When the leaves turn golden in the Northern Tier, the town of Mansfield gears up for the Fabulous 1890’s Weekend. The annual festival celebrates the world’s first night football game played at the 1892 Great Mansfield Fair.
The first Mansfield Fair was held in 1879 at the Smythe Park, reported George Retan in his 1957 History of Mansfield and reposted on Tri-Counties Genealogy and History by Joyce M. Tice.
The last year of the Mansfield Fair was 1956.
Dr. Herbert G. Smythe moved from Canada to Covington in 1831. He later purchased the physician’s practice at 82 South Main Street, Dr. Dexter Parkhurst. Today it’s the site of the Pump and Pantry.
The purchase included an island that was bordered by the Tioga River to the west and a small stream to the east.
Even before 1879, small picnics and reunions were held on Dr. Smythe’s Island as it was a convenient large, open area and Dr. Smythe didn’t seem to mind. Indeed, the island was used for a fundraising event after the first Seminary building burned in 1858. A track for horse racing was built in 1877. Some early Normal School graduations were held at the island as well.
In 1879, Smythe sold a little more than five acres to the Mansfield School Board to build a graded school which is the site of Mansfield High School today.
Mansfield decided to host a major fair on the island, primarily to allow local farmers to display their livestock. Mart King, a blacksmith and later owner of a furniture factory, took the lead in establishing the fair.
Dr. Retan noted that the town officials approached the County Agricultural Association, which held shows in Wellsboro, to consider holding shows at the planned fair of 1879.
The Association apparently said no because later, Fordyce Allen, with the help of the Soldiers Orphan School students, cleared the brush and debris from the Island to make a large recreation area for venders and exhibits.
Mansfield residents built an exhibit building, 400 stalls for livestock, and a railroad switch to allow the Blossburg Corning Railroad to drop off visitors at the new park, which officially opened during the July 4 celebration in 1879.
The first fair was held October 1-3, 1879 and was a success. Sixteen carloads of stock arrived from New York. The crowd was estimated at around 5,000.
Admission was 15 cents per person. Children under 10 were free. Season tickets were $1 and meals at the fair were 25 cents.
A year later, more than 10,000 people attended on the second day. The fair had doubled in size.
The following year, the ladies of Mansfield had raised $520 toward the $1,150 cost of building a women’s pavilion at the park. By 1881, the Mansfield Fair was attracting 9,000 people during the peak days.
Flooding in the late 1880s and early 1890s caused the borough to decide to dam the small stream that cut the island off from the rest of town. As a result, the park was now attached to the borough and was no longer an island.
Throughout the years, the park served as the site of many civic gatherings. A large grandstand dominated the park for many decades and the old entrance house is still standing.
The Great Mansfield Fair, was the site of historic events, like the first night football game in 1892, and tragedies like the death of “Dare Devil” Tony Castellane.
With the elimination of passenger trains stopping in Mansfield, and the gradual
transition to cars, crowds at the fair began dwindling after World War II. The Fair Association disbanded in December 1957.
The land comprises Smythe Park, along with some other properties in town, was purchased by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1976 for flood control. The Corps then built a dike that keeps the park from flooding, which was happening about once every two years. During high water events, the park is intentionally flooded and the water released back into the Tioga River slowly to ease some of the pressure on the dams downstream. Other than that, the park is open to all kinds of public and private recreation.
Smythe Park currently has a baseball field and soccer fields for high school and youth athletics. The college also used the park for sporting events from the 1890’s until suitable fields for football, soccer, field hockey and softball were built on campus starting in the early 1960’s
The idea of a fall festival, to be held at Smythe Park, was revived in the early 1990s. General Electric, the company that supplied the lights for the 1892 game, in 1992 conducted a massive marketing campaign revolving around that first night football game. The commercial included a shot of a player lamenting the fact that no one would remember what happened that night.
Some people did remember, though, including the football coach and town librarian Karl Van Norman. As late as 1935, he wrote newspaper articles recalling the game.
In 1992, Mansfield University and the Greater Area Mansfield Chamber of Commerce held the first Fabulous 1890s Weekend. The Festival features period entertainment and a museum of local history. The highlight is a half-hour long reenactment of the first night game. The script comes from actual newspaper accounts of the game. The players are young men, and sometimes young women, from the university and community.
The reenactment features now illegal mass formation plays like the flying wedge. There are also stage fights since real fights were common at the time. The players did not wear pads and the reenactment features a play where a player is “revived” with a bucket full of cold water.
Just like the original game, the reenactment ends in a 0-0 tie between Mansfield State Normal School and Wyoming Seminary.
The 1890s Weekend, along with the Fourth of July Celebration which is also held at Smythe Park, are among the area’s biggest attractions.