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Grounds to Share: Quick History of the Indiana State Fairgrounds

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - During the 1850's here in Indiana, transportation was becoming more efficient, causing ideas, tools, and practices to spread quicker than they ever had before. State leaders decided it was best to get all of these ideas, tools and practices into one place, each year. In 1852 the Indiana State Fair was born, and it would take place in Indianapolis' Military Park.

Military Park

Site of First State Fair

Military Park (Indianapolis)

Historic Military Park today

Now a part of White River State Park

After the success of the fair here in Indianapolis, other cities began to play host to the event. Lafayette, Madison, New Albany, Fort Wayne and Terre Haute all had their shot at hosting the fair until 1892. When the fair was in the capitol city of Indianapolis, it was either held at Military Park, or Camp Morton.

Military Park, known as Camp Sullivan for a period of time, would be used a Union training grounds during the Civil War.

Marker along the Cultural Trail in Historic Military Park at White River State Park

Camp Morton

Camp Morton was located on the near northside of Indianapolis, near 19th and Alabama. As the State Fair went on its tour of Indiana, Camp Morton was one of the places it would come while in Indy.

Flier for 1885 State Fair in Indianapolis at Camp Morton

Here's a look at Camp Morton around the mid 1800's.

During the Civil War, Camp Morton was one of the largest of the Union's eight prison camps that were established for Confederate noncommissioned officers and privates.

Between 1862 and 1865 it was estimated that 1700 Confederate soldiers died while they were housed at Camp Morton. Their remains were buried near the old Greenlawn Cemetery by the White River. A monument for these soldiers currently sits in Garfield Park on the southside of Indy.

Once the Civil War ended the grounds at Camp Morton would host a multitude of Indiana State Fair's and events. After approximately four decades of our fair bouncing around, it was time for a new, and permanent home for the Indiana State Fair.

Current Indiana State Fairgrounds - In 1892, the Fair began at its current site which was quite rural in 1892. The first electric interurban trolley in Indianapolis (and Marion County), travelling to Broad Ripple from the city, had a special line to serve fair goers. Also, the Monon Railroad had a siding for cattlemen and farmers to drop off goods at the Fair, as did the Nickel Plate (diagonal line, now running the Fair train). The Monon built a depot on 38th St. in 1922, so passengers from Northern or Southern Indiana could disembark right by the Fairgrounds.

New Fairgrounds, 1202 E. 38th Street

Indianapolis, Indiana

On September 19, 1892 the Indiana State Fair opened its gates at a brand new location. the same location where the State Fair is today. At the time, this site was still pretty rural, just as Camp Morton was when it was chosen to be the site of the fair. To be fair, most of Indiana was, and still is rural. This why Indiana's State Fair was so important to business and individuals across the Hoosier state. - The entire economy revolved around farming or products that originated on the farm, or making things to improve agriculture. Most of the population lived in rural areas or on farms, until about 1925. Having a State Fair gave farmers a way to come together, exchange new ideas for improving yields, and see the latest ideas in farming techniques and show their best products.

During the roaring 1920's in the United States, Indiana's racism was also roaring to forefront (if it hadn't been there already). Even though Indianapolis is known as the "racing capitol of the world", not everyone was allowed to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Indianapolis 500 didn't see its first black driver until 1991.

The State Fairgrounds, however, was a place where people that look like me were able to race! From 1924 to 1936 the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes was our Indianapolis 500.

Newspaper Ad for the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes

The race took place on the fairground's one mile dirt track, it was 100 laps, 100 miles, to see who the fastest black driver in America was! Charles Wiggins won the Gold and Glory four times during the competition's run.


I'll wrap it up here. I just wanted to give a quick history on the early sites of Indiana's State Fair. I know there's PLENTY of story worthy incidents that have happened since the move, like the explosion of 1963, or the stage collapse of 2011. Professional sports team have came and went, including the Indiana Pacers during their days in the ABA.

Towards the beginning of our state fair history, the grounds were used to share ideas and practices. Although that's still the primary objective of the fair today, when I went earlier this month I was able to see a lot more. The fairgrounds have turned more into a place to simply share a good time, and that's more than okay with those that love to visit each summer.

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