Historical Markers
Williams Grove [Agriculture] Historical Marker
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Williams Grove [Agriculture]

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
Williams Grove Road, Monroe Twp.

Dedication Date:
October 19, 1980

Behind the Marker

Here the "flagging energies and drooping aspirations of multitudes are quickened into activity, and they return, to the fruitful farm and busy shop determined to equal, and if possible, surpass the triumph they have witnessed."

                                                   -Williams Grove Picnic Exhibition program, 1905.

Organization of the markerPennsylvania Grange in September 1874, helped provide Commonwealth farmers the united front necessary to advance their interests. Almost immediately the State Grange became a force to reckon with, securing passage of pro-farm legislation in the Commonwealth and providing farm families opportunities to improve their lives and better protect their interests. Farm families gathered in local grange halls to socialize, listen to lectures, and learn about the world. (The only topics off limits were religion and politics.)
Many solid and striped tents, and the grounds are filled with fairgoers.
Grangers Picnic Williams Grove, Pa. 1916.

To escape the isolation of their farms, rural residents had for centuries gathered for camp meetings and picnics. Building on these traditional gatherings, the National Grange staged regional one-day socials to allow members from greater distances to build bonds. At the prompting of R. H. Thomas, secretary of the newly organized Pennsylvania State Grange and publisher of The Farmers Friend Magazine and Grange Advocate, the Grange, in 1874, decided to hold a one-day social reunion at Williams Grove, Pennsylvania.

Situated at the foot of South Mountain in the picturesque Cumberland Valley, Williams Grove was an ideal place for a picnic. Rail access through Harrisburg, only thirteen miles away, made the grove an easily accessible destination, and the markerCumberland Valley Railroad had already constructed homes and recreational grounds there for its employees and business associates. Williams Grove had a lake and adjoined the Yellow Breeches Creek, both of which provided opportunities for swimming and boating. In the center of its large grove of oaks, which provided cooling shade in the hot summer months, was a large spring capable of supplying pure drinking water for more than 24 hours to 60,000 people "without any sign of diminution."

Attendance at the reunion was so large that the Grange decided to stage yearly picnics. Recognizing that the gathering provided an excellent opportunity to bring "producers and consumers, farmers and manufacturers, into the most direct and friendly relations possible," Thomas began to invite manufacturers of the farm machinery that was revolutionizing American agriculture.

Soon the Tri-State Grange Picnic evolved into an annual two-week summer event. To accommodate the immense crowds that gathered from all over the country for the yearly "Grangers Picnic," the Cumberland Valley Railroad and the Dillsburg and Mechanicsburg Railroad renovated and expanded their facilities, transforming Williams Grove into a city of exhibition buildings, cottages, and recreational facilities.
Candidate William McKinley speaks at Williams Grove on his presidential campaign trail, c.1900 from a flag draped stand while onlookers are standing below.
Candidate William McKinley speaks at Williams Grove on his presidential campaign...

By the 1890s, up to 200,000 people were gathering each August to attend the Greater Grangers Interstate Picnic and Exhibition, the nation's largest farm machinery exposition. Case, Frick, McCormick, and other manufacturers from all over the country set up more than 100 stands to engage "in friendly rivalry and competition." Here, too, the "horny handed ‘sons of toil" met to discuss questions of vital importance to them and their industry."

Sprawled over twenty-five acres, the fair became a marker"farmers' Chautauqua," an open-air college where folks could listen to "speeches by statesmen of national reputation and scholars of worldwide renown," and attend lectures that imparted "useful information of a practical character." Philanthropic associations set up temporary headquarters on the ground where their able speakers shared "the correct views of the work in which each is engaged" and distributed literature. In the evening, an auditorium that could accommodate 3,000 people staged concerts, illustrated lectures, and other educational entertainments. Designing the picnic to be a family affair, the organizers attempted with mixed success to exclude gambling, horse racing, "immoral shows," and liquor.

The picnic also attracted governors, congressmen, suffragists, and evangelists. Militant prohibitionist Carrie Nation spoke there, as did pioneering suffragist minister and physician Anna Howard, and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, who began his Pennsylvania campaign for the presidency at the picnic in 1912 - while local suffragettes protested outside the rally and handed out leaflets.

Williams Grove hosted its forty-third and final fair in 1916. The First World War, the death of the fair's manager, and the arrival of the automobile collectively contributed to the end of this once great event. The fair was reinstituted in 1959, by the William's Grove Historical Steam Engine Association, which each August hosts an annual exhibit of old-time farm and steam equipment.
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