Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s fair was a long time coming, but worth the wait

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.

They quietly observed as the crowd approached the gates to the fairgrounds. Occasionally, each would make a note.

They were “The Committee.”

They took a particular interest in the Flaherty couple – especially Mrs. Flaherty (the former Miss Elsie Cyr), as they strode along the promenade. Later they compared notes and agreed. They would reveal their decision that evening.

It was late September, 1914. Everyone wanted to see the brand new fairgrounds.

The earliest attempts at creating a fair (between 1876 and 1878) had not been particularly successful. The 1879 fair is formally recognized as the true beginning of what is now the Western Montana Fair.

In the early 1900s, the site used for the local fair was privately owned and leased to the fair association. But the old buildings fell into disrepair and the landowner finally announced in 1909 that the site, west of town, would be sold to Thomas Greenough.

With that, Missoula’s fair ended – for six years.

There was much talk of bringing it back, but it wasn’t until 1913 that an appropriate piece of land was found and Missoula County voters approved a $50,000 bond to purchase the site and equip it for the purposes of proper publicly owned fairground.

Even then, a handful of folks filed a lawsuit and were granted a series of injunctions delaying the county’s plan until the matter could be decided by state supreme court.

The county finally prevailed but, given the timing of the decision and all that had to be done, the fairgrounds wasn’t able to host its first event for another year.

Well-known local architect Ole Bakke was hired to draw up plans for the major structures, and in the spring of 1914 the Board of County Commissioners advertised for individual bids on a grandstand, judge’s stand, two exhibition buildings (one for dairy cattle and one for horses) and two racetrack stables.

The cost of the 40-acre tract of land for the fairgrounds had already reduced the $50,000 budget by $14,000, so it was critical that the bids for the buildings not exceed the remaining balance.

F. Harrington was selected to build the grandstand for $10,472.95, the four barns would be built by Davis Graham at a cost of $7,547, and E. S. Newton was the low bidder on the judge’s stand at $202.

Interestingly, when you look at photos of the buildings constructed in 1914, today’s centerpiece “Commercial Building” appears to be among them. 

But it’s not – it wouldn’t be built for another year.

The look-alike building (a virtual twin) was actually the Exhibition Stock Barn for cattle, later renamed the 4H Livestock Barn. 

The 1914 fair opened at 10 a.m. on September 29 and by noon there was a continuous line of cars motoring from downtown onto the newly created road to the fairgrounds entrance.

County Commission Chairman Frank Nelson told the crowd, “(We) bid you a hearty welcome at this, the opening of Missoula County’s new fair plant.

“In time to come we know that this will become the fair of Montana next in importance to the state fair. I ask you to accept this fair plant today. It is yours; you have paid for it. Now take it and enjoy it.”

At mid-afternoon, Harry Wright of the Walter Raub Balloon company mesmerized fair-goers, lifting off in lighter-than-air contraption ascending straight upward from the front of the grandstands, until it became “but a tiny speck against the cloudless sky.”

Wright then detached from the balloon, opened his parachute, and drifted down, landing just outside the south fairgrounds fence. The balloon followed a short time later, landing west of the fairgrounds. The exhibition was so popular it was booked repeatedly in future years.

Over the next four days, more than 12,000 people wandered the new fairgrounds complex, enjoying livestock and horticulture displays, horse racing, as well as entertainment and food venues.

The dairy and beef stock displays were termed the finest “ever assembled in western Montana.”

Also among the fine assemblages were the beautiful ladies attending the fair, and even they were being judged. 

That’s right – that secret committee had been “scoring” each woman as she entered the gates!

On the opening night of the fair, the committee approached Mr. & Mrs. George L. Flaherty, presenting Elsie with “a bouquet of flowers and conveying the information that she had been adjudged the most beautiful lady at the fair on Missoula day.” Her photo appeared in the next day’s newspaper.

There is so much more fascinating history relating to the fairgrounds – including the construction of the grand old Commercial building (built in 1915 and now refurbished, awaiting public reviews) and the 1941 fire that destroyed its year-older “twin.” 

But those stories will have to wait until next week.

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.