Carlisle Fairgrounds History

While the Carlisle Fairgrounds presently hosts some of the largest classic and collector automotive events in the world, fairs in Carlisle and the fairgrounds themselves have long and rich histories that transcend automotive events.

The first documented fairs in Carlisle date as far back as the early 19th century, but fairs at what we now call the Carlisle Fairgrounds did not begin until the mid 20th century. As early as 1806, the Carlisle Fairgrounds was located at what is recognized by many in Carlisle as the former industrial site of Masland/Lear/IAC. To this day, Fairgrounds Avenue in Carlisle leads to that location. The “old fairgrounds” became the more recently familiar industrial space in 1919. Local fairs continued elsewhere, bouncing between a few different locations until after World War II.

Carlisle Fair at the Carlisle Fairgrounds at night. Image courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society.
Image courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society.

Longtime area resident Creedin Cornman’s father played a role in the development of the post-WWII Carlisle Fair. According to Creedin, “Back in fall of 1945, I (arrived) home from school one day and there was a car sitting in the driveway. There were three or four men there, and I asked my mom what they were doing. She said they were talking about starting the Carlisle Fair (in a permanent location). Everything fell in place, and the first fair (at the current Carlisle Fairgrounds) was in 1946 just after the war ended, with Paul Snyder serving as fair president.”

Cornman also noted that the current Carlisle Fairgrounds site had all been farmland prior to the start of the Carlisle Fair. The men who started the 1946 Carlisle Fair purchased many of their original structures from the former Mifflin Fair. Carlisle Fair organizers built the original wooden grandstand, and famous local horse breeder Max C. Hempt was responsible for building a dirt horse racing track. In addition to horse races featuring some of the best horses and riders in the history of the sport, the fairgrounds also played host to various forms of automotive racing.

Carlisle Fairgrounds view from the grandstand circa 1953. Image courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society.
Carlisle Fairgrounds circa 1953. Image courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society.

In 1981, after seven years of renting the fairgrounds for their automotive events, Bill and Chip Miller (no relation) purchased the Carlisle Fairgrounds. In 1982, a roof was added to the stage, the now-famous Corvettes at Carlisle car show began, and the grounds hosted its last automotive race: a dirt exhibition supported by the Antique Automatable Racers Association.

Bill and Chip continued the tradition of hosting the Carlisle Fair at the fairgrounds for a short time after they purchased the fairgrounds. The annual fair continued to offer food, rides, games, and concerts that featured musicians like singer-songwriter Juice Newton, and gospel singer Jeanie C. Riley. Bill and Chip recognized that while they enjoyed the fair and the fun that it brought to the community, they ultimately decided that they were “car guys,” and to focus on their automotive events, at that time including Spring Carlisle, Fall Carlisle, and Corvettes at Carlisle. The last Carlisle Fair at the Carlisle Fairgrounds was in 1984.

In 1985, the landscape was significantly overhauled when dirt from the grounds was removed to be used as fill beneath the construction of the Cumberland County Prison. As a means to generate more usable space for other events, the dirt track was removed in 1986. The grandstand was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original wooden structure in 1995.

A view from the grandstand at the Carlisle Fairgrounds during Fall Carlisle 1984. Image courtesy of Carlisle Productions, Inc.
The Carlisle Fairgrounds during Fall Carlisle 1984. Image courtesy of Carlisle Productions, Inc.

Many famous guests have visited the Carlisle Fairgrounds throughout its history to include professional wrestling legend Bill Goldberg, longtime television host Jay Leno, National Baseball Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson, the cast of the television show Dukes of Hazzard, the cast of the movie Christine, the television show American Chopper‘s Teutul family, Al Jardine of The Beach Boys, and countless other automotive celebrities. In August of 2004 when President George W. Bush was campaigning for his second term in office, the fairgrounds served as a staging point for his engagement at nearby North Middleton Park.

Beyond automotive events, the Carlisle Fairgrounds also welcomes the community for events like Touch-A-Truck, electronics recycling days, 5K races, fireworks, drive-through Christmas lights displays, and many others. During times that the fairgrounds are vacant, local families, adults, and kids are often seen walking, running, and riding bikes along its many paths.

The Carlisle Fairgrounds today is a can’t-miss vacation destination for many automotive enthusiasts who (unofficially) call Carlisle, “America’s Automotive Hometown.” The fairgrounds serve as a landmark in that “Hometown” where anyone and everyone can create enjoyable experiences again and again.


The next chapters in the fairgrounds history books are being written every day. We hope that you will become a part of its story.

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