On the land where Pulaski Street school and most of the school district’s athletic fields now sit, horses once trotted around a race track, Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige both played ball, and Teddy Roosevelt once campaigned to be governor of New York.

The Suffolk County Fair Grounds, the former home of the annual Suffolk County Agricultural Society Fair throughout the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, is now recognized with an official marker from the Town of Riverhead. 

“With the unveiling of this marker, we commemorate the contribution that Riverhead brought forth to the entire country — if not the world,” school Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said. “As our students know, recognizing and learning from the past is how we best experience our present and move towards a prosperous future. The establishment of this marker will allow us and future generations to recognize the significance of the fairgrounds and preserve a piece of history with local and national meaning.”

Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead school district officials and students celebrated the unveiling of the marker at the Pulaski Street School during a ceremony Monday. Fifth and 6th grade students from the Pulaski Street Student Council were positioned in front of enlarged historical photographs and old newspaper clippings to talk to ceremony attendees about the history of the fairgrounds and life in Suffolk County centuries ago. Some students performed an old song for the audience. In the background at the ceremony was a period-accurate tractor display, set up by Fink’s Country Farm.   

The days-long fair was first held in Riverhead in 1865. It was put on again in 1866 and then consecutively from 1868 to 1941. The fair was both a social event and a place to exhibit the newest farming technology. Throughout the event’s history, farmers displayed their products and the latest farm machinery; people watched baseball, auto racing and other entertaining events; and fireworks lit up the sky at nights.

The school district, which eventually bought the property from the agricultural society, erected what is now Pulaski Street school as a high school in 1937. Part of the land was leased back to the society for the fair for several years until it was canceled in 1942 because of World War II. The grounds were used for military purposes for several years, according to newspaper clippings.

Photo: Alek Lewis

The spirit of the fair was eventually revived in 1976 by Riverhead Townscape into the Riverhead Country Fair. The fair is held every October in downtown Riverhead and draws thousands to the town. The fair continues the traditions of the agricultural society’s fair, including displays of agricultural equipment and products, as well as competitions. 

Former school board president Laurie Downs, who Tornatore said informed him of the fairgrounds and suggested recognizing the property, said she became “obsessed” with the history of the fairgrounds when she was researching her husband’s family, one of the first colonial families to settle in Riverhead. 

“I thought to myself that this wasn’t just promoting agriculture advancement, it was also promoting Riverhead,” Downs said, bringing people from western Long Island and New York City to the town.

“Many came back and purchased homes, worked on our highways, opened businesses…” Downs said. 

Superintendent Augustine Tornatore and Pulaski Street Principal Patrick Burke unveil the marker. Photo: Alek Lewis

Downs said she asked Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski to pursue recognition of the fairgrounds property in 2018, but other legislators did not bite. Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and the Town Board ended up donating the sign, Downs said.

Pulaski Principal Patrick Burke said the school plans to begin a new tradition by holding an annual buildingwide event to celebrate the legacy of the fairgrounds in October. 

“There were contests for who had the best products; so in the future, the expectation is that students will demonstrate the process on pickling items, or how to weave, or churn butter or use an old sickle,” Burke said.

A photo of a “horse diving” event at the fair grounds in Riverhead on display at the marker placement event. Photo: Alek Lewis
Students perform old-time music at Monday’s ceremony. Photo: Alek Lewis
Display by Fink’c Country
A period-accurate tractor display by Fink’s Country Farm. Photo: Alek Lewis

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.