Clemson’s connection with the State Fair began with founder Thomas Green Clemson.
Four years after the Civil War ended, state leaders formed the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society of South Carolina which founded the present State Fair.
Thomas Clemson, former president of the Pendleton Farmers Society, was a member of that first State Agricultural and Mechanical Society.
The State Fair has been held every year since 1869, except during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
Clemson at the Fair
Early Clemson administrators recognized the value of the State Fair for advertising and promoting their new college.
Clemson's first exhibit at the 1896 State Fair featured a display of class work in agriculture, textiles, and mechanics intended to interest potential students. The College also operated a working dairy on the fairgrounds.
Clemson's State Fair exhibits continued to feature new and innovative work being done at the college. In 1899, fair goers marveled at a six-horse power vertical engine. In 1923, they were awed by a small radio station that broadcast speech and music over a short range.
Clemson's strong tradition of public service also has been on display at the State Fair since the early 1900s. Even before the 1914 Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at land grant colleges, Clemson displayed the results of its own extension and home demonstration work at the State Fair. The Cooperative Extension Service has continued to provide educational displays and judge competitions at the State Fair every year since.
State Fair Week
Clemson students also were eager to join in the fun of the State Fair.
In early years, the entire Corps of Cadets traveled by special train and camped at the Fair for several days.
They practiced military drills, paraded on the streets of Columbia, visited Fair exhibits and enjoyed all that the big city had to offer.
One of the main attractions of the State Fair for Clemson students was the annual football game between Clemson and the University of South Carolina.
The football rivalry started on Thursday, November 12, 1896 at the fairgrounds in front of about 2,000 fans.
The series continued with more fans viewing the game each year through 1900. There was no game in 1901 and a riot after the 1902 game canceled the competition for several years. However, both teams continued to play against other schools during State Fair week.
The rivalry resumed in 1909. Over the next decade, the third Thursday in October matchup became known as the "State Fair Classic" and the day known as “Big Thursday.” Attendance topped 5,000 and then 10,000. It was described as “combination picnic, fashion parade, political rally and drinking bout.”
The popularity of Big Thursday continued to grow in the 1920s. A new stadium increased attendance to over 17,000 fans by 1934. The game also became an informal reunion for Clemson alumni gathered in Columbia.
Both schools also fielded separate freshmen teams since freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition in those days. The freshmen teams competed on Wednesday night.
Big Thursday’s popularity exploded again after World War II. In 1946, there was a counterfeit ticket scandal leading to many more tickets than seats. Fans broke down the general admission gate and flooded the field throughout the game, blocking the view of the teams on their benches.
Politicians attending the game did not want to risk offending fans (potential voters) of either school, even if they attended one of them.
Usually, the governor sat on one side for the first half while the two U.S. senators sat on the other. At halftime, the two college presidents met at midfield and exchanged politicians.
In 1947, the two schools formed a Better Relations Committee under their respective Blue Key organizations. Clemson students were provided lodging with some Carolina students, as well as in the Carolina gymnasium. Activities included a dance with bands from both schools.
(left) from The Tiger, 18 October 1951
“Mrs. Robert C. Edwards [Louise Edwards], wife of the Clemson College president, has chosen a “spicey” ensemble for the last Big Thursday football game in Columbia this week. The walking suit is spice colored wool, worn with velour hat, wool jersey blouse, satin-trimmed suede closed, high heeled pumps and fabric gloves and bag.”
-- The Greenville News, October 20, 1959