Aug 25, 2009 Steve McMahon Uncategorized
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 Sure enough, according to an unpublished manuscript penned in 1879 by Dr.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 .”
In 1873, the Phoenix Union Agricultural Society was organized, and held its fairs at the Pendergast Driving Park. According to the “History of Oswego County, New York,” of 1877, “The territory of the society comprises the town of Schroeppel, and also the towns of Clay and Lysander, in Onondaga county. Persons residing in the counties of Oswego or Onondaga may compete for premiums. The grounds of the society are known as ‘The Pendergast Driving Park,’ of which the society has a lease, and are situated just across the river from the village of Phoenix. The first Phoenix Fair was held in 1873, and the society has held an annual exhibition since that time, all of which have been very successful as exhibitions of stock, agricultural products, and largely attended. They have erected a commodious building on their grounds, and the premiums paid since its organization amount in the aggregate to nearly five thousand dollars.” Members of the Pendergast family would serve as officers or directors of the society for years, besides breeding and racing horses at the Pendergast Driving Park, whose progeny in turn were bred and raced throughout the United States and Europe.
In October of 1891, the Oswego Daily Times reported that, “Probably the biggest crowd that ever assembled inside the fence of the Phoenix Driving park was there yesterday afternoon to see the potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, fruit, merry-go-round, fakir merchants, peanut peddlers, Indian band and other attractions of the second day of the Phoenix fair .The balloon ascension by Aeronaut John J. Frisbie of Oswego, was one of the features of the day. A large crowed watched the process of inflating the big bag till the rise was made at 4:30. The balloon with the man dangling and performing from the trapeze underneath shot up with great rapidity till it reached an altitude of about 1,000 feet. There was some breeze, and it was thought that the balloon would blow away in the direction of Syracuse, but it did not. When the big bag had reached its full height the aeronaut cut the parachute loose and began to descend very gracefully. Every part of the rigging worked to perfection, and Mr. Frisbie landed very softly in the orchard of Stephen Pendergast outside of the fair ground.”
In September of 1897, the Phoenix Fair hosted not just the usual horse races and other typical attractions, but also the first-ever “Great Horseless Wagon Race.” Promoters of the event claimed that the three cars in question were the only horseless racing wagons in the world. Other publicity promised a “fighting race from start to finish,” and a result, gave fair warning to fairgoers that the Phoenix Fair would be “filled to overflowing” on the day of the great race. Subsequent years saw more races, including one for teams of horses drawing lumber wagons. Then, around the turn of the century and in a quirk of fate, the West Phoenix Fair Grounds became the new site of the Onondaga County Fair.
In 1898, the state legislature had passed a bill that limited state appropriations to county fairs where there had been a county agricultural society in active operation. Unlike Onondaga County, the Phoenix Union Agricultural Society in Oswego County had been in continuous operation since 1873. And, since its fair grounds were actually located over in West Phoenix, which was in Onondaga County, the officers of the Onondaga County Fair would either have to hold their annual fair over there or risk losing its state subsidy. They chose the former, and the Phoenix Fair gave way to the Onondaga County Fair in 1904. Late in 1903, one local paper proudly announced that, “The Phoenix Fair Association and (the) Onondaga County Agricultural Exposition Company are to unite in a mammoth Onondaga county fair to be held at the Phoenix Fair Grounds .”
The greatest boon the West Phoenix Fair Grounds was the decision in 1908 by the Syracuse, Lakeshore, & Northern Railroad or “Trolley” to pass by the fair grounds on its way from Baldwinsville to Phoenix. According to the 1985 book, “Trolley Trivia,” written by Ruth Connell and Eleanor Christopher, this route was one of 10 local trolley lines operated by the Beebe Syndicate, chartered in Syracuse in 1905. After originating or connecting in Baldwinsville, fair goers could exit at a trolley stop located on the south end of the West Phoenix Fair Grounds, after which the line continued on to Phoenix. The foundations of the old trolley bridge are still visible in the Oswego River just south of town. Early in 1909, one local paper excitedly stated that, “It was voted to build a ticket building and entrance at that point where the Syracuse, Lakeshore & Northern Railroad touches the fair grounds .With the trolley service direct to the fair grounds the management is of the opinion that big crowds will attend the fair this year from Syracuse and Baldwinsville and points north to Fulton.”
But before long, the New York State Fair threatened the prominence of the Onondaga County Fair and the fair grounds themselves. Early in the 1900’s, the Oswego Daily Times was already reporting that ” interest in the Phoenix track as a training center has been overshadowed to a great extent, during the last few years, by the beautiful and complete State Fair racing course which has attracted the leading trainers of the Grand Circuit.” By December of 1920, the Fulton Patriot posted the sad news that, “The buildings, structures and property of the Onondaga County Fair association — better known as the Phoenix fair grounds — were sold at public auction.”
I met recently with Carolyn Pendergast Fairbanks, great, great granddaughter of Stephen Pendergast, and her former schoolmate, Dick Gunsalus. Pointing north from her home on River Road, Carolyn said that, “About one mile down the road you’ll cross the old trolley bed. The old homestead is still there on the left. The old driving park is right past that. My family donated it for the fair grounds. When the fair stopped, it came back in the family. It was my grandparents’ house when I was young, and I lived kitty corner across the street.”
Carolyn added that, “The government bought the land for the Ordnance Works.” Also known locally as “The Project,” the Ordnance Works were located on 6,500 acres, land now occupied by Radisson and the Three Rivers Game Management Area. In the spring of 1942, the federal government evicted bout 180 landowners to make way for an explosives factory to aid the war effort. A large display ad in the Baldwinsville Gazette and Farmers’ Journal that spring announces an auction at the Oswego River Stock Farms of the Pendergast Brothers. It states simply that “Uncle Sam needs our farms, so we’re dispersing our herd of 120 registered Holsteins established 45 years ago.” Carolyn continued. “My parents bought it back from the government in 1948 when I was only four years old. It was right beside our yard. My father used to mow it, and we used to ride horses there.” Dick added that, “We used to play ball there. They say that if you fly over it, you can still see the outline of the race track.” Sure enough, if you consult Google Earth on the internet, you can just make out the oval of the old track, along with the trolley line just below it running in a straight line from southwest to northeast.
Dick and Carolyn were kind enough to join me in a recent expedition to the old fair grounds. While it is visible by air, the old racetrack is now totally overgrown. Bushwhacking our way through the brush, we quickly found the raised edge of the northern turn. Dick indicated that the two grandstands stood on each side of the infield, facing out toward the straight-aways on either side. I couldn’t resist the temptation to dig down into the soil, but I found nothing. Still, as we made our way back through the thicket toward the little hamlet of West Phoenix, I could have sworn that I heard the distant whinny of a thoroughbred and the sound of thundering hoof beats.
Looking Backward will appear in the Messenger every other week, as long as there are stories to tell. If you have questions about this story or suggestions for future ones, including any local historical images or information, please contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Collection of Bonnie Kisselstein, Lysander Town Historian
Crowds witness the balloon ascension of Aeronaut John J. Frisbie of Oswego at the West Phoenix Fair Grounds in October of 1891.