On April 20, 1915, two adjoining tracts of land in Muhlenberg Township, totaling 54 acres, were purchased for $20,750 for the site of the Reading Fairgrounds. Several subsequent purchases increased the area to approximately 78 acres. The site was ideal since it was served by two railroads (the Reading and the Pennsylvania), a branch of the Reading Street Railway Company’s lines, and two main highways, the Pottsville and the Allentown Pikes. Several subsequent purchases increased the area to approximately 78 acres.
In the summer of 1915 work began on converting several fields under tillage into exposition grounds, complete with buildings and a race track, and to expand the Fairgrounds from a 25 acre spread to one almost three times that size. Planning necessitated the visualizing of a proposed building site in terms of the possibility of expansion rather than of removal and rebuilding. All of it had to be done within five months calendar time (the fair was postponed to late October in order to provide an extra month for construction). The completed Fairgrounds consisted of exhibition buildings, a racetrack with a grandstand and amusement rides.
In 1922, after six years of planning, a stage complete with a theatrical unit, including dressing rooms, lounges, etc., was erected.
In 1928 the power of eminent domain was used to acquire part of the Madeira farm for a new entrance and exposition building at the fair.
In 1947 a building designed for roller skating was added to the facilities.
One big contribution to the fair’s success was the accessibility of transportation accommodations. There was a continuous shuttle service of trains from both Franklin Street and the Outer Station on the Reading railway, which also arranged excursions at reduced rates from places within the area bounded by Sunbury, Easton, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg.
When gasoline took the place of the railroad, the Reading Transit Company brought in fleets of buses from other cities. Ample parking spaces were also provided for motorists.
A great variety of amusements to appeal to the taste of everyone who came through the gate was provided. The Fair included imported amusements of a carnival nature, including rides of various kinds, as well as those especially gifted in or trained for some, extraordinary activity, and animals.
Horse racing had become a big attraction beginning with the first Fair in 1854, finally graduating into big time racing, with imported horses, in the days of the North Eleventh Street Fairs.
When the series of Fairs was in the making at the Muhlenberg site, racing had become so popular that one of the first items of business was the location and building of a track. When the gates opened in 1916, there was not only a track, but a card of races extending over three days. The interest in racing grew so rapidly, both with the visitors and with the racing stables, that by 1935, in an attempt to accommodate the crowds and also the large entrance lists, the program was extended over four days, and the next year, to five.
Below: The Reading Fair, 1937-1940
Eventually with the changing times, the racing transitioned from horse into motor vehicle racing. It became so popular that the Fairgrounds eventually held an entire season of racing, starting in March and only closing in late fall. The first auto racing stunts as a part of the Fair were presented in 1924.
In 1932 a seven-horse pileup killed race jockey Roy McCann of Elizabeth, NJ.
Frank Sinatra performed at the Fair in 1950. Over the years other performers included Ray Charles and Pat Boone.
Below: The Reading Fair, 1951
In 1978, the last fair was held on the Muhlenberg site because the Fairgrounds was sold to developers of the Fairgrounds Square Mall. The last full season of racing was held at the fairgrounds in 1978. The last race of the season was marred by a fiery crash that seriously injured driver Michael Grbac of New Brunswick, N.J. A month after the crash, he died of his injuries. He was one of several drivers killed at the Fairgrounds over the years.
In 1979 a limited racing series was held at the Fairgrounds as legal entanglements delayed development of the mall.
Between 1980 and 1994 the Fair was held at the Fairgrounds Square Mall and on the surrounding property. With the mall becoming too crowded, the Fair moved to Kutztown while Fair organizers searched for a new site.
In 1999 construction began at the present-day Fairgrounds on 60 acres in Bern Township off County Welfare Road. Since 1999, the Fair has been moved to Bern Township, on Hilltop Road.
On April 13, 2016, Hull Property Group took over the Fairgrounds Square Mall, with plans to revitalize the mall.