The Pioneer Farmers Club had its beginnings as a literary society where settlers met and discussed every phase of farming from breeding of livestock to plowing for potatoes. In March, 1872, a few of the residents decided to organize a Pioneer Farmers Club with the hope to organize a small fair or exhibition east of Bourbon on the Leesburg road at the #9 schoolhouse. This was for one day only, Saturday, October 12th. It was organized on the basis of free exhibitions of stock, machinery, agricultural products and anything else that might draw the curiosity of those in attendance. No money premiums were awarded, only first and second place prize ribbons. Admissions or entry fees were not charged. The expenses were defrayed by the farmers thereabouts and those willing to donate.
The first exhibition was considered a grand success with plowing matches, pulling matches by teams, horse races on a nearby race track, livestock classes along with the fruit, vegetables and field crop displays. Sheds had been built to accommodate the stock but, when they were full, stock had to be tied to nearby fences until the fair was over.
The first officers of the fair were: William H. Sparrow, president; H. B. Burch, vice-president-, J. W. lden, secretary and Aaron Armantrout, treasurer.
Later fairs were increased to two and three day events at the #9 school location. More buildings and tents were used to accommodate the greater interest in the event and more classes or exhibits were added each year.
In 1877 it was decided to move the fair to the Salem College grounds in Bourbon for September 27, 28 and 29th. It stayed at this location and sites adjoining for four years. When it was decided a more permanent site was needed, in early September, 1881, eight acres of ground was purchased by William E. Bailey adjoining town west of Main street in the 900 & 1000 block north. It was requested that all able-bodied people assist in clearing the grounds and building the necessary halls, shed and stables so the fair could be held the first week of October on the 6, 7 and 8th. This new fair site had more attendance and entries than any other previous fair except one. A nearby track was used for the horse races. Fairs were held at this site until 1888. Fairs for 1889 and 1890 were canceled because of the lack of public interest.
In May of 1891 a meeting was held to discuss the possibility of establishing a new fair for the fall. From this meeting, the Bourbon Fair Association was formed under Indiana law. Officers were: J.W. Eidson, president; Joseph Coar, vice-president-, J. H. Matchefte, treasurer, and G. D. Ettinger, secretary. Directors were- Simeon Lewallen, Wm. H. Bowman, C. W. Shakes, August Weissert, John Listenfelt, Thomas Lee, Matthew Erwin, Graham Rose, and G. D. Ettinger. Larger and more accessible grounds were needed. To get the capital needed for improvements, it was decided to sell 100 shares at $50.00 each. By late June, $4000 had been raised to purchase from George Williams, 35 acres adjoining the east side of town with hopes of erecting buildings, leveling the ground and grading out a one-half mile track for horse races.
The fair was now a certainty-, a large force of men and teams were at work all summer on the new grounds. Buildings, sheds, stalls, and a grandstand were being pushed to completion and a new fence was erected around the grounds. The Pioneer Farmer's Club sold to the new association some of their buildings and improvements which were either moved in one piece or torn apart and used in the new construction.
The stockholders of the Pioneer Farmer's Club eventually dissolved and sold their grounds. Many of them joined the Bourbon Fair Association.
The 1891 fair was held for four days in October on the 13, 14, 15 and 16th and by newspaper accounts was considered the biggest fair to ever be held in Marshall County with perfect success in every department and exhibit. This fair was to be the start of something big in Bourbon for the next 72 years.
In time, new buildings were added, more attractions brought in, and different classes were added. The original grandstand was expanded on the north and south ends at least three times, to accommodate the ever increasing love for horse racing. Many times, it still could not hold the crowds.
The business district of downtown Bourbon benefited from the immense crowds coming to the fair. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran special trains to and from Bourbon; the hotels, stores, liveries, and even the citizens benefited by the once-a-year financial gain for everyone.
The attraction the Bourbon Fair had garnered seemed to diminish in the late 1950's. Indebtedness and competition with other local fairs took its toll. Fair dates were moved from the traditional September & October months to July. New attractions were added but it seemed the fair was doomed. The last fair held at the old Bourbon Fairgrounds was July 23-28, 1962. The last officers were: Faith Shearer, president; Jonathan Marshall, vice-president; Shirley Apple, secretary; and Herschel Apple, treasurer. Directors were: Lloyd Heckaman, Lee Listenfelt, Chester Hall, Enos Metheny, and Wayne Metheny. A board was elected for 1963 but no fair was held.
It was decided by the majority of stockholders to dispose of the fairgrounds and personal property, pay off their debts, and, if anything was left, to cash in their stocks. The grounds were sold to the Tri-Township School Corporation (Triton). The last remnants came down in 1966 and the old fairgrounds is now an athletic complex.
For some who remember the Bourbon Fair, maybe you can sit in your vehicle on the side streets and hear some distant sounds of the local bands playing, the merry-go-round, the livestock, announcer at the race track, the smells of coffon Gandy, peanuts, popcorn and all of the other good things that were associated with the great Bourbon Fair.
Compiled and wriften by James Bates, Jr.
For the Bourbon Sesquicentennial Committee