The New York State Fair might not have survived the early 1900’s, or be in Syracuse, if it wasn’t for some over-the-top entertainment…held OFF the fairgrounds. Here's how the Ka-noo-no Karnival united the community behind the fair and attracted many visitors.
It was 1904, and the state fair was in serious debt. The state had taken over management of the fair in 1899 due to its worsening finances, and the state fair commission was threatening to move it to another city. Curator of Collections at the Onondaga Historical Association Tom Hunter says that's when community and business leaders got together and developed a festival to keep daytime fairgoers in town…
"It was actually an ancillary, elaborate extravaganza. It's purpose was to attract people to the city during the after hours of the fair. They would leave the fairgrounds and come downtown, where they had floats, boats on the canal, and pageants."
"Once they found it to be successful, people came, they stayed. The hotel rooms filled up, so they queried community citizens to open up their homes. So they rented out rooms and spaces in their homes."
The popular and successful Mardi Gras-like festivals continued until 1917, when world war one began and the fairgrounds was turned into Camp Syracuse for military training. After that, Hunter says the Ka-noo-no had served its purpose, and never resurfaced.
"It is very fair to say that the festival saved the fair," Hunter said with a laugh. "Ka-noo-no Karnival really did a fine job of keeping the fair in Syracuse, and putting it back on a financially solvent footing."
The OHA has a “From the Vault” exhibit right inside its lobby with photos and artifacts from the Karnivals, including an original yellow, red, and blue domino costume.