Westchester County Fair Origins and Its Legacy of Joy

Going to the Westchester County Fair was about the most fun thing that you can do on a summer night in the Tri-State Area. And everyone could join the fun at The Greater Westchester County Fair. When we think of the county’s glorious family-friendly annual event of yesteryear, we can’t help but hear the jingle that always got stuck in our heads.

“Rides and attractions, non-stop action!”

80s Commercial | Westchester County Fair | 1985

If you grew up in the New York Tri-State area and were a kid in the 80s you’ll remember this one and I’m sure the song will be stuck in your head all day. TV spot for the Greater Westchester County Fair… Rides and Attractions! Non-stop action!

Westchester County Fair commercial from 1985.

Livestock, a circus, live country music, rides, vendors, carnival food, and shows – the Westchester County Fair had it all and is a fond summer memory lovingly cemented into many of our minds.

Do yourself a favor a search “Westchester County Fair” on Facebook and click on the photos to find a treasure trove of happy photos from people on rides, posing for dress-up photos, or ones where you sit on the giant chair, stuff they bought or won, or just being with friends and family. Seeing the 80s hairdos in itself is a treat!

The fair’s history dates back to the 17th century, and it has evolved over the years to become a celebration of the region’s agricultural and cultural heritage. In this article, we will take a deep dive into the rich history of the Westchester County Fair, from its humble beginnings as a farmers’ market to its modern-day commercial success at Yonkers Raceway and eventual closure.

Vintage photo of the Westchester County Fair via Pinterest/Kristen S.

The Beginning of the Westchester County Fair – A Farmers’ Market with Barter System (1694)

According to The New York Times, The Westchester County Fair’s roots can be traced back to 1694 when two villages, Rye (some accounts say Bedford) and what was known as the borough of Westchester, which is now the Bronx. It was required “by law” to hold a fair each year. These fairs were not the extravagant events we remember, but rather humble farmers’ markets where produce and cattle were sold or exchanged through a barter system. Bicycle merry go round at Westchester County Fair. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Bicycle merry-go-round at Westchester County Fair. George Grantham Bain Collection via Library of Congress

The Evolution of the Westchester County Fair – From Farmers’ Market to Extravaganza (19th Century)

The fair began to take on a more extravagant form in the mid-19th century when the Westchester County Agricultural and Horticultural Society started conducting large fairs in White Plains. These annual events attracted thousands of visitors and were held in the lavishly decorated Floral Park between Greenburgh and White Plains on Tarrytown Road. Financial difficulties led to the abandonment of these fairs in 1874 and 1875, but they made a comeback in 1886 and continued to grow in size and popularity.

Westchester County Fair, Wild Rose and Rattlesnake Joe sideshow. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
Westchester County Fair, Wild Rose and Rattlesnake Joe sideshow. George Grantham Bain Collection via Library of Congress

The Fairgrounds and Attractions

The fairgrounds were located within a triangular expanse in the town of Greenburgh, on the western border of White Plains. A photograph from the 1890s shows the massive area occupied by the fair, with scores of horse-drawn vehicles parked against the track’s rail. Spectators dressed in the fashion of the time watched harness horses racing, while a large wooden grandstand and a two-story, porch-fronted “Café and Restaurant” served as prominent features of the grounds.

The Westchester County Fair of the 20th Century

The Fair’s Revival (1981)

It wasn’t until 1981 that the Westchester County Fair was revived, thanks to the efforts of the Greater Westchester County and Exposition Corporation and its president, Mr. Rooney. This new iteration of the fair was held at the Yonkers Raceway and aimed to introduce the younger generation to the joys of a country fair, something Mr. Rooney had experienced during his youth in Pittsburgh.

The 1981 fair was a labor of love for Mr. Rooney and his team, who focused on breaking even rather than making a profit. It marked the first complete county fair in the New York metropolitan area in over 30 years and quickly became a popular event for Westchester County residents. You could even get coupons for the event at places like Carvel.

The slide via Facebook

The Fair’s Cancellation (2003)

Unfortunately, the fair was canceled in 2003 due to the construction of video lottery terminals at the Yonkers Raceway, which eventually became the Empire Casino. And we know how much joy that place brings to the County. 🙄 It was a stark contrast to the Westchester Country Fair’s original revival which was born out of love and only sought to bring happiness to its residents, instead of growing profits. Empire City Casino, however, did bring in more than $1 billion into the state’s education fund as of 2006, according to Westchester Magazine, and about $105 million to the city of Yonkers. And that was prior to its $40 million expansion. MGM Resorts bought it in 2018 for $850 million, and it was later acquired by VICI Properties. Casino.org reports that the casino pulled in $624.6 million in gross gaming revenue alone in the 2021/22 fiscal year with “more than half” of that going to public schools. The fair’s cancellation was a sad event for many who had fond memories of attending it, but it still lives on in the minds of those who remember the joy and whimsy it brought to the community. Charms sold at the fair via Facebook

The Westchester County Fair in the Digital Age

Despite its cancellation, the Westchester County Fair has not been forgotten. A Facebook fan page dedicated to the fair boasts thousands of fans who reminisce about their experiences and express their desire for the fair’s return. The fan page serves as a digital archive, with photos and memories from the fair’s heyday.

The Fair’s Commercial Success

In its prime, the Westchester County Fair was one of the top 50 fairs recognized by Amusement Business. The fair’s commercial success was evident in its 2002 record gross of $1.5 million, which placed it at number 38 on Amusement Business’s list of top fairs that year. The ultimate ride via Facebook

The Legacy of the Westchester County Fair

It was more than just an event; it was a gathering place for the community to come together and celebrate their shared culture and history. The fair’s events, attractions, and social atmosphere fostered a sense of community and belonging among Westchester County residents, creating lasting memories for all who attended.

See Elvis every Friday night! via YouTube

Conclusion

The Westchester County Fair has left an indelible mark on the region’s history and culture. From its humble beginnings as a farmers’ market to its evolution into a commercial success, the fair has been a source of joy and community for generations of Westchester County residents. Though it has been canceled since 2003, the fair’s spirit lives on in the memories of those who attended and the digital archives that continue to preserve its legacy. And even more importantly, it serves as a reminder of what our world is like when we value the joy of the people and pursue our labors of love.

Read more nostalgic articles about Westchester County in our Westchester #TBT Throwback section, you can reminisce about The Ground Round or the county’s old trolley system.

*This article was originally published in 2016

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