Arkansas State Fair returns this week with high expectation
October 7-13, 2019
By Jay Edwards
October is festival month in Arkansas and that includes the granddaddy of them all, the Arkansas State Fair, which begins this Friday in Little Rock and runs through Oct. 20. The usual sites, sounds and smells will be back, from the midway to the many livestock contests. And music lovers will get their fill during the daily concerts, which this year feature Rick Springfield and the Oak Ridge Boys.
One thing the Arkansas Livestock Show Association hopes they don’t see is a repeat of the weather from a year ago, which nearly washed out six of the ten days and caused 2018 to fall short $700,000 in revenue from the average of the three previous years. The result of that deficit was a legislative approved $900,000, which was paid to the association from state funds, after a request by Governor Hutchinson.
Doug White, a long-time association board member, had been named interim general manager and president in December of last year after Ralph Shoptaw decided to retire. And it was White who appeared before the legislative council that same month and fielded a lot of questions and criticisms from lawmakers who were split on whether or not to agree to the governor’s request, which they finally did.
White agreed to take some time from his consulting company and focus on the financial problems facing the fair, and in June the board removed the “interim” away from his title of president and general manager.
Tough decisions had to be made, including cutting the staff from 18 down to nine full time employees and a forty percent cut in the operating budget. White also announced there will be no rodeo this year as the cost is about $65,000 to put one on at the fair, and no one was buying tickets to see it. To fill the seats, White says he gave away tickets and he could no longer justify that.
White began devising ways to bring in revenue from sources other than the annual October event. More than 40 events have taken place since the first of the year, with things like horse and dog shows, the Big Buck Classic and what could become a new crowd favorite, midget wrestling. White says they are definitely moving in the right direction with cash flow better than it’s been in 15 years and payments up to date with creditors. “This year’s fair looks to be bigger and better than it’s ever been,” White said last month.
This will be the 81st year for the State Fair, which began in North Little Rock in 1938 as the Arkansas Livestock Show and was later changed to the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show. The roots of the event trace back to the 19th century however, when the Arkansas State Agricultural and Mechanical Association was formed. One of the goals of the association was the creation of an annual state fair, the first being held in Little Rock in November of 1868. It was held at what is now the corner of Center Street and 17th. In 1876 the location moved to Arch Street, where it remained until 1944 when the city of Little Rock proposed the permanent site to be what is today War Memorial Park. But the association disagreed on the location and the following year the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce offered acreage on Roosevelt Road and the association agreed to move there.
Over the following decade, more land was acquired around the spot, which today totals well over 100 acres. New construction of buildings continued from the 1940’s to the 1960’s added to the annual event, with the first buildings being show barns for livestock.
In 1948, ground was broken for Barton Coliseum, named for oilman Thomas Harry Barton of El Dorado. The building was finished and dedicated in September of 1952. The Hall of Industry was completed in 1966. Each year also sees a new Junior Fair Queen and Rodeo Queen.
For many years, starting in 1946, there was a State Fair Parade, complete with a parade marshal. But the parade was finally discontinued in 1984 due to schools tightening up on class absences, as well as concerns for student safety at the downtown event.
Other events this year are the annual talent show, the First Lady Pie Competition, judged by Susan Hutchinson, the Sea Lion Splash, a Homebrew and Wine competition, Reptile Adventures, Monster Trucks featuring Bigfoot and Zilla, at the Motorsports Monster Mash, and of course, plenty of turkey legs and funnel cakes.
The fair begins Friday, Oct. 11 and runs through Sunday, Oct. 20. The concerts are free with gate admission with premium deck seating available for $25. Tickets can be purchased at ArkansasStateFair.com and at the Fairgrounds box office.
The featured lineup includes:
Rick Springfield – Friday, Oct. 11, 8 p.m.
Craig Morgan – Saturday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m.
Ralph Tresvant – Sunday, Oct. 13, 7 p.m.
The Oak Ridge Boys – Tuesday, Oct. 15, 8 p.m.
Tragikly White – Wednesday, Oct. 16, 8 p.m.
Zac Dunlap Band – Thursday, Oct. 17, 8 p.m.
Gin Blossoms – Friday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m.
Sawyer Brown – Saturday, Oct. 19, 8 p.m.
Dazz Band – Sunday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.
Regular gate admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12 and seniors ages 60 and older; fairgrounds parking is $10 per vehicle. Unlimited ride bands are $30 per person.
Sources: Arkansas State Fair, Arkansas Livestock Show Association, Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture