The Colorado State Fair has been part of the fabric of Pueblo since it opened here almost 150 years ago.


It’s been here almost as long as the city itself.


The fireworks, rodeo, concerts, beer gardens, fried food, parades, rides and exhibits still tantalize fairgoers today.


But the main reason for the Fair has always been agriculture.


“The Fair was founded in Pueblo as an agricultural show first and foremost. The tradition through the years was to highlight agriculture in the state — and about 110 years ago, it started to highlight youth 4-H programs as well, and has continued that today,” said Chris Wiseman, the Fair’s general manager from 2004 to 2015.


Wiseman, now a Pueblo County commissioner, said whether it’s been livestock shows, horse shows or other 4-H showcases, all have agricultural roots.


Humble beginnings


Pueblo started as a small fort; however, it was instrumental in bringing the railroad to Colorado – a state that has rich diversification of agriculture.


By the end of the 1860s, farmers in northern and southern Colorado were dissatisfied with the Fair, which originally was held in near Denver, according to Colorado Encyclopedia. At the time, Colorado had about 1,700 farms and fewer than 100,000 acres under cultivation — most of them along the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers and their tributaries.


The encyclopedia notes that northern and southern Coloradans began to organize agricultural societies and fairs of their own, including the Southern Colorado Agricultural and Industrial Association, established in Pueblo in 1872.


The Fair was first held in Pueblo on Oct. 9, 1872 by the association on a 100-acre site north of town, according to Colorado State Fair historians.


The Steel City has always encouraged and rewarded the agricultural history of Colorado, making it an ideal home for the fair.


The association received no cash assistance from the community or the state of Colorado, according to the Fair’s website. The fair was incorporated on Nov.17, 1886, and purchased 50 acres of land near Mineral Palace Park for $3,000. Fair officials later made $5,000 worth of improvements.


The expo remained at that location until 1890, when the board moved the site to 100 acres of land west of Lake Minnequa.


board purchased the new site for $30,000 and sold the Mineral Palace Park location for $48,000. The Fair stayed at this location for 11 years before it moved to its present-day site between Prairie and Beulah avenues, according to Colorado State Fair historians.


Encyclopedia Colorado points out that in 1917 and 1918, the fairgrounds served as Camp Carlson, a base for Colorado militia troops training for World War I. This resulted in limited fair operations.


But the fair quickly rebounded in the 1920s with the addition of several new buildings after state funding. During these years, the fair also began to add its first permanent 4-H buildings for youth agricultural education, with the first 4-H camp held at the fairgrounds in 1918. This quickly became an annual feature, hosting students every year thereafter except during World War II and the 1951 polio epidemic.


Scott Stoller, who has been the Fair general manager since July 2018, said since opening in 1901, the Colorado State Fairgrounds have played an important role in the state’s agriculture, education, and entertainment arenas.


“The State Fair has been here for right around 150 years. Pueblo and the Fair are synonymous with one another across the state. It reminds me of a college campus, like CSU in Fort Collins and Colorado University in Boulder. Those institutions are engrained with those cities. It’s the same down here with the Fair in Pueblo,” Stoller said.


Historic structures


The Works Progress Administration constructed many of Colorado’s fairgrounds facilities in the 1930s. Fair historians said the first structure on the present site was the Mexican Pavilion. Presently there are 14 structures, all with historical significance, fair officials said.


“The history of the fair makes it unique. There is so much history going back to the 1870s. Having this much history and heritage in one location makes it unique,” Stoller said.


“The architecture is really cool. I love all the stone arches on the fairgrounds, especially the Palace of Agriculture (built in 1949) and the horse barns. The sheep and swine barns also make the grounds unique.”


The fair administration began with a nonprofit group of Pueblo residents called the State Fair Association. In 1903, the fair received its first state appropriation. In 1917, the fair received a State Fair Commission. The deed to the land was given to the state, and the fair received its first levy of $1 million dollars for operation and maintenance.


Today, the Colorado State Fair resides on 102 acres of land that contains paved streets and impressive landscaping.


The fair has been host to countless celebrity concerts and continues to be used for a wide range of community events.


Fair memories


Wiseman said the fair is a mainstay for most Pueblo families, including his.


“I remember every year my mom and dad would buy us a pair of boots, a new pair of jeans and a western shirt. We’d go out to the fair, usually just one day,” Wiseman recalled.


“It became a part of our lives. When I was in high school, we used to spend almost every night at the fairgrounds. I did that into college and then took my kids there.”


Wiseman, who started working at the Fair in 1997, said nothing says “Pueblo” more than the expo.


“It’s part of our identity. It’s something most Puebloans hold very, very dear,” he said.


Over the years, there has been a push to move the fair to Northern Colorado, but is always falls short.


“You can probably go back 50 years where people say, ‘Well maybe it’s time to move the Fair to Denver.’ The Colorado State Fair would be lost in Denver. There is so much competition up there for the entertainment dollars. It would be lost in that market,” Wiseman said.


Wiseman said to relocate the facility would be too costly and that existing facilities in the Denver area are not set up to be a state fair.


“Pueblo just loves its fair. They support it,” he said.


Recent history


With a total attendance of 466,380, this year’s expo saw about a 5% increase in traffic from 2018.


In 2005, the Fair shrunk from 17 days to 11 days. Since then, it has had nearly 500,000 in attendance each year.


In 2019, the Fair’s popular Fiesta Day attracted 66,630 people: up 24 percent from 2018, with more than 11,000 attending than the previous year. It was the largest single-day attendance mark in more than a decade. Fiesta Day was added to the Fair in 1967.


“Fiesta Day is a big piece of the Fair and a wonderful celebration. The State Fair Parade on opening weekend also is a tradition. Colorado comes out for it,” Stoller said.


Stoller said the support for the Fair’s Junior Livestock Auction is not as common in other places.


“There’s people from all over the state that come down to help. It is truly amazing,” Stoller said.


Stoller said the Fair has changed, but its heart stays the same.


“We are locked and loaded for the 2020 Fair,” he said.


“I think with Scott there right now it has an extremely bright future. The Colorado Legislature is finally investing money into the Fair for operations, which it hadn’t done in a long time,” Wiseman said.


“I just can’t see Pueblo without the fair.”


amestas@chieftain.com


Twitter: @mestas3517