He was one of Canfield’s early residents, moving from Connecticut to Canfield in 1806 to practice law and teach school. In 1812, he answered his young country’s call and fought under William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812. He represented Canfield in the Ohio House from 1821 to 1822, and in the U. S. Congress from 1823 to 1838. He also served as the first Comptroller of the U. S. Treasury.
In local history, what he is best known for is his role in forming the Mahoning County Agricultural Society, the parent organization of the Canfield Fair. It was 1846. The Ohio Legislature had just created Mahoning County as a new county from townships in Trumbull and Columbiana Counties. Canfield, because of its central location, was chosen to be the county seat. It was only in 1874 that the county seat was moved to Youngstown.
During that year, Attorney Whittlesey spoke to a gathering at the Canfield Congregational Church. It had the impressive title of “Competitive Exhibitions as a Means of Awakening More Active Interest in All Industrial Pursuits” (the beginning of all those 4-H competitions!). The address had the intended effect and out of this meeting the Mahoning County Agricultural Society was born.
Since Canfield was the county seat, it was the logical choice for the county fair. The first fair was organized as a one-day affair held on October 5, 1847. Initially, livestock was tied up and produce displayed along Broad Street and meetings held at the Congregational Church. George Houk of the Mahoning County Agricultural Society described the early fairs like this, “People brought their ox teams in, their horse teams in. It was just an opportunity for the early farmers to get together and share their agricultural ideas with one another” (Source: WKBN27). The first fair turned a profit of $308.
In 1851, the Fair moved to its present location and expanded further in 1867. In 1896, the Main Hall (now the Floral and Fine Arts Building) was opened. In 1924 lighting allowed for night attendance for the first time. In 1936, the Grandstand was completed as a WPA project. In 1958 the Big Rock was installed and the rooster on the Grandstand in 1968.
There were war years when the Fair was not held. 1917–18, 1942–45. In 2020, due to the COVID pandemic, only the Junior Fair took place–honoring all the work those youth invested and returning in some way to the earliest beginnings of the Fair.
This year, the full Fair is on and celebrating the 175th anniversary of its beginnings at Canfield Congregational Church and an address by Elisha Whittlesey. All those Junior Fair competitions, all those exhibitions, the rides, the fair food, the grandstand shows, started with an idea set forth by one of Canfield’s early residents in the year Mahoning became a county. Thank you, Attorney Whittlesey!
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!