About This Company
In the Charter of 1766, it was stated
that “said town of Reading have two fairs yearly..the first to be held on
Penn Street on October 27th and the other the 4th day of June.” At one time,
the June Fair was considered to be the Cherry Fair and finally designated as
Farmers’ Day. These initial fairs are considered to be the oldest in the
Fair days developed into competition days for the farmers to determine who
had the best crops. As a result, higher prices were paid for crops. There
are three unchanging objets of all Fairs: To Exhibit, To Compete and To Have
Designated dates schedules for the
Fair allowed manufacturers to exhibit and sell their products for both home
and farm. However, by 1850 Fair days were to be avoided and the Fair
declined because of the rowdiness caused by both townspeople and the farmers
In 1823 a State Agricultural Society was formed but was not activated until
1850 when delegates of Pennsylvania counties planned a State Fair which was
held in October 1851 in Harrisburg. The success of this Fair excited members
of the Berks County Delegation so much that the Berks County Agricultural
and Horticultural Society was formed in 1852 with plans for a fair to be
held that August.
As in previous years, this “new fair” was for exhibit only with no sales.
Eventually the Fair evolved to include farming implements, livestock,
poultry, grain, fruit, flowers, fancy needlework and horse racing.
At that time the County Commissioners granted the Horticultural Society a
lease to run for ninety-nine years or until 1953. The fairs were then held
in the Horticulture Hall, a building constructed on Penn’s Commons in
downtown Reading built specifically for the fair. During the War between the
states, the commons was loaned to the U.S. Government for a military
hospital. However, in October of 1865 the fair resumed for a three-day
The fair continued to grow until 1887 when sideshows, dancing girls, sellers
of toys and patent medicines were added. A daily band concert was held and
the fair sponsored special contests. At the end of the fair in 1887, the
Agricultural and Horticultural Society purchased twenty-five and one half
acres outside the city limits near a railroad spur and street railway, both
of which provided transportation for the fair. The Fair was not held in 1888
due to the building of a racetrack and hotel along with the demolition of
some buildings on the property. Although gambling had been held at previous
fairs, and seemed to proliferate, the Society was vigilant and a clean
exposition was held up until 1907. At that time, State Police patrolled the
grounds to insure peace.
Throughout the 1890’s, racing meets were held with the Society absorbing the
expenses for the entertainment between races. Through the years the
elements, transportation difficulties, accidents on the fair grounds, and
deterioration of buildings and equipment led to a decline in attendance.
Debts accumulated and continued to rise until there was a foreclosure on the
property in 1913.
In 1915 fifty-four acres of land were purchased in Muhlenberg Township with
subsequent acres being bought until approximately seventy-eight acres were
held. The Agricultural Society, still in existence, had a complete
reorganization. A holding company, the Reading Fair Company, with a
Board of Directors had charge of the property and buildings. The
Agricultural and Horticultural Association rented the area for conducting an
annual fair. From 1915 until 1932 the fair flourished. The Reading Fair
Company was now incorporated and a new Legislative Charter was established.
Livestock and poultry areas continued to expand along with areas for fruits,
small grains and vegetables. Eventually there was not enough space to
display exhibits. The livestock exhibits were of particular interest as the
animals were from commercial farms where breeders and specialists alike
developed champions. Grange displays were primarily for exhibit until 1939
when prizes were distributed. Junior Granges started to exhibit in 1930. 4-H
Clubs, Agricultural Vocational High Schools and the Berks County
Agricultural Extension Bureau became an integral part of the fair.
Over the years there was something for everyone, from bingo and beauty
contests to elaborate state shows featuring dancers and singers. Celebrities
such as Frank Sinatra, Jerry Colonna, Eddie Cantor, Ray Charles and Pat
In it’s peak years, harness racing at the fairgrounds involved more than 200
horses. Then, in 1924, the first auto race was held. In 1935, the racing
program expanded to five days during the fair. Weekly races at the
fairgrounds became a local phenomenon. The Friday night races were
considered to be the best weekly racing in the country.
The last fair at the Fifth Street site in Muhlenberg Township was held in
1978. The Reading Fairgrounds was sold to the developers of the Fairgrounds
Square Shopping Mall.
From 1980 until 1994 the Reading Fair was held in and on the surrounding
property of the Fairgrounds Square Mall. The original pole barn was moved
and tents were erected on the grounds for livestock exhibitions. Backed
goods, hay, grains, vegetables, fruits, needlecraft, photography, crafts and
floral exhibits were exhibited in corridors and empty stores in the Mall.
Entertainment was enjoyed in several open areas of the Mall. The Reading
Fair was the only Fair in Pennsylvania that presented their exhibits in a
shopping mall. This lasted for 14 years, but as the stores in the Mall were
being rented and the Mall was expanding, the fair was feeling the squeeze.
At this time a search was conducted to purchase a permanent site for future
fairs. For the next 3 years the Reading Fair rented the Kutztown Fairgrounds
in order to continue the tradition of the Reading Fair.
In 1999 ground was finally broken on approximately 60 acres of Berks County
land in Bern Township. This site would become the new home of the Reading
Fair. Again, as in 1915, the Board of Directors faced the almost impossible
task of converting fields into exposition grounds. Because of construction,
that same year a scaled-back fair consisting of mostly carnival rides was
held at the Reading Mall in Exeter Township.
Ten months of construction followed, with donated building materials and
volunteer labor totaling nearly $3 million. Local trade unions, including
300 members of the Berks County Building & Construction Trades Council,
contributed building materials, equipment, tools and volunteer labor to the
project. Area businesses and state and local government also provided money
to cut the cost of the project. A local Army Reserve group, the 365th
Engineering Battalion, sent reservists to spend two weeks working at the
fairgrounds as a substitute for their normal annual training time.
Volunteers worked feverishly to finish construction after wet weather
delayed the project in the spring of 2000.
Work continued throughout the summer and finally in August of 2000, the
Reading Fair had a new home with stone roads, 3 brand new pole barns, 2,000
parking spaces, 40 utility poles with lighting fixtures and speakers and
electric and water facilities for displays, vendors and amusements. The
weather even cooperated that first year. There were good crowds and an
increase in the number of exhibits. The Reading Fair was Back!