Friday, August 29, 2014

Celebrating the history of the Tennessee State Fair

Advertisement for the 1916 Tennessee State Fair. Governor Tom C. Rye Papers, TSLA.

Since October of 1855, Tennesseans have enjoyed the artistry and amusements of a state fair. The first state fair opened on October 1, 1855 at the Walnut Race Course, near Nashville. In a resolution recorded on October 3, 1855 in the Tennessee House Journal of the 31st General Assembly, state representatives approved a motion to adjourn, "that the members might have an opportunity to attend the State Fair." The fair was so well-received that in the following year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an act appointing a committee to purchase 35 acres for a Tennessee State Fair Grounds located near the present site of the Trevecca Nazarene University.

Horse racing was a popular activity in the early years of the state fair. In this undated photo, a rider poses on a harness racing rig in front of the grandstand at the Nashville Fairgrounds.
Calvert Glass plate #81, TSLA.

Farming has always been an important industry in Tennessee, and agriculture played an important role in the state fair's history. On September 11, 1860, Alexander Jackson wrote a letter to his wife detailing his time as a stock judge at the state fair. "You should have seen me stepping around surveying with critical eye the points of some 8 noble animals," Jackson wrote, "feeling their skins & ribs, measuring with tape line their length, girth & breadth of hips, & then casting my ballot." Jackson continued, reporting that the bull who took the $500 premium that year belonged to a Mr. Alexander of Kentucky, "the celebrated Scotch stockbreeder & importer of the finest stock of the Union."

Albert Noe Farms display of Hereford cattle at the Tennessee State Fair. September 20, 1946.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, TSLA.

A man drives an open automobile on the racetrack at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. A portion of the grandstands is visible in the image, as well as a large house that may have been the Women's Building. Circa 1907.
Library Photograph Collection, TSLA.

From the late-1870s to the early-1880s, the state fair’s popularity waned until 1906, when the fair established roots at its current location. The 1906 fair opened on October 8 with special celebrations each day. Fair organizers observed "Children's Day" on Monday and all kids under the age of 15 were given free admission. Tuesday was "Fraternal Day" and members of fraternal organizations were invited to attend. "Confederate Day" commenced on Wednesday when the "boys in gray" from the Confederate Soldiers’ Home were feted. Thursday was "Home Seekers' Day" and catered to out of state individuals who might consider moving to Tennessee. Officials designated Friday as "County Fair Day" when the officers and directors of various county fairs attended as honored guests. The fair concluded on Saturday when students from colleges and universities from throughout the state attended on the fair's designated "College Day." An article published in the November 1906 edition of Trotwood's Monthly brilliantly described the fair's closing ceremony:

"Saturday night came. The evening shades were followed by the brilliancy of the electric lights in the arena, and the buildings; Bellstedt and his band gave one of the best programs of the week; the Horse Show was a picture of activity and beauty; this over, the crowds flocked to “Laughing Lane,” visited the attractions and promenaded along the busy avenues, bidding farewell to the sights and scenes that had delighted visitors for six eventful days; the city bells sounded the hour of midnight, and the State Fair of 1906 was at an end."

Tennessee's Home Food Supply for Victory campaign: Home Food Supply Exhibit at the Tennessee State Fair from the Woodrow community of Maury County.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, TSLA.

While the Tennessee State Fair focused mainly on agriculture, other exciting exhibitions and give-a-ways played an important part in the celebration as well. The September 12, 1917, edition of the Nashville Tennessean published an advertisement to “Buy an Admission Key to the State Fair and Get a Chance on a Dodge Automobile.” Readers could purchase their admission key from the “Red Cross girls” because “They want you to go to the Fair -- to see and to learn how to save, how to eliminate waste, how to preserve and how to increase the country’s food supply, and help to win the war.” For the price of one half dollar, fairgoers could purchase a ticket granting admission into the fair and along with it the chance to win a car.

Ticket to the 1917 Tennessee State Fair with
a chance to win a new Dodge automobile.
Governor Tom C. Rye Papers, TSLA
Not everyone in the state approved of this marketing strategy -- as evidenced by letters written to Gov. Tom Rye in protest. One letter, written by Noah W. Cooper, cited the Tennessee State Constitution (“the Legislature shall have no power to authorize lotteries for any purpose and shall pass laws to prohibit the sale of lottery tickets in this State”) as well as an 1873 Supreme Court case, Frances vs. the State (“The sale of a ticket in any scheme to be drawn in this or any other State is unlawful”), as a rationale for discontinuing the promotion.

The fair was not always filled with fun and frivolity, and has seen its fair share of tragedy. On September 20, 1965, around 10:30 pm, a fire broke out at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds during the opening night festivities. Flames consumed the 4-H Building, Women's Building, Merchant’s Building, Administration Building, several restaurants, and the grandstand at the racetrack. While no one was killed, 18 people were injured and officials estimated the property damage to be over $10 million. Since the Women’s and Merchant’s Buildings housed exhibits, various pieces of art, antiques, crafts, and merchandise were lost as well. An investigation revealed that faulty wiring in the Women’s Building caused the catastrophic blaze. In spite of the misfortune of the fire, the Tennessee State Fair continued on and lives on to this day.

“It is the bounty of Nature that we live; but of Philosophy that we live well.” Thus sayeth the cover of Things Good and Wholesome, a recipe book, “respectfully dedicated to the women of Tennessee,” published for the 1906 Tennessee State Fair. This year’s fair will returns to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds on September 5-14 embracing the theme, "Let the Good Times Grow." The theme celebrates the growth the fair has experienced in recent years and the hope of an even brighter future.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.


  1. Thank you Lori Lockhart for this inspiring article on the State Fair.

  2. Is there records of winners and entries at the state fairs in 1860?

  3. Thank you for your question, Gail. We do not have a complete list of winners for 1860. The one 1860 winner that is mentioned in the blog post is one that Alexander Jackson mentioned in a letter he wrote to his wife. The letter was dated September 11, 1860, and is in the William Hicks Jackson Papers (acc. no. 1979-059, I-K-6) here at TSLA. Jackson was a stock judge at the fair that year. Most of what we have in our collection are photographs of fair exhibits, correspondence, passes to the fair, and legislation related to the fair.

    The 'Chronicling America' site may prove helpful in answering your specific question. The Nashville Union and American newspaper for September 11, 1860, gives a list of stock winners and details from the opening day at the fair that year. It is possible that the winners would be listed in the newspaper for whatever year one might be researching. Here's a LINK to one example.

    We hope this information is helpful to you, and thanks again for contacting us, and for reading our article about the State Fair.