Harmon’s Histories: Western Montana Fair’s Commercial Building stands tall

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.

“People that have no fairs or festival occasions become so insufferably mean in a few generations that they cannot be endured or endure each other.

“Will not some enterprising individual fence off a patch of ground on the other end of the (Higgins) bridge, and offer a prize for the largest squash or the best slab of bacon?” 

The argument was made in a local newspaper in 1874, two years before Missoula County’s first attempt at putting on a fair.

Those earliest fairs (1876-1878) were not particularly successful. The officially recognized beginning of today’s Western Montana Fair was the 1879 event. 

From then until the early 1900s, private land was used as the fairgrounds site, but in 1909 the site was sold, and the county fair ceased to exist – for six years.

Finally in 1913 (as we reported last week), county residents indebted themselves by some $50,000 to buy 40 acres of land and equip it with exhibition halls, a racetrack, grandstand and other buildings.

Over 12,000 people attended the inaugural four-day event in the fall of 1914, making it a smashing financial success at a time when other fairs were tanking – the Inland Empire Fair in Spokane lost $30,000 that year.

Western Montana Fair Commission Secretary F. M. Lawrence was thrilled with the outcome, noting press reviews which called it “one of the best district fairs ever held in the state of Montana.”

But Lawrence saw the need to do more. 

Without a proper venue, fruits, vegetables and flowers had to be exhibited in a tent in 1914. “Fortunately, the lack of wind which frequently visits us at that time of year saved the exhibit from an inglorious disaster,” he said.

“The need for an agricultural building is imperative and I urgently recommend the building of a structure to house (those) exhibits … so that each exhibitor may have a fair opportunity to display his products.”

And so it was that the Agricultural Building (now called the Commercial Building) came to be. 

By noon on Tuesday, September 28, 1915 (the day before the opening of the second annual fair at the new grounds), “the new agricultural building was half filled and the exhibitors were beginning to fight for space,” wrote the Missoulian newspaper. By the end of the day, it was expected to be full to overflowing.

Getting to the new fairgrounds south of town was easier than ever, with streetcar service directly to the gates, supplemented by entrepreneurs offering their autos “for hire.”

There was much to see at the 1915 fair: livestock displays, horse racing, food and entertainment. 

But when it came to exhibits, the place to be was the new agriculture hall, described as “a splendid building with an ideal arrangement for the most effective showing of every sort of produce and handiwork.”

Vegetables and grains took center stage on the ground floor, along with flower and flour displays.  

Along one side of the hall, the U.S. Forest Service set up an exhibit to explain the purpose and accomplishments of the relatively new federal agency.

On the north end of the building, the Northern Pacific Railroad highlighted its dining car service, featuring the highly promoted “Great Big Baked Potato.” Nearby, the Missoula Mercantile displayed a series of household rooms, “tastefully and richly furnished” with everything a fine home should have.

That original 1915 Agricultural Building is still in use today and has just undergone a multi-million dollar renovation project. 

But its “twin” is gone. So is the original grandstands and a main livestock building. They were lost in a devastating fire during the 1941 Western Montana Fair.

Three thousand people were in the grandstands watching a final afternoon event when smoke was seen coming up through the upper seats in the northeast end of the structure – which, back then, was the designated “smoking section.”

The Western Montana Fair’s original grandstands were destroyed in a fast-moving fire in 1941. (Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, University of Montana)

That section was quickly evacuated, but folks in the center seats waited a while, assuming it was a small fire which would quickly be extinguished. It wasn’t long until they changed their minds and got out, too.

In less than 10 minutes (with everyone out safely), the whole grandstand was “a blazing inferno (that) pushed the crowd back hundreds of feet.”

In a few more minutes the fire, moving with “express train speed,” enveloped the livestock barn, the 4-H show building (the “twin” of the Commercial Building, built in 1914), concession stands, poultry exhibits and more than a dozen automobiles.

A Belgian stallion, pigs and other livestock melded into the crowd exiting the fairgrounds that evening.

Many thought the blaze was caused by a discarded cigarette, but it may have been an electrical fuse box, observed to be “red hot” just before the fire broke out. By the time it was over, damage was estimated at well over $100,000 (in 1941 dollars).

Amazingly, despite the fire, the show went on. Construction crews and local WPA workers quickly cleared the rubble and built makeshift bleachers.

Fair Board Chairman John Stahl announced the championship rodeo would go on, as scheduled, Friday night and that they would honor all of the previous night’s tickets.

This year – 2019 – fair-goers will have a chance to see all the improvements made to that original 1915 Agriculture (now, Commercial)* Building and perhaps take a moment to reflect on all the history wrapped up in the 100-plus-year-old Western Montana Fair.

*Author’s note: Recorded history can sometimes be equivocal. 

Missoula’s first fair was held in 1876. Newspaper accounts of the day refer to fairs subsequent to 1876 as the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, etc. But the officially recognized “first” Western Montana Fair is said to be 1879, based on reorganization documents. 

Then again, using reorganization as the basis, one could probably argue that the “first fair” dates to 1914, when it became county owned and operated.

Also, documentation submitted to the National Register of Historic Places, in the application for the Missoula County Fairgrounds Historic District, describes “B13 Commercial Building” as the “original Agriculture Building.” However, at least one of my sources is skeptical. Is the 1915 Agriculture Building truly the same structure as today’s Commercial Building?

We’ll continue our search for further documentation, wherever it may lead.

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.