The Ozark Empire Fair started in the early 1900’s as a traveling display of area crafts and handwork. The Fair had no permanent home but was held in various locations within the Springfield city limits. For the last part of the 1920’s and early 1930’s, a location around what is now Pickwick and Grand Streets was used.
The need for a permanent location was evident, and a group of local businessmen, headed by Louis Reps, organized to locate and establish a permanent headquarters. This research started in the early 1930’s.
A suitable location was found adjacent to the Zoo grounds and encompassing the city’s racetrack and grandstand. This was ideal because of the large amount of acreage and beautiful tree-laden hills. The racetrack, although somewhat primitive, was suitable for the grandstand spectaculars that were planned for Fairs to come.
The land was already owned by the Springfield Park Department and, as soon as an approval was given by that organization, the formational committee proposed an ¼-mill tax levy that would go for the improvements needed to the grounds. An issuance of stocks was ordered, and stock certificates were sold to investors at ten dollars per share. This, along with many special gifts, provided the working capital for the first years of the Fair.
1936 was the organizing year for the Ozark Empire District Free Fair. The pre-organizational committee was disbanded, and Fair administrators were elected to permanent positions. Those elected were: H. Frank Fellows, President; W. P. Keltner, Vice President; Tom Watkins, Sr., Treasurer; Edwin W. Watts, Executive Secretary and Acting Fair Manager. Directors for the Fair included Louis Reps, R. W. Fugitt, Sumner Gurley, John T. Wodruff, W. L. Cowden, Edson K. Bixby, Lawrence Rush, and R. L. McDonald.
It was the responsibility of this group to draw up the charter for The Green County Agricultural and Mechanical Society of Springfield, Missouri. The charter was filed with the city on July 6, 1937. This charter stated that the purpose of the organization would be to promote and encourage advancements and improvements in manufacture, agriculture, horticulture, poultry, dairying, raising of livestock, and products of domestic industry. To accomplish this purpose, the organization was authorized to establish and maintain fairs and exhibitions for the exhibit of livestock, agricultural, horticultural, mineral, industrial, and mechanical products and to hold other events desirable for the amusement and pleasure of persons visiting fairs and exhibitions.
Fairs of the Thirties
To fulfill these objectives, The Greene County Agricultural and Mechanical Society of Springfield, Missouri, established The Ozark Empire District Free Fair. The first Fair was set for October 10-16, 1937.
The first Fair buildings consisted of the already-constructed Grandstand and a house that was used for an administration building. There was an area for display and exhibits located under the Grandstand. All other structures were portable tents and booths.
A decision was made to award $7184.25 in premiums for exhibits in livestock and crafts the first year of the Fair. This encouraged many entries in all categories.
Admission and exhibits were free in the Thirties. The only charge to fairgoers was for carnival rides, food, and Grandstand performances. The Grandstand shows of the Thirties included major production spectaculars; special vaudeville and circus acts; horse, car, and motorcycle races; stunt shows; and big band entertainers. Admission for these shows ranged from 25¢ to $1.00, depending on seat location.
Due to extremely cold weather during the first Fair in October, 1937, dates for the remaining Fairs of the Thirties were changed to mid-September. Area educators praised the Ozark Empire District Free Fair as “an outstanding educational exhibit and tribute to Ozark people and their heritage.” Schools in Springfield and surrounding areas dismissed classes at noon at least one day so students could attend the Fair. The Fair reciprocated with special prices to grandstand shows and gave special prizes.
By a special act adopted by the Park Board, camping was allowed on the Zoo grounds adjacent to the Fairgrounds. This enabled people who displayed exhibits to remain near them.
W.P.A. labor built a new Ozarks Regional Center the housed special exhibits from the surrounding counties. Also added were an educational exhibits building, a women’s building, an agricultural exhibits building, a poultry building, a livestock building and arena, and an ornamental stone fence for the south and east borders of the Fairgrounds.
Interest spread in Southwest Missouri and the Ozark Empire District Free Fair ended the decade with great success.
There were definite changes at the Fair in the Forties. The first significant change was the addition of a gate admission charge of 15¢ in 1940. With the admission charge in effect, the name of the Fair had to be changed to the Ozark Empire District Fair. By 1944, the Fair dates had been moved to mid-August, before school started.
World War II was splitting Europe, and American troops were being sent to fight, but the Fair still remained top news in Southwest Missouri. People used these war-year Fairs as an escape from the constant killings that were occurring in far-away nations. The Fairs of the Forties acted as a show of internal strength. Farmers were trying to over-produce, and people throughout the area were supporting the American cause. Crafts displayed in the Forties all reflected American pride and patriotism. American flags and bunting decorated the Fairgrounds and remained with pride even after the troops came home.
Additions to the Fairgrounds in the Forties included an improved racetrack with a manicured infield and a new horse barn. Asphalt drives and walkways replaced sawdust and gravel paths between buildings.
Concession booths had to be signed for early because the demand for display areas was overwhelming. The price for space rental was four dollars per front foot, and each area was sixty feet deep. This was an excellent opportunity for farm implement dealers to show their new equipment to Fair visitors. Also, new car dealers showed new models for the coming year. All in all, the displays proved to be very profitable for everyone.
The big band sound graced the Fairs of the Forties with a full orchestra as part of the stage spectaculars. Following each evening’s performance, the bands would move into the swine pavilion for high society dancing from 11:00p.m. until 1:00a.m. A portable wooden floor was put down over the sawdust for the nightly gala.
Vaudeville and burlesque also began and quickly flourished. A featured appearance of Sally Rand in 1941 is remembered as a highlight by most people interviewed. Other attractions of the Forties included horse racing, rodeos, thrill shows, and motorcycle and auto racing.
Fairs of the Fifties
The Fairs of the Fifties are the least remembered. One person interviewed stated that she thought it was because the Southwest Missouri area was hit hard by drought in the early Fifties. Conditions were so bad that Fair entries, as well as attendance, dwindled to the point that the city considered revoking the land lease on the grounds. The Fair boasted over $800,000 in physical plant assets, but there was still a fear of the Fair’s collapse due to declining attendance.
The drought broke in late 1954, and interest in the Fair was revived through the hard work of local businessmen. They formed rejuvenating committees to raise over $25,000 in premiums and gained commitments from area merchants for display space on the grounds. The Fair once again began to come alive. With the changing times, the name of the Fair was also changed to Ozark Empire Fair.
A new Grandstand was built in 1955. Fire had destroyed the original structure which was primarily wood. The new Grandstand was built with cement and steel. The Grandstand remained coverless, however, so the need for a tent enclosing the seating area remained. In the late 1950’s, permanent cement bleachers were added on each end of the Grandstand, increasing seating capacity by over 1000. A new restroom area was also constructed under the west bleacher section.
Permanent cattle pens and sheep pavilions were constructed to house the overflow of livestock entries.
Entertainment at the Fairs of the Fifties included ice shows, rodeos, a sky circus, thrill shows, and stock car races, and featured stars such as Pinky Lee and Rex Allen.
Showplace of the Sixties
The era of the Sixties brought many changes to the Ozark Empire Fair. In 1960, permanent structures popped up all over the Fairgrounds. The need for more livestock show areas was still present, so two dairy barns were added to two existing barns to form a four-building complex with a show arena in the middle.
At the Grandstand a heavy oak rail was added around the track for safety, and a new bleacher section was built to replace an overflow wooden structure that was deteriorating.
Probably the most impressive addition that year was the Missouri State Conservation Commission Building on the west side of the grounds. It housed exhibits of animals and fish found in the state with emphasis on Southwest Missouri. During the first year, it has been estimated that over 65% of all fairgoers visited this building at least once during their stay.
The year 1960 was also a tragic one for the Fair. In early September, a fire was set in the coliseum. This building, built in 1938 with W.P.A. labor, burned to the ground. The fire also destroyed sheep, swine, and poultry buildings. Three men were charged and convicted of arson.
Although the men were captured, the most important issue was the rebuilding of the coliseum before the next Fair. Construction began almost immediately, and the Arena was completed just prior to the spring show season in1961. Permanent seating for 2250 was installed, and the new Arena complex became the showplace for Ozarks livestock. With new buildings going up on the grounds, an expanding decade began.
The run of the Fair was altered in 1962 so exhibitors and advertisers could attend the state fairs of Missouri and Iowa. The seven-day Fair ran from mid-week to mid-week for the rest of the decade.
Each year of the Sixties found new records being set. Exhibit and livestock entries climbed every year, and premiums rose to over $50,000. By 1969, attendance records were set, and gate admission prices had increased to $1.00 for adults.
1966 was an experimental year with Grandstand shows at the Ozark Empire Fair. Grandstand shows were free for the first time. Anyone on the grounds could see a show on a first-come, first-served basis. Grandstand attractions included rodeos, go-kart races, thrill shows, and stock car races. Entertainers of the Sixties included Porter Waggoner, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Vinton, and Sonny James.
Decade of Rebuilding
The 1970’s were remodeling years for the Ozark Empire Fair. The grounds and most buildings had been in use for over 30 years and were in desperate need of modernization. A plan was developed for a gradual modernization that would last from 1970 to 1976. This was made possible by special grants, Fair receipts, and city-budgeted funds.
New buildings erected during this period included a youth exhibits building, a press center adjacent to the administration building, a police exhibits building, a theme pavilion, and two new restroom buildings.
An asphalt track was installed, making the Fairgrounds speedway the most modern facility in Southwest Missouri. In addition, 1200 new seats were added to the Grandstand, bringing the total seating capacity to 5500. The remainder of the ground’s walkways were asphalted, three new asphalt paths were constructed, and smaller stage areas were added for free entertainment during the Fair.
The Fair expanded to eight days in 1970, running from Wednesday through Wednesday. In 1972 the Fair expanded again, this time to ten days opening on a Friday early in August. By the end of the decade, gate admission was $2.50 for adults and $1.00 for children. Grandstand entertainment remained free due to the huge success of free shows. Entertainers of the Seventies included Tammy Wynette, George Johnes, Bobby Goldsboro, Loretta Lynn, Anita Bryant, Jerry Reed, Don Williams, Tanya Tucker, and Ray Price.
New Directions in the Eighties
The decade of the Eighties began with major financial problems for the Ozark Empire Fair. A gate admission fee increase to $3.00 and ticket charge for all grandstand seats did not generate enough revenue to offset two years of bad management decisions, unfavorable weather, and the expenses of major repairs needed on 40-year-old buildings. By the end of the 1982 Fair, the Fair’s debt had grown to $311,000.
Faced with the prospect of closing the Fair, a new general manager began a major community involvement campaign. Local businesses purchased sponsorship privileges. A new carnival with fresh rides was hired. Street acts entertained fairgoers. Grandstand shows went back to free admission for non-reserved seats. The entire grounds underwent cleaning and painting. A 1984 grant from City Council in the amount of $25,875 paid for roof repairs and electrical work. Sponsorship money helped build a new cattle barn and show ring in 1985 to accommodate shows and/or sales that were not large enough to require the use of the arena.
With a new look to the grounds and a renewed spirit of community involvement, attendance and entries climbed to all-time highs. All debts were paid off in the fall of 1985—including repayment of the 1984 City Council grant.
Entertainment of the Eighties included truck and tractor pulls, mud wrestling, and a lumberjack show. The Grandstand offered a variety of entertainers such as T.G. Sheppard, Bill Monroe, Alabama, Moe Brandy, Charlie Pride, Conway Twitty, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Sawyer Brown, the Judd’s, Doc Severisen, George Strait, John Anderson, and Steve Wariner.
In 1989, entries in livestock and home arts competition soared to 11,561, and the Fair paid premiums of $98,045.32. The Ozark Empire Fair earned awards from the International Association of Fairs and Expositions for Best Overall Advertising Campaign as well as Outstanding Outdoor Promotional Advertising Campaign, Outstanding Advertising Specialties Campaign, and Outstanding Informational Printed Materials Campaign.
With the help of area businesses, the city of Springfield, and friends throughout the Ozarks, the Fair not only survived the crisis of the early Eighties but went on to finish the decade as one of the top 100 Fairs in the nation!
Continued Growth in the Nineties
The Fair continued to set records as the Nineties began. Attendance continued to grow. To accommodate the increased numbers of fairgoers, major renovations began on buildings that had been in use for 30 to 50 years. Older restrooms were remodeled and new restrooms were built, bringing the number of public toilets to over 125.
The entire grounds underwent a facelift with extensive landscaping. Volunteers planted over 7,000 marigolds, petunias, and impatiens each year. Maroon awnings brightened the Administration Building, Grandstand, and Arena. New entrance gates with improved signage improved vehicle traffic flow. Asphalt in carnival and commercial exhibit areas improved pedestrian traffic flow.
Entries in livestock and home arts competitions increased to all-time highs. Siding, roofing, and painting revitalized the Arena/Annex complex. Ventilation fans were added in the livestock areas. The Foods and Flowers Building was enlarged and remodeled. Movable glass cases increased display space and allowed more options on display arrangements. Glassed-in display areas were built in older exhibits buildings, increasing display footage and allowing better viewing of exhibits. New roofing was required on W.P.A.-constructed exhibits buildings.
Grandstand ticket sales for reserved seats soared. Entertainers required a new sound system and dressing rooms. Handicap accessibility was improved in seating areas. Entertainers at the Fair in the Nineties included Marie Osmond, Roger Miller, Jan and Dean, Lee Greenwood, Steve Wariner, Riders in the Sky, Carman, Ricky Van Shelton, Seals and Croft, Holly Dunn, Marty Stuart, Aaron Tippin, and Doug Stone.
The Arena was insulated, heat was installed, and removable carpet was purchased. The Annex was enclosed and a concrete floor was poured. Plumbing, electrical, and concrete work completed renovations to the Arena/Annex complex, opening it to year-round rentals.
The Fair entered the mid-Nineties strong and growing. The Ozark Empire Fair maintained a continuing commitment to the original charter objectives of promoting manufacture, agriculture, horticulture, poultry, dairying, raising of livestock and products of domestic industry by maintaining fairs and exhibitions for the exhibit of livestock, agricultural, horticultural, mineral, industrial, and mechanical products, and by holding other events desirable for the amusement and pleasure of persons visiting fairs and exhibitions.