Gillespie County Fair: 126 years of festivities

Then, just as now, the grandstands at the fair grounds were crowded with visitors gathered to watch the horse races. Around the turn of the century, it was common for the women to sit upstairs in the stands, while the men gathered in the area beneath. Daily musical entertainment was provided by a band that played from the platform extending from the upper story. — Standard-Radio Post historical file photo

A sure sign that autumn is just around the corner arrives tomorrow when the 126th Gillespie County Fair gets underway for a four-day run at the fair grounds on Texas Highway 16 South.

The Gillespie County Fair is the oldest county fair in Texas. It’s hard to believe that this year’s exposition is already the 39th year for the event to be held at the “new” fair grounds dedicated during the nation’s bicentennial on July 4, 1976.
Probably one of the most-often-asked questions is why is the fair not called an “annual” event, such as … the 126th annual fair?

Looking back at history, during the “war years” of World War II, the fair was cancelled in 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945, and was resumed in 1946 when Fredericksburg celebrated its centennial.

Therefore, the fair is touted as the “oldest” and not “oldest annual” county fair in Texas.

Even though activities get underway tomorrow out at the fair grounds, the fair officially kicks off Friday morning with a colorful parade down Main Street.

 In the early years of the fair, the opening parade was led by the Fredericksburg Concert Band which would also play at the fair all four days.

The first Gillespie County Fair dates back to 1881 and was held at the present site of Fort Martin Scott, on U.S. Highway 290 East, across from the Gillespie County Law Enforcement Center.

By 1889, the event moved to town’s Central Park where the Fredericksburg Social Turn Verein is now located, next to the municipal swimming pool. A horse race track was set up a short distance away along Austin Street.

The fair moved to its third location in 1892 when it moved to acreage between South Adams and South Lincoln streets, where 40 acres was purchased for $2,500.

That block is now occupied by H-E-B, the Old Fair Park ball fields and the Boys and Girls Club. The north and west sides, along Ufer and Adams streets, respectively, were enclosed with a high wooden fence. The race horse stalls were located on the west side along South Adams Street.

Originally, a small grandstand was built on the south side of the half-mile-long horse race track. A platform extended from the grandstand out toward the track from where the Fredericksburg Concert Band would provide daily entertainment.

During those years, the women would sit on the top section of the grandstand, while the ground level was occupied by the men. Even though those were before the days of pari-mutuel racing, that didn’t mean there wasn’t any wagering going on.

Since those were also the days before metal starting gates, the horses lined up behind a long stretch of cloth. Once it was released, they would take off lickety-split.

In later years, a new and larger grandstand was built and still later, a second grandstand was added to accommodate the growing crowds.

Eventually, additional entertainment was featured during the time between the horse races and baseball games would be played on the infield of the track. As soon as the starting gate opened for a race, the game would be temporarily suspended and the players would rush over to the edge of the track to watch the horses fly by. And, as soon as the horses had crossed the finish line, the game resumed.

Over the years, the fair has provided entertainment for the entire family, and the large majestic grandstands provided the ideal setting for circus-type, nighttime shows.

When I was a youngster, my brothers and I would watch the acts that included trapeze artists, exotic animals, clowns and other “nail-biting” acts.

And from the grandstands, we could hear the carnival that lit up the area between the grandstands and Park Street. The music and noise from the nearby carnival rides added a festive note to the fair.

One of the most familiar sounds that could be heard from up in the grandstand was that “rat roulette”-type game that was located right behind the grandstand. It was a “wheel of fortune”-like game that would spin, and when the wheel had reached the proper speed, a bell would ring and the operator would lift a lid located in the center and under it was a large rat that would then scamper into one of the holes located around the outside edge on the wheel. The particular hole into which he “fled” designated the prize that would be won by the lucky ticketholder.

Back then, in the 1960s, just as now, Friday afternoon was “School Day” and children were admitted to the grounds free of charge.

My parents and grandparents would give each of us kids a couple of dollars and we would spend the entire afternoon riding just about every ride, playing games of chance, and enjoying refreshments, including cotton candy!
We never did spend any of our money trying to toss coins in the bubble bowls holding goldfish since we had a water trough full of them at home.

The Exhibition Hall was full of exhibits. In addition to home products, baking and agricultural displays, there were community exhibits from across the county, and for many years, Doss and Stonewall had quite a competition.

Commercial exhibits from local merchants included appliance dealers, building firms and others. Some years, Pioneer Flour Mills set up a makeshift kitchen in which they baked biscuits with which they lured visitors to their booth.

Then, just as now, the livestock barns were buzzing with livestock judging during the fair. Livestock entries came from across the state to vie for prize money and ribbons.

We would make our way up and down the cattle aisles to see who could find the heaviest beef animal at the fair and that was usually a large white Brahman bull.

— syg —

Just like everyone else getting ready for this weekend’s fair, I’ll be burning the midnight oil tonight finishing my sewing project and baking a cake.

My purse project is still in several pieces and I have to cross my fingers that my cake will come out of the pan in one piece and not three!

But, as I tell my co-workers here at the newspaper office each year, I’ll be satisfied with third-place ribbons.
As with all competition, it’s always more fun to strive for the top of the mountain and be “the hunter” and not “the hunted!”
See ya at the fair!

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