It’s impossible to think of Wilson County without thinking of the Wilson County Fair.
Known throughout the country as one of the top agricultural fairs in the nation, the Wilson County Fair draws hundreds of thousands of fairgoers each year. Last year alone, attendance reached an all-time high with nearly 590,000 attendees.
Despite the fair’s soaring popularity, though, it still stays firmly true to its country roots. And those roots reach way back – about 160 years back.
The Wilson County Fair wasn’t always known as such. When it began in 1854, the fair was known as the Third Division Fair.
“It was a promotion from the state Department of Agriculture,” said Hale Moss, president of the Wilson County Fair. “At that time they were promoting a fair: one in West Tennessee, one in East Tennessee and one in Middle Tennessee.”
Wilson County’s fair represented the Middle Tennessee “division.”
In the beginning, the fair was held on the Square in Lebanon before moving to a location on Coles Ferry Pike where the senior citizens’ center is now located.
“There was a big spring over there that sort of attracted them to that location I think,” said Moss.
But the fair did not continue uninterrupted.
In 1914, the world became embroiled in World War I after the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In the United States, which joined forces with the Allies, attention turned to the war efforts.
The war ended in 1918, but just 11 years later the country was hit with another crisis.
Oct. 29, 1929 – Black Tuesday – the stock market crashed, triggering a national economic crisis that did not begin recovery until 1933, and that recovery was not without its setbacks.
By 1939, Europe was again at war, and by 1941, the United States was back in the fray after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor that December. For the next four years, the country’s attention again turned to war until it finally ended in 1945.
“There were some years in there that the fair was not in continuous operation,” said Moss.
As the crises lifted, attention turned back to the fair.
“The Lebanon Jaycees were instrumental in reorganizing the fair,” said Moss. “At that time, they called it the Mid-State Fair…It was a project of the Jaycees for several years.”
In the 1970s, the county bought property on Baddour Parkway to build the James E. Ward Agricultural Center. By the end of the 1970s, the fair was at its current home at 945 E. Baddour Parkway.
At that time, organizers decided the fair needed a change in leadership.
“That’s when we formed Wilson County Promotions,” said Moss.
The group’s charter and bylaws provide for a maximum of 300 volunteer board members.
“A few years ago, we celebrated 30 years of volunteers, and we’ve been fortunate enough to keep it going and growing since then,” said Moss.
In 1990, the fair opened what has since become one of its hallmarks: Fiddler’s Grove.
According to Moss, the idea came from the Florida State Fair’s Cracker Country.
A representative from the amusement company playing at the Wilson County Fair at the time had seen it implemented and told the fair board about it.
“Some of us had the opportunity to go down there and see it,” said Moss. “There was an area up here that had a grove of trees in it, and we decided that would be a good place to start.”
Fiddler’s Grove began with just a couple buildings.
“From that point, it’s grown to over 50 buildings that we’ve got here now that tell the story of Wilson County,” said Moss.
And it keeps growing.
This year, Fiddler’s Grove will include a new Lebanon Woolen Mills museum and a studio photography museum.
Moss said the fair’s growth and success would not be possible without its volunteers.
“It’s a tremendous amount of volunteerism that goes into this each year,” he said. “The secret of the fair’s success has been the volunteers; finding a group of volunteers that have a passion for doing a project. Whether it’s Fiddler’s Grove or the horse shows or the cattle shows, that committee plans the event, puts together the budget for it and makes it happen each year…If a reader or somebody has got a neighbor or a teacher or somebody that volunteers at the fair, just give them a pat on the back every once and a while and tell them, ‘Thank you,’ for what they do for the community.”
He said the fair is a reflection of the community.
“This fair is just a big mirror of this whole county,” he said. “And promoting agriculture is still always at the center of what we do.”