Adapted from A History of the Mid-South Fair by Emily Yellin
In the mid 1850s, the United States and Memphis were growing and changing. Memphis’ location on the Mississippi River and its intersection with the rich agricultural states, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, put the city in a prime position to become an important distribution and merchandising center. Agriculture and industrialization came together in Memphis. But during the time Memphis was emerging as a major regional city, frontier conditions prevailed, and there were not the kinds of transportation and communication links that would come later. One of the main challenges of the time, in both the business and social realms, was to find ways to meet and communicate with others in the region. In response, the Shelby County Agricultural Society was formed in 1854 to promote the interest of not only local planters and farmers, but also those of merchants and businessmen of the community.
In its second year of existence, the Society decided to stage their first fair in the fall of 1856. The Shelby County Fair was very well received with fully half of Memphis’ 12,000 residents attending. The aim of the Fair was to exhibit the best in agricultural produce and the latest in machinery and inventions. The emphasis of the exhibits was to be the “best and the latest,” which is still the emphasis of present-day fair exhibits.
During the 1858 Fair, the enduring tradition of harness racing began. It continued at the Fair until the 1930s, as the racetrack became increasingly important part of the Mid-South Fair history. Many new attractions were added, but the Fair was still not receiving the support in needed from the community. In 1859, the Memphis Daily Appeal featured several articles on the highly successful St. Louis fair, sighting that businessmen had large investments in their fair and also received large returns. Other articles were written about the social and personal benefits of the fair. Along with reduced admission prices and the positive articles, attendance increased. By 1860, the fair had finally become an important fixture in social and business life in Shelby County.
For anyone who has ever attended Memphis or Shelby County Schools, the 1870 Fair marked the beginning of another cherished tradition. It was the first year the Mayor proclaimed a one-day holiday at all schools in order for children to attend the Fair. Today, Memphis City Schools still celebrate this tradition by releasing students early on the first Friday of the Fair. The Fair had lost status and influence in the years immediately following the Civil War, but the early 1870s it had once again regained popularity.
The four years between 1873 and 1877 were threatening years as the Fair was faced with extinction when attendance dwindled because of the yellow fever epidemic, and economic depression. A scaled down fair continued through the 1870s but the economic conditions of the area almost halted the annual event. The period from 1880 to 1906 was a time of rebuilding for Memphis and the Fair. In 1908 the Fair’s name was changed to the Tri-State Fair, in order to broaden the areas served. New “special days” were featured that year, such as Governor’s Day, Farmer’s Union Day and Children’s Day. New grounds entertainment was also added and it was the first time the Fair had a midway.
In 1911, prominent African-Americans founded, organized and ran their own fair called the Negro Tri-State Fair. This was an important event in the African-American community for decades until it was discontinued in 1959. Three years later, in 1962, the Mid-South Fair once again became a unified event when it was integrated.
During World War I, the Fair held its ground. The military even used the Fair as an opportunity to recruit soldiers. A plan was also created during this time to improve the grounds. The plan would make way for new buildings and an amusement park.
The early 1920s brought reconstruction and expansion to the Fairgrounds, including a midway. The amusement park called Joy Plaza was installed. In it were two of the grandest rides of the time, the Zippin Pippin roller coaster and the Grand Carousel merry-go-round.
In 1929, the Fair changed its name once again. This final time, it was named The Mid-South Fair. In late October, the calm and contentment of that fall was broken, when on October 29, the stock market crashed. Suddenly America was thrown into economic turmoil. The Mid-South Fair struggled through the early 1930s, because of poor Fair attendance due to economic conditions.
The first championship rodeo was held in 1936. This new event was said to be the first and only contest rodeo ever held in the South. It has evolved into one of PRCA’s top rodeo championships, and one of Memphis’ traditions with a Miss Rodeo Queen Contest and entertainment each night.
The Mid-South Fair was cancelled in 1942 because of World War II. The Fairgrounds were used as camps from 1942 until 1946. Before the Fair reopened in 1947, many improvements were made on the Fairgrounds. Buildings were rebuilt and repairs to burned structures were made. In keeping with this new fair and in response to the post-war baby boom, the Youth Talent Contest was created in 1953. The contest included several classes of talent including: vocal, instrumental, dramatic, acrobatic, dancing and novelty.
In 1956 the Fair celebrated its 100th year. The climatic ceremony of the Centennial Celebration was the time capsule being buried on the Fairgrounds, which will be opened in 2056. The centerpiece of the event was the Centennial Village, a Williamsburg-like replica of an 1856 town portraying the day-to-day existence of its people.
The most memorable moment of the Centennial Fair was the surprise appearance of Elvis Presley. Elvis had a penchant for the Fairgrounds, especially the Dodgem Car rides and the Zippin Pippin roller coaster. He would rent the Fairgrounds amusement park at midnight so that he and his friends could ride all night. The amusement park was not the only attraction Elvis found at the Mid-South Fair. He also admires the beautiful winners of the Miss Mid-South Fair and Youth talent Contests.
The late 1960s saw great change for the Mid-South Fair, from famous entertainers like the cast of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Three Stooges,” to the addition of the Miss Youth Personality Contest to big list of events at the fairgrounds. The biggest change was the building of the Coliseum in 1959, due to a crowd of over 8,000 people drawn by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’ performance. The rodeo was held in the Coliseum in 1966 for the first time. On July 4, 1976, Libertyland Amusement Park was officially opened.
The fairs of 1990 and 1991 broke all past attendance records with 492,975 attendees in 1990 and 565,615 in 1991. Later in the 1990s, the children’s Lit’l Buckaroos Barn was constructed. The barn is geared strictly towards children, with interactive farm activities for the children to do.
Throughout the decades the Fair continued to grow, each year adding more contests, events and entertainment. The present-day Mid-South Fair is changing daily, with the modernizing and updating of the commercial exhibits and relocating.
From opening day in 1856 through the ups and downs of the present, the Mid-South Fair is dedicated to educating and connecting the region to it agricultural heritage; promoting local industry; providing safe, fun, family-oriented entertainment; and rewarding agricultural and craft achievement through an annual exposition.
*Yellin, Emily. A History of the Mid-South Fair. Memphis: Guild Bindery Press, 1995.