MONROE TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WHTM) — Along Williams Grove Road in Monroe Township, Cumberland County, is a state historical marker commemorating an event that had a 42-year run and was one of the biggest agricultural fairs in the country – the Great Grangers’ Interstate Picnic Exhibition.
The term “grange” comes from England; according to the Cambridge dictionary, it means “a large house in the countryside with farm buildings connected to it.” The term was adopted by the Patrons of Husbandry, an organization advocating for farmers, in the 1860s. It is a national organization with state and local chapters.
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The Williams Grove Grangers’ picnic got its start in 1874, with a one-day picnic put together by Robert H. Thomas, secretary of the Pennsylvania State Grange. Within a few years, it expanded into a week-long event, aided by easy access courtesy of the Dillsburg to Mechanicsburg Railroad, which at its peak ran more than fifty trains a day to the exhibition site.
The crowds grew and grew. By the late 1870s, the event drew almost ten thousand visitors. By the mid-1890s more than 100,000 people attended every year. Admission was free to the public-fees paid by exhibitors covered the costs.
For farmers, the picnic was the place to go to see the latest developments in technology, as agriculture transitioned from animal power to steam and later gasoline power. They could learn about the newest discoveries in agricultural science, and the most modern techniques for improving crop yield.
The exhibition was also a place to debate and discuss the issues of the day, not only those affecting farmers, but the nation at large.
But the patterns that allowed the Exhibition to succeed began to change in the early 1900s. Taking advantage of advances in printing technology, exhibitors started relying more on catalogs to reach their customers. Automobiles began to cut into railroad revenue. As World War One ramped up, manufacturers spent less time and money on exhibits.
Then in the summer of 1916, one of the first polio epidemics in American history swept the nation. People went into quarantine, and attendance plummeted.
The 1916 exhibition was the last.
But the exhibition was not forgotten. In 1959 The Williams Grove Historical Steam Engine Association was formed, keeping alive the methods of agriculture from when the steam tractor ruled the fields. Their 94-acre site sits right next to the area that was home to the Grangers’ Picnic. They hold events throughout the year, including their annual Steam Show, which takes place in August-the same month as the Great Grangers’ Interstate Picnic Exhibition.