1988, the fair purchased an additional 30 acres of land from the City of Johnson City and developed six acres into an entertainment arena where various auto thrill shows add to the many facets of entertainment offered to the public. In 1990, all the buildings were painted using a color scheme developed by the University of Tennessee, a new restroom and first aid facility was built, new mowing equipment was purchased and general maintenance of the grounds done.
The 1991 fair was the best ever in the 65 year history. Attendance figures exceeded the 200,000 mark for the first time, air conditioning was installed in the Farm & Home exhibit building, improvements were made to the Wildlife Building, the only one of its kind at a fair, and all new electric installed in the midway camping area as well as paving. The Appalachian Fair continuously works to improve the facilities for the Upper East Tennessee area.
In 1993 the fair was again building – a new building which houses security, ticket offices, a concession stand, new updated handicap accessible restrooms and shower facilities was completed.
With more than 40 events held each year during the off season the fairgrounds is becoming known for its versatility for many kinds of events for the East Tennessee area. Many agricultural and youth related activities and competitions for 4-H, FFA, CTE, from throughout the Upper East Tennessee Area, Washington County Cattlemen’s Association, Boy Scouts and Cub Scout events, dog shows, cattle sales, food shows, company workshops, company picnics, children’s consignment sales, antique collectible shows, and sportsman’s events, just to name a few.
In 1994 the fair purchased seven acres of property joining the fairgrounds and have continued to purchase housing joining the fairgrounds for future growth.
The fair continued to grow with a 1995 attendance of 210,891 and 210,688 in 1996. The outstanding figures for two consecutive years caused the fair to take on the challenge of producing a nine-day fair in 1997.
In 1997 the Appalachian Fair began a new adventure and increased the fair to nine days. The attendance increased to 275,688. New events and programs were implemented such as Senior Ms. Appalachian Fair, Gospel Singing, special admission incentives as well as other contests and exhibit opportunities.
In 1998 the fair hired a consulting firm to help design new features for the fairgrounds facilities and land development. As funds become available, this master plan will be phased in. Attendance for 1998 was 258,065.
Attendance in 1999 was 255,229, in 2000 was 249,608 and in 2001, 262,300 people attended this nine day event.
The year 2001 was a diamond anniversary year for the fair – 75 years of “A Family Tradition”.
In 2002 the total attendance was 251,172 and the Appalachian Fair continues to be one of the top family attractions in East Tennessee. In 2003 additional property was purchased, making a total of approximately 100 acres now owned by the Appalachian Fair. Total attendance for the nine-days was 279,634, which was a record attendance for the nine-day event. However, in 2005 the board decided to return to a six-day event. Attendance records were again broken in 2006 with a total of 268,944, the most ever for a six-day event. The extreme temperatures were a factor at the 2007 fair with 228,121 people enjoying the fair.
In 2008, with matching grant funds from the Department of Agriculture, the fair was able to renovate one of the oldest buildings on the grounds, Building No. 1. The building was gutted, insulated, painted and air conditioning was installed. Display curtains were purchased to better utilize the building for booth space. This facility will house many youth and adult agriculture activities during the off-season. A matching grant was secured for 2011 and restrooms and a kitchenette were installed to complete the renovation and make it more feasible for off-season rentals and agriculture events.
With a grant from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture a Farmer’s Market was implemented for a number of years. Upgrading to the grounds and buildings continue to be implemented as funds become available.
The UT Master Gardener program worked many years to beautify our grounds and included educational gardens such as the oriental garden, children’s garden, water feature garden, and the herb garden. Also, in partnership with the Johnson City Power Board, a “tree line” feature was added to use as a public educational tool showing where to plant trees under power lines.
In May of 2011 the fair’s long-time manager, Richard Shadden, passed away suddenly and, in September, Phil Booher was hired to take over the helm as manager.
Attendance in 2011 was 225, 429. The 2014 fair saw a total of 239,348 fair goers through the gates. Although rain kept the attendance at 200,227 in 2014, the 2015 year saw more than 249,000 enjoying the six-day event. In 2016 the fair adopted a mascot – “Appy the Happy Duck” was introduced and certainly was a big hit with fair goers of all ages. “Appy” will be seen throughout the fair as well as special community events promoting the Appalachian Fair’s “Family Tradition since 1926”.
With constant improvements being made, the Appalachian Fair has become an increasingly versatile facility. In 2003 an Economic Impact Study was done by the Johnson City/Washington County Chambers of Commerce showing an economic impact of more than $26 million dollars for the upper East Tennessee area.
The Appalachian Fair did not hold its annual event in 2020 due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The Pandemic caused the loss of many Americans and devastated fairs and businesses throughout the United States.
However, the fair was back “Bigger and Better” in 2021 with 207,583 in attendance.
Including the more than 200,000 fair goers, and the more than 40 off-season events held on the grounds, over a million people enter the fair’s gates each year!
APPALACHIAN FAIR ASSOCIATION
FAIR HISTORY FACTS
WASHINGTON COUNTY AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY HELD A COUNTY FAIR IN OCTOBER 1858
DUE TO THE CIVIL WAR, THE FAIR WAS INACTIVE DURING THE WAR YEARS.
IN THE 1870’S AND 1880’S FAIRS WERE REVIVED. IN 1870 THE TENNESSEE LEGISLATURE, THROUGH PRIVATE ACT, CHARTERED THE WASHINGTON COUNTY AGRICULTURAL AND MECHANICAL SOCIETY THE GENERAL POWERS FOR HOLDING FAIRS AND “TO OPEN AGRICULTURAL ROOMS FOR THE PURPOSE OF COLLECTING AND DISSEMINATING AGRICULTURAL, MECHANICAL, AND ARTISTIC STATISTICS AND OTHER INFORMATION, AS WELL AS TO PROCURE AND DISTRIBUTE SEEDS, FARMING IMPLEMENTS, SPECIMENS, SAMPLES, ETC. WHICH MAY HAVE ANY RELATION WHATEVER TO THE FARMING AND MECHANICAL INTEREST OF THE COUNTY.”
THERE WERE FAIRS IN 1877, 1880, 1882 & 1885
THE NEXT FAIR TO SURFACE IN WASHINGTON COUNTY’S HISTORY WAS THE SULPHUR SPRINGS AGRICULTURE AND LIVESTOCK SHOW OPERATING IN 1917 & 1918.
THE COUNTY’S THIRD FAIR WAS THE WASHINGTON COLLEGE FAIR, CALLED THE WASHINGTON COUNTY FAIR HELD IN THE EARLY 1920’S AS A TWO-DAY EVENT.
IN 1926, THE “GRANDDADDY” OF THE PRESENT APPALACHIAN FAIR, WAS ESTABLISHED IN GRAY BY FAMILIES OF THE AREA—THE GRESHAM’S, ISENBERGS, WINES, GRAYS, MARTINS, HALLS, AND THE BICKLEYS. THE PREMIUM LIST WAS $45.
IN 1929 & 1930 THE FAIR WAS HELD IN JOHNSON CITY AND WAS KNOWN AS THE APPALACHIAN DISTRICT FAIR. ADMISSION WAS 50 CENTS FOR ADULTS AND 25 CENTS FOR CHILDREN. THIS FAIR WAS SPONSORED BY GUY L. SMITH, OWNER OF THE JOHNSON CITY PRESS-CHRONICLE.
FIRST BOARD OF DIRECTORS WERE ELECTED IN 1936. IN 1940, THE FAIR EXPANDED TO A FIVE-DAY EVENT.
IN 1950 WASHINGTON COUNTY COURT PURCHASED 13 ACRES, THUS GIVING THE FAIR ITS FIRST PERMANENT FACILITIES AND THE FIRST AREA OF THE PRESENT GROUNDS.
THE FIRST BUILDINGS WERE A LIVESTOCK BARN AND A HOG BARN. RESTROOMS WERE ADDED IN 1959.
IN 1960, THE FAIR WAS DESIGNATED A DISTRICT FAIR BY THE STATE COMMISSIONER OF AGRICULTURE AND THE NAME WAS CHANGED TO APPALACHIAN DISTRICT FAIR.
AFTER THIS TIME GROWTH WAS SPECTACULAR.
LAND WAS PURCHASED OR LEASED BRINGING THE ACREAGE TO 90 ACRES. THE FAIR EXPANDED TO SIX DAYS. ATTENDANCE EXCEEDED THE 100,000 MARK IN 1969.
IN THE FALL OF 1975, WITH THE GROWTH OF THE FAIR, THE BOARD VOTED TO HIRE A FULL TIME MANAGER, AND TURNED TO NILES GRAY, WHO HAD SERVED AS TREASURER FOR FOUR YEARS AND PRESIDENT SINCE THE EARLY ‘60’S. HE WAS HIRED AS THE FULL TIME MANAGER in 1976 AND MAINTAINED THIS POSITION UNTIL HIS RETIREMENT IN MAY OF 1987 WHEN RICHARD SHADDEN WAS HIRED AS SECRETARY-MANAGER. WITH RICHARD’S UNTIMELY PASSING IN 2011, MICHAEL PHIL BOOHER WAS HIRED AS THE THIRD FULL-TIME SECRETARY-MANAGER.
THE FAIR WAS ELEVATED TO REGIONAL FAIR STATUS IN 1976 BY THE TENNESSEE GENERAL ASSEMBLY.
THE FAIRGROUNDS NOW HOUSE 20 PERMANENT BUILDINGS, TWO ENTERTAINMENT STAGES, A MOTOR SPORTS ARENA FACILITY, A BARNYARD NURSERY, AND A MUSEUM BUILDING EXHIBITING HUNDREDS OF ANTIQUE HOME AND FARM ITEMS FROM THE IMMEDIATE AREA.
ALSO UNIQUE TO THE STATE, A TENNESSEE WILDLIFE BUILDING WHICH HAS BEEN EXPANDED TO INCLUDE A FISH AQUARIUM, CAVE WITH A WATERFALL, AND MOUNTAIN AREA WHERE ANIMALS AND FOWL ARE HOUSED IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT. IN 2005, A TURTLE POND WITH OBSERVATION TUNNELS WAS COMPLETED, MAKING THIS BUILDING ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR WITH BOTH CHILDREN AND ADULTS.
IN 1988 THE FAIR PURCHASED AN ADDITIONAL 30 ACRES OF LAND AND ADDED THE APPALACHIAN ARENA WHERE MOTOR SPORTS EVENTS, RODEOS, ETC. ARE HELD.
THE FAIR IS THE SECOND LARGEST IN THE STATE OF TENNESSEE, HAS MORE THAN A $1,000,000 IN ASSETS AND IS GOVERNED BY A BOARD OF DIRECTORS.
IN A STUDY DONE IN 2003, THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF THE FAIR TO THE REGION WAS ESTIMATED TO BE $26,000,000.
THE FAIR WAS NOT HELD IN 2020 DUE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.
THE 95th FAIR WAS HELD AUGUST 23-28, 2021 WITH A TOTAL ATTENDANCE OF 207,553, AN INCREASE OF 10,000 OVER THE 2019 FAIR.
'ACRES OF FUN' WAS THE THEME FOR THE 96th APPALACHIAN FAIR THAT WAS HELD AUGUST 22-27, 2022 WITH A TOTAL ESTIMATED ATTENDANCE OF 262,909. APPY'S FARM WAS OPENED IN BUILDING 4 AS A NEW ATTRACTION, PROMOTING AGRICULTURE IN OUR COMMUNITY TO CHILDREN AND THEIR FAMILIES.
OUR MOTTO CONTINUES TO BE “BIGGER AND BETTER”.
MISSION STATEMENT: To provide a top-quality fair exposition; provide facilities for off-season events; provide facilities for agricultural related non-profit events, while always exemplifying quality service and the best value to our customers.