To know where we're going, it helps to understand where we've been. Take a short trip through our history to learn a little more about our roots in this area.
To really appreciate the history of the Wyoming State Fair, one needs to take a trip through the Pioneer museum located on the fairgrounds, dig through the files at the library, and more importantly, visit with the Old Timers. These State Fair pioneers will tell you some of the most wonderful stories surrounding the events and the years at the Fair with a warmth and feeling lost in printed words.
The Wyoming State Fair had its roots back as early as 1886 in an event called the “First Annual Wyoming Territorial Fair” conducted by the Board of Trustees of the Wyoming Fair Association. The original 80 acre site is lost to history but was somewhere along the old Cheyenne and Northern Railroad right-of-way, near Cheyenne. This must have continued for at least 4 years as there is mention of this event taking place as late as 1890.
In 1901, the Wyoming Industrial Convention was held in Laramie. Then it was on to Sheridan and finally to a very lavish show in Casper in 1904. The 1904 show ended with a resolution for the establishment of a permanent fair. After several political battles, Douglas won the nomination with the passage of a bill in the 1905 Legislative session and an appropriation of $10,000 for the two-year period.
With the $10,000, the Fair had to secure land, erect buildings and pay premiums and other expenses. The people of Douglas guaranteed the Fair and with this, plans for the 1905 Fair began. Nearly all of the $10,000 was used in the preliminary work and it was necessary for the people of Douglas to subscribe the money necessary for the running of the State Fair. A race track costing $5,000 and billed as the “Best Track in the State,” a modest grandstand and an Art Hall were built. The merchants of Douglas donated $3,000, enough money to begin building the Agriculture Hall, which was finished in 1913 and is still in use today as the Administration Building and Director’s Office.
The Midwest Review in 1925, published by the Midwest Refining company, stated that $40,000 was appropriated for the operation of the Fair on a two-year basis but “This will not be ample to provide for any new buildings which are sadly needed because the Fair is growing to greater proportions.” By 1925, the Ag Hall had been erected, the Art Hall enlarged and remodeled and the wooden grandstand replaced by a steel grandstand. An exhibit pavilion for horses, cattle and sheep had been built. It was equipped to care for the wants and needs of the exhibitor in a much better manner than the first Fair. The early camp at the Fair consisted of tents set up military style, with a military call to rise and sleep with the raising and lowering of the flag.
Another quote from the 1925 Midwest Review, speaking of the “Boys and Girls Clubwork” (now known as 4-H), says: “They come in force, dormitories are provided for the girls and the boys camp on the grounds. The special prizes which are provided in the club work are of value, demonstrations are given daily by the young people; judging contests are held and it is the aim of the management to make the Fair a school for spreading knowledge to the farm and the home”…and…”…local leaders and club members as well, realize that winning a prize is not the primary purpose of club work, but that the true value lies in learning better practices in agriculture and homemaking.” Today the Fair is predominantly young people participating in 4-H or the Future Farmers of America, which became strongly involved in 1929. This is far different from the adult activity held in Laramie in 1901, when about 500 adults attended.
One of the special early features of the State Fair was the State Spelling Contest. Nearly every county had its representatives, and the Wyoming State Tribune offered “prizes in the sum of $100” for the contest, which was under the supervision of the State Educational Department.
Rodeo has become one of the strong features of the Fair, with such wild and wooly participants as Mabel Strickland and Prairie Rose, and incredible acts such as Carver’s Driving Horses. Today, it is a P.R.C.A. sanctioned rodeo with top names in the business attending. The Fourth Cavalry used to camp on the grounds and the Arapaho and Shoshone Indians participated. In 1925, Chief Yellow Calf and several of his braves were present. Horse races and relay races were very popular in the early days of the Fair.
The Fair now lost seven years. There was no event held in 1935-36 due to the Depression. Even though preparations were made for the event in 1937, it was cancelled due to an epidemic of infantile paralysis. World War II arrived and with its rationing of gasoline and tires, no money was appropriated by the State Legislature for the years 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945. The Kiwanis Club sponsored a show the last two of these years in an effort to encourage the State to put the fair back on an annual basis. In 1946, the Douglas Chamber of Commerce hosted a dinner dubbed “The Stag Dinner.” All the Legislators, State Officials, and dignitaries were invited along with the exhibitors of the fair. The name “Stag Dinner” was due to the fact that no women were invited. It was not until the early 1980s that women were invited and to reflect this, the name was changed to the “Ag Appreciation Dinner.” Tickets are in high demand even today for this event, and it is still well attended by state officials, legislators and others.
The city of Douglas and its citizens have been committed to the success of the Fair from the beginning and take personal pride in it. They have taken as their duty caring for the people who come from outside points, making the stay a pleasant one with their friendly spirit. The merchants don their gala attire with their storefronts sporting humorous rodeo art and provide enough diversity in the city proper during the evening periods to satisfy everyone. It is an opportunity for the people of the state to meet their friends and neighbors.
The late 1940s saw the construction of a new dairy barn, sales ring and sheep barn. The 1950s brought construction of the 4-H building and the Pioneer Museum. In 1968, the Arts and Crafts Building burned and was replaced by a new metal building. A new building to house the wool show and an open sheep barn have been added to help provide needed space at the expanding Fair. Other new additions to the fair include modern dormitories and the cafeteria. Future growth of the Fair includes the Multi-purpose Building proposal and the multi-million dollar master plan of development. Attendance also has been increasing, from a humble 2,500 people in 1905 to tens of thousands of people presently visiting the Fair.
A lot has changed since 1905. It’s 4-H or FFA now, with the activities being participated in by boys and girls of all ages—learning to do things better and having had the opportunities to provide a solid foundation on which to base future learning. Competition in 4-H and FFA is always tough, and justly so, as competition provides the youth of Wyoming the incentive to work harder and to learn more. Education is a part of the Wyoming State Fair, “The Show Window of Wyoming”!