It’s Western Montana Fair time!
The 2021 event, “The Hoedown in Midtown,” runs Wednesday through Sunday this week on the greatly refurbished fairgrounds in the center of Missoula.
Free admission, carnival, food, displays of all sort, rodeo performances, dirt motorcycle racing and (as this year’s title implies) “live music and a barn dance every night!”
Back in the old days, things were a little different.
In 1895, it was all about buffalo, bears, babies, and bicycles.
The “buffalo king,” Charles Allard, displayed a herd of buffalo “and several buffalo calves” at the 1895 affair.
Mothers were urged to “get your babies ready for the fair. A $10 prize and diploma were offered for the handsomest baby under one year.” Mr. & Mrs. L. N. Simons’ five-month-old daughter, described as “plump and pretty as a peach,” won the competition.
William Jamieson won the “old man’s race” (60 and over) and its first prize, a pair of Hanan’s shoes from the Missoula Mercantile.
In the tug of war, the Missoulian newspaper team bested the Caledonians (a private group, founded in 1892 with membership open to anyone with close association with Scotland), winning the top prize of a keg of beer from the Garden City Bottling company – a perfect prize for a bunch of news scribblers.
The losers picked up five loaves of bread and five pounds of sausage. Hopefully the two sides combined their winnings into a huge beer, bread and sausage party!
The Mounted Knights of Missoula provided one of the crowd favorites, the “ring spearing tournament.”
A local hotelier, Charley Heckler, displayed his “pet bears,” saying they’d be of great interest “for the little ones.”
The local “juvenile band” wowed the crowd. They were described as “sweet and melodious, devoid of that particular noise they call discord,” and “brought repeated applause” and much pride in the “gallant musical youths who comprise the organization.”
But these fairs have their roots in agriculture – and there were prolific praises in that regard.
One writer went so far as to say, “There are many people today throughout Montana who have never had an opportunity afforded them to feast their eyes on the wonderful products of the orchards and vineyards of the Bitter Root valley.”
“Amusements may come in incidentally, but should be secondary to the educational feature.”
Many of the winners in categories ranging from vegetables, grains and seeds, plants, cakes, and art and bread, went to well-known names in the Missoula and Bitter Root valleys: Beckwith, Deschamps, Bickford, Catlin, Brooks, Worden, McClay, Bass, Spurgin, Cyr, England, and Urlin.
Montana Governor John Rickards opened the fair with a short address as crowds streamed in.
“The ladies having the restaurant at the fairgrounds,” reported the Daily Missoulian, “will serve hot dinner at 35 cents, supper at 25 cents.”
That itself reflected the times. “Dinner” (which we now call lunch) was the big meal of the day for those who worked the soil. “Supper” (which we now call dinner) was the lighter meal at the end of the workday.
The term “supper” was still prevalent as I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. Then it gradually slipped from our vocabulary.
By the closing day of the 1895 fair, the crowd soared to 4,700. The agricultural displays and the sporting events put on by the Caledonians were rated the top draws.
There was one setback.
Andy Schilling’s porcupine was set loose by some miscreant.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.