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Looking Backward - The Biggest Fair in Town

In case you haven't heard, the New York State Fair begins Thursday Aug. 27. The oldest state fair in the nation, this 12-day event typically attracts almost a million people. In fact, over the past 30 years, about 75,000 people per day have passed through its gates. This equates to about four of every 1,000 people in New York State. But 100 years ago, there was an even bigger fair on a per-capita basis, and it was located just six miles northeast of Baldwinsville. On a good day, the Onondaga County Fair attracted about 3,000 folks to the West Phoenix Fair Grounds in the early 1900s. This total translates to about 12 of every 1,000 people in the two counties of Onondaga and Oswego combined, or three times the number of people per-capita who attend the state fair today.

The West Phoenix Fair Grounds once sat on the southwest corner of River Road and the old Lamson Road. Before it was rerouted further north, Lamson Road ran straight through the hamlet of West Phoenix on its way east to Phoenix over the Oswego River. The former bridge foundations are still visible just south of the dam. Back when the bridge connected the hamlet to its larger namesake across the river, West Phoenix contained a church, school, stores, a few furniture factories and several sawmills. In 1880, Stephen Pendergast's estate funded construction of the church, St. Stephen's, nearly 30 years after he migrated here in 1851 from County Wexford, Ireland. The church was razed in 1958, but the Pendergast family cemetery stills sits behind the spot where the church once stood across the road from the fair grounds.

Upon Stephen's death in 1879, his 1,200 acre estate included not just the church and cemetery, but also the Pendergast family homestead, known as the Oswego River Stock Farms; the West Phoenix Fair Grounds, site of the Onondaga County Fair; and the Pendergast Driving Park, headquarters of the prestigious Phoenix Trotting Association. Sure enough, according to an unpublished manuscript penned in 1879 by Dr. Kathleen Pendergast, Stephen's great granddaughter, "Across from the cemetery is a twenty-five acre tract which was in the nineteenth century Pendergast Driving Park where the family's champion harness horses were exercised and races were held. It later became the site of the Onondaga County Fair ."

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