Before the Pennsylvania Farm Show, there was the Mt. Gretna Farmers’ Encampment

6 min read653 views and 43 shares Posted January 10, 2019

Step aboard the Cornwall & Lebanon with me, and take a ride back through time.

The narrow gauge seen rolling through the woods on the road to (or from?) Mt. Gretna in this historical photo taken by Luther Harpel.

The year is 1890. Lebanon is booming, thanks largely to the good fortune of Robert Coleman, the capitalist who transformed Peter Grubb’s old iron furnace into the centerpiece of a $30m industrial empire.

Coleman had incorporated the C&L road in 1883, creating a competitor for the Cornwall Railroad. He would later expand the system to include a narrow gauge line that culminated in a spectacular loop on the summit of Governor Dick. Coleman was himself an enthusiastic and competitive railroad operator, with one engineer recalling when the man himself took over control of a train to race a Cornwall Railroad train to Gretna. Each of the railroads had their own recreational parks as well, Mt. Gretna Park was the Cornwall & Lebanon’s, and Penryn (today’s Camp Shand) was the Cornwall Railroad’s pleasure destination.

Coleman’s efforts and improvements to make Mt. Gretna a destination led to the site being used for a number of different gatherings and applications, such as its famous use as a military encampment.

Against this backdrop, the farm industry was also seeing tectonic shifts. Banks and railroads were operating at never before seen scales, creating new economic challenges for farmers, and agriculture itself was seeing immense technological change. Across the country, “grange” fairs began popping up, a tradition that persists to this day in some pockets of the state, such as the Centre County Grange Fair (founded 1874) .

The Mt. Gretna Farmers’ Encampment emerged from a similar gathering that had previously taken place in Williams Grove, the American Farmers’ Encampment.

In Mt. Gretna: A Coleman Legacy, Jack Bitner provides the backstory to how the American Farmers’ Encampment ended up at Gretna. The farmers were apparently dissatisfied with the setup at William’s Grove, and made a proposal to Coleman to move the event there. Coleman, to his credit, welcomed the farmers with open arms and promised there would be no charge for exhibits.

Here’s how that event was advertised in a North Carolina farmers’ newspaper in 1890:

The mission of the American Farmers’ Encampment was stated as follows:

The entire encampment will be for the benefit of the farmer; to present to him the advances in labor-saving machinery; to inculcate new ideas and to present his views the experience of his fellow farmers who will assemble there from all parts of the country.

The event proved immensely popular with daily crowds as many as 20,000 people. But the event was not without its hitches. The Times of Philadelphia reported that the 1890 event opened late, with “some of the best known manufacturers” ending up outside the main exhibition area because they failed to reserve space in time.

June 6, 1891 (clipped by Les Stewart).

If you’ve spent time in Mt. Gretna, you’ve likely seen the exhibition hall built for the farmers’ encampments, today the Mt. Gretna Roller Rink, a pillar of social life for kids in the area (this author still remembers a 7th grade birthday party there). The building is today the oldest in Mt. Gretna.

This Harpel photo shows the park with the farmers’ building in the background in 1922, after the Mt. Gretna Farmers’ Encampment had ended

A siding from the main C&L line would have connected to the building, making it easy to transport machinery or grain.

The people of Lebanon moved to capitalize and improve on the success of the first event and on March 5, 1891, the Lebanon Daily News reported on a meeting of C&L executives and a myriad of agricultural groups: Farmers’ Alliance, Patrons of Husbandry, and Agricultural Implement Exhibitor’s Union. The meeting was chaired by local pharmacist and amateur medical historian J. H. Redsecker, who convened the group with a call for them to more formally organize the next Farmers’ Encampment to be held at Mt. Gretna later that summer, now under a new name: the Mt. Gretna Farmers’ Encampment.

The group named Dr. T. A. Correll of Harrisburg to manage the enterprise. One of his first actions was to clear an additional 30 acres for use of exhibiting machinery, with the Daily News saying the grounds were ample enough to accomadate 100,000 people.

The Daily News was ebullient in its praise of how the event went the previous year:

Little need to be said of the pure mountain air, of the refreshing breezes, the pure water, the shady nooks and the delightful Conewago lake. All these have become widely known and the Farmers’ Encampment this year will further spread its adaptability as a days’ retreat amid the mountains; will demonstrate its availability and stamp it as being the best ground for the purpose to be found anywhere.”

As Jack Bitner reported in a 1973 column for the Daily News, Coleman continued making investments into the park around this time, with new attractions like hot-air balloon ascensions, a steam-operated carousel (complete with brass organ), and a gravity-propelled “scenic railway” that spanned Conewago Creek.

The Mt. Gretna Farmers’ Encampment was opened for the second time August 17, 1892. Although we may be tempted to view the event as non-political, in the way that today’s Farm Show is, a close reading of the schedule proves the opposite. Indeed, this was very much a political and economic summit – each day of the encampment was focused on a particular party or political issue, with the Farmers Institute getting the August 19, Labor Day on August 20, Prohibition Day on August 22, People’s Party Day on August 23, Democrat’s Day on August 24, and Republican Day on August 25. “The Encampment will be the most interesting one ever held in the State,” noted the Daily News, which also reported that Governor Robert Emory Pattison would attend. No intoxicating beverages were allowed at the event.

The Inquirer reported an attendance of about 10,000 people for August 19 that year, just to put the size of the event into perspective.

The New York Times ran a brief about the third encampment held August 22, 1893, by which point the event had obtained grander auspices as “the first encampment of the National Farmers’ Alliance.” Eleven states were represented, with agricultural presentations accompanied by political speeches on the free coinage of silver, a populist idea championed by William Jennings Bryan and his contemporaries.

Not everyone was happy with how things were going. An editor at Farm Implement News was candid in his indictment of the 1893 event: “Any one who was at the Mt. Gretna farmers’ encampment in 1890-91-22 will appreciate the situation when he understands that only a few platforms had anything on them, fully two-thirds of them being entirely vacant. The space formerly occupied by heavy machinery was not so well filled as the platforms.

In 1903, according to a Mt. Gretna newsletter article by Joyce Wright, the fair merged with the National Live Stock and Breeders Association of New York, which tweaked the event’s name to “Mt. Gretna Fair.” The event appears to have gotten much less popular at this time, based on a sharp decline in newspaper mentions.

The fair’s last year was 1916. The first Pennsylvania Farm Show was held the next year, 1917. The Main Hall building we still have today was constructed 1929-1931, with the arena building coming in 1938.

The encampment remains an important part of Mt. Gretna history. In July 2016, local historians Sue Bowman and Lois Herr presented in Gretna’s Hall of Philosophy on the encampment and the history of local farm families. As Sue Bowman explained for Lancaster Farming:

Exactly what caused this exposition’s end after 1916 is not clear. Whether it was the influenza pandemic, World War I or just changing times, it is likely no coincidence that the Pennsylvania Farm Show held its first exposition in Harrisburg during January 1917.

Mount Gretna Ag Expo Predated Pennsylvania Farm Show

Want more? We recommend this YouTube video about the C&L, it features some great pictures along the way and helps you understand just how neat it must have been to board the train in Lebanon and end up at the top of Governor Dick.

Did we miss something in this post? Is there another piece of Lebanon history we should cover? Let us know in the comments or by sending an email.

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