War put brief halt to Gillespie County Fair

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So much has changed, but good times have remained

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  • Spectators crowd the area between the Exhibition Hall and the race track at the old fair grounds, waiting for the next horse race. In the early years of the fair, the women wore their Sunday attire, in-cluding hats, while the men-folk were attired in suits and ties. The old Gillespie Coun-ty Fair Grounds was located on the block that is now home to H-E-B, the Boys and Girls Club and the Old Fair Park ball fields. — Standard-Radio Post historic file photo
    Spectators crowd the area between the Exhibition Hall and the race track at the old fair grounds, waiting for the next horse race. In the early years of the fair, the women wore their Sunday attire, in-cluding hats, while the men-folk were attired in suits and ties. The old Gillespie Coun-ty Fair Grounds was located on the block that is now home to H-E-B, the Boys and Girls Club and the Old Fair Park ball fields. — Standard-Radio Post historic file photo
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In less than a day, the 129th Gillespie County Fair gets underway for a four-day run at the fair grounds on Texas Highway 16 South, and then on Monday, the new school term begins in the Fredericksburg Independent School District.

The Gillespie County Fair is the oldest county fair in Texas. This year’s exposition is already the 42nd 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 129th annual fair?

Looking back at history, during 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 county fair in Texas” and not “oldest annual” county fair in the state.

Even though some of the livestock competition has already been held and most activities get underway tomorrow out at the fair grounds, the fair officially kicks off Friday morning with a colorful parade down Main Street.

As early as tomorrow morning, parade watchers will park their vehicles along the parade route up and down Main Street.

It’s common that customers will come in to the newspaper office wondering why all the pickup trucks are parked along the street.

 In the early years, the parade would be led by the Fredericksburg Concert Band and then they would also play between horse races at the fair grounds.

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

By 1889, the event moved to town to what was then known as Central Park — the area around Turner Hall and Town Pool. A horse race track was set up across Town Creek along Austin Street.

The fair moved again several years later 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 side, along Ufer Street, and west side, along Adams Street, were enclosed with a high wooden fence. Race horse stalls were located over on the west side.

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

In the early 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 automatic 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 run over to the edge of the track to watch the horses fly by.

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.

One year, the featured attraction was a big brown bear. I’m not sure, but that might have been “Gentle Ben,” a bear that was on a television show we watched about the time I was in the fifth grade.

In the 1960s, just as now, Friday afternoon was “School Day” and children were admitted to the grounds free of charge. But back then, there were shade trees around the old fair grounds so the seats on the rides weren’t blazing hot.

My parents and grandparents would give each of us several dollars and we would spend the entire afternoon riding just about every ride, playing games of chance, and indulging in refreshments.

We never did spend any of our money trying to toss coins in the bubble bowls holding goldfish. We had dozens of larger goldfish in the livestock watering troughs at home!

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.

There were always was a herd of large white Brahman cattle tied in an area east of the livestock barns. We would make our way up and down the aisles to see who could find the heaviest bull since the weight of each animal was posted above his stall.

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Just like everyone else getting ready for this weekend’s fair, I’ll be burning the midnight oil tonight helping my nephews finish up their baking projects.

I’ve won any number of awards in the adult baking division over the years, so last year, instead of entering something myself, I chose to guide them in trying to win some ribbons.

Oh, we had egg shells everywhere — even a few in their cakes. But, as I told them, that just adds crunch!

See you at the fair!