Dusty Relics of Arkansas History
October 8-14, 2018
By Bob Denman
The Arkansas State Fair
The Arkansas State Fair kicks off this month. Tens of thousands will attend daily, while most are not aware it’s an Arkansas tradition that dates back over 150 years.
The fair’s origins are a Dusty Relic of Arkansas History and date back to the early 1860s when Little Rock’s Center – Arch and 9th Street sites – hosted a fair for some 40 years.
The modern state fair era dates back to 1906 when business leaders in Hot Springs proposed the state fair relocate there to the brand new and ultra-modern Oaklawn Park Racing facility. Oaklawn hosted the fair in the infield through 1914 and not only was horse racing a fair event, but ostrich racing was added as well.
The history is a bit muddy post Oaklawn, but it appears the Fair was conducted near the Arkansas School for the Deaf a couple of times and even Jonesboro for as many as three years. In 1922 it moved to a site near the current Little Rock Zoo and remained there through 1930. This site lent the name Fair Park to the new housing development just south of the site and the boulevard that served as the main entrance to the property. Fair Park Boulevard remains a tribute to the old site even today. Some readers will recall with fondness the old midway that remained on the site well into the and 70s and 80s just south of War Memorial Stadium.
The Great Depression and war years made the state fair an infrequent event with North Little Rock and Pine Bluff acting as host. Finally, with the aid of Colonel T. H. Barton, the City of Little Rock won a bid for the event and provided a permanent site off Roosevelt Road in 1946. The center piece of that site is Barton Coliseum, which originally opened in 1948 as an open-air arena, with the roof following in 1951.
Some of the greatest names in entertainment have graced the stage of the Arkansas State Fair. Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, Dolly Parton, Tex Williams, Garth Brooks – to name a few. I remember my Mom talking about the young up-and-comer rock-n-roller Elvis Pressley she saw at the fair. Me, I got to shake hands with Roy Rodgers, and I’m sure Dale Evans was around somewhere.
A few years later I even had my first date with my first girlfriend at the fairgrounds in 1966. While I got her on the Wild Mouse ride, I couldn’t get her into the Fun House where I hoped to steal a kiss.
While it’s been at its current site for 72 years, the fair has visited dozens of sites around our state. In many ways, this Dusty Relic of Arkansas History truly is Arkansas’ State Fair.
Bright lights twinkle at the Arkansas State Fair hosted at the Fairgrounds off Roosevelt Road. From Little Rock to Hot Springs and Jonnesborro, the fair’s history earned the title of Arkansas’ State Fair. (Photo Courstey of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)