Arizona Centennial: State Fair History

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Arizona State Fair executive assistant Jack Bell shares some of the fair’s rich history.

Ted Simons: The state fair celebrates 100 years of Arizona's heritage and history this Saturday and Sunday with its Arizona experience weekend. The official centennial event takes place at the state fairgrounds where quite a bit of history has taken place. I recently spoke with Jack Bell, an executive assistant for the state fair; he's also the unofficial historian for the state fair. Thanks for joining us on "Horizon."

Jack Bell: Thank you for having me.

Ted Simons: State fair starts as a territorial fair for I guess obvious reasons?

Jack Bell: Correct. In the 1890s, there was a territorial fair that was located on the Salt River in the area Central Avenue.

Ted Simons: Central Avenue, and then what, they decided 19th Avenue, Mcdowell -- how long was it down there?

Jack Bell: It was down there about seven years and it was destroyed by a flood of the salt river. And then there was just a lapse of probably about eight or nine years when there was no fair or celebration of our state's prosperity.

Ted Simons: Before we get to 19th Avenue and Mcdowell, just the idea of a territorial fair or a state fair, to show livestock, to show agricultural accomplishment? What was the reasoning for these things?

Jack Bell: That is it, to show what we did the past year. What our achievement were in agriculture, the prosperity of the community, and it was a time to relax and celebrate the past year.

Ted Simons: And presented in certain ways? Was it a parade? How did they present things back in the old days?

Jack Bell: It was a showcase of your home EC, your pies, cookies, your preserves, the crops, there was a demonstration of how to grow cotton was the main thing for Arizona. And then of course the livestock, the best looking pig, the largest cow, goats, sheep, rabbits.

Ted Simons: The prize pig.

Jack Bell: The prize pig.

Ted Simons: When is the ribbon -- a lot of things seems like, I want to get to 19th and Mcdowell, that's when it seems like competition really started rearing up there. Why 19th Avenue and Mcdowell? That seems like it was back in the boonies back in those days.

Jack Bell: Back in those days it was. There was just open fields all the way around the property.

Ted Simons: And that's -- people know 19th Avenue now with the veterans memorial coliseum, some people know that's where the state fair is now, but back then that was way out in the open and there was a racetrack there. That was a massive racetrack. Talk about that.

Jack Bell: Correct. It was one of the west's best race tracks. It was a mile long, the property was developed in 1905 by a group of businessmen led by the owner of the Adams hotel from downtown Phoenix right here. They sold subscriptions and raised the money privately to build and develop the fairgrounds. And they had in 1905 the opening, with a wooden grandstand that was just beautiful. We have some pictures to share with that. The grandstands were tilted at a slight angle, just as the current grandstands are, to where the spectators in the grandstands could see the back stretch as the horses came around. The person -- the purse in the days, 1907, 1909, was $30,000 for the week of racing during the territorial fair.

Ted Simons: That's a lot of money back in those days.

Jack Bell: That equates out about $750,000 in today's dollars. And that was one of the richest in the west.

Ted Simons: And that's horse racing. But then along comes the automobile, and you got auto racing. Correct?

Jack Bell: Auto racing showed up in 1908 at the territorial fair. And then in 1912, the state fair had what was called the cactus derby. It was an auto race from Los Angeles to end at the state fair during the state fair.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Jack Bell: And that was 511 miles in length. And at the time, there were no bridges across the Colorado River, so the route went from Los Angeles down to Yuma.

Ted Simons: Oh my God.

Jack Bell: From Yuma back up to the mountain range, and then on towards Yuma -- I mean Phoenix.

Ted Simons: Wow. And that was -- that was one of the first auto races. Then as the years go by, it seems like open wheel -- there's some beautiful photographs and some amazing memories I guess of good old fashioned 1940s, 1950s auto racing right there at the fairgrounds.

Jack Bell: Correct. We had sprint car racing at the fairgrounds.

Ted Simons: And big names coming through?

Jack Bell: Yes. We had Bobby Mall, Pernelli Jones…

Ted Simons: Yeah.

Jack Bell: There's just all the legends were there.

Ted Simons: So we've got horse racing, we've got auto racing, rodeo as well, showing livestock. And when did games of chance, when did the gaming aspect, the fun and the games, when did that start to become more of an emphasis than racing and showing animals and such?

Jack Bell: Probably the evolution started in the late '50s, early '60s as the community grew and expanded, the agricultural aspect started to fade away. And the faster pace became more involved, and the youth just wanted to have the excitement and the entertainment aspect.

Ted Simons: But there Ferris wheels back in the old days, correct? There were rides.

Jack Bell: Correct. The original territorial fairs had the Ferris wheel and the merry go rounds and such rides. They weren't as elaborate as today's.

Ted Simons: Sure. Sure. And as far as entertainment, when did that become a special emphasis of what was originally a way to show livestock and crops?

Jack Bell: In the 1950s there's a lot of big-name touring groups that were presented at the state fair. And that became one of the big attractions to draw people in the community into the fair to see something different.

Ted Simons: And tell us about the names. Who stopped by?

Jack Bell: Patsy Cline played in the grand stands; Elvis Presley was presented in the grandstand. All of the old country music players were there.

Ted Simons: You've got a trophy here on the set, we've got to find out what that is. That's an old looking trophy. Tell us about it.

Jack Bell: That's the trophy presented in 1915 at the Arizona state fair to the winner of the pasteurized cream, the trophy was presented by the superintendent of health.

Ted Simons: So a pasteurized cream gets a trophy that size.

Jack Bell: Yes.

Ted Simons: This must be fascinating for you to find -- it's like detective work, finding these memories, this old stuff. The fair has a lot of history.

Jack Bell: Tremendous amount of history is located there. Especially at the fairgrounds of things that happened. The first flight from coast-to-coast landed at the state fairgrounds in 1911.

Ted Simons: My goodness. Last question, we know what the fair was designed to do in the old days. What is the state fair design to the do now? How has it changed and what's its purpose? Why it is there?

Jack Bell: The purpose is still a celebration of the prosperity of Arizona. To show what we've done, what we've accomplished, and to let the citizens of our state enjoy our achievements.

Ted Simons: Well, Jack; it must have been a lot of fun for you - digging this stuff up. It's good to have you here, and thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Jack Bell: Thank you for having me.

Jack Bell:Executive Assistant, Arizona State Fair;

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