Harmon’s Histories: A tip of the hat to those Western Montana Fair pioneers

Mrs. Lulu Weller won a $5 premium for her cornbread and Miss M. A. Ives took the $10 prize for “Best Loaf of Bread by Prettiest Girl.”

It was September 1876. Dozens and dozens of premiums were awarded at the First Annual Fair of the Western Agricultural, Mechanical and Mineral Association in Missoula.

The idea of a fair in Missoula County was conceived a couple of years earlier. In the fall of 1874, organizers canvassed residents and “it was pretty unanimously admitted to be a public necessity,” wrote the local paper.

Then “our citizens taxed themselves to a large amount – over $6,000 – that our buildings and grounds may be of a kind of which we may not be ashamed.” By early 1875, a board of trustees was created and ground was broken.

The optimistic group, meeting in the summer of 1875, set October 6 of that year for the first annual fair.

But it took longer than expected for all the work on the fairgrounds to be complete. Wooden water pipes “two inches square and 640 yards in length” still had to be buried in a foot-deep trench running from “a series of springs situated up in the hills” to the new fairgrounds on Missoula’s south side.

“Mr. Kron, the architect at the fairgrounds,” didn’t have the main building framed until early October and Mr. D. S. Herren was still working on the racetrack, according to the Weekly Missoulian.

So Missoula’s first county fair had to be postponed until September 13, 1876.

The local paper urged “every citizen take hold and feel a just pride in the success of this enterprise and it will be a success.”

The New Northwest newspaper in Deer Lodge was supportive. “Quite a number of our Deer Lodge County people have gone or are going down to enjoy a few days recreation among the watermelon groves, and Missoula is now in its glory for pleasure seekers, sportsmen and junketing parties.”

In preparation, crews graded and leveled the road leading from Missoula to the fairgrounds. Other workers prepared the new racetrack. Trotting and running horses from nearby counties were brought in and housed in the newly constructed stables. Purses as high as $125 were advertised.

“Professor Morrow, the world-renowned magician,” was booked to perform at the fair, as was “Taylor, the Wizard,” whose skills included “suspending one of his company in the air without support.”

On the opening day, the Hon. Cornelius Hedges, representing the Western Montana Agricultural Society, addressed the crowd, noting the “astonishing” advancements in horticultural “arts and sciences.”

He predicted Missoula County (which, at the time, stretched from the Flathead through the Bitter Root) would be able to produce crops capable of supporting “a population of 1,000,000, and … children now born may live to see that day!”

The Bass brothers from the Bitter Root were among the major supporters of the fair. They did well in competition too, winning categories from best melon and grain collections to best display of vegetables. Their wives cleaned up, with wins for preserves, butter, gooseberries and blackberries.

Other farmers, anticipating the winning entries would have been far superior to their own produce, had failed to enter the competition – only to be overheard, later, complaining that their crops were far superior to the so-called “winners.”

Still, the fair was rated a success in that the organizers broke even.

But they admitted they may have erred by scheduling the event at the height of harvest time. So the fair date was moved to mid-October for the following year.

When 1877 rolled around, organizers felt they were “in better shape … to conduct a successful county fair,” but there were still problems.

The Bitter Root section of the county had been “ravaged by grasshoppers … (hit) by a furious hail storm, and the whole county (had) suffered a loss of about six weeks’ time from business during the Indian excitement,” a reference to the Nez Perce exodus from Idaho through the valley.

The third year – 1878 – was plagued by bad weather. “It is probable that no four days in the month of October could be so cheerless and disagreeable for a festive occasion,” wrote the Weekly Missoulian.

Organizers decided the event had to be moved back to earlier date. Not only was October weather problematic, it was also well past the height of the harvest, and displaying produce at its prime was the whole point of an “agricultural” fair.

Just before the fourth annual fair was to be held in mid-September 1879, a new association was formed by financial backers determined to make it a success. That became the turn-around year, drawing a better crowd and greater participation at the racetrack.

Governor Pott’s horse, “Balaolava,” won the two-mile dash and $200. The fair (which many now consider the true beginning of the county fair) was dubbed “the most successful one yet.”

Those putting on the 2018 Western Montana Fair, currently underway in Missoula, are no doubt hoping the same, tipping their hat to the past with their logo, “Pioneering the Future since 1879.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.