by Debie Cox, August 2010
It was reported in the Republican Banner that a State Fair was held in Davidson County at the Walnut Race Course in North Nashville in October of 1855. In 1856 the Tennessee Legislature passed a private act to appoint a committee to purchase property for a Tennessee State Fair Grounds for the Tennessee Agriculture Bureau. Thirty-five acres were selected near the present location of the Trevecca Nazarene University. An 1860 map of Nashville shows what appears to be a race track on the fairground property. Horse racing was very popular in that day.
In 1869 the state ordered the sale of the fairgrounds property. That same year, the Tennessee Fair Association purchased about eighty acres between the Charlotte and Harding Pikes just past the Elliston farm and established a new state fairgrounds. Several buildings were constructed, including an amphitheater with seating for 10,000 people, a Floral and Textile Fabric Hall and a Mechanics Hall for the display of machinery. Barns and stables were built to accommodate livestock. It was reported that 30,000 people attended the first fair held on the grounds in October of 1869. The interest in a state fair was short lived and within a few years the expected annual event fell by the wayside. In 1884, the fairgrounds were converted into a race track and named West Side Park. West Side Park was selected as the site of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition which was held in the summer of 1897. Soon after the Centennial, the Tennessee Fair Association sold the fairgrounds and today the property belongs to Metro Nashville Parks and is known as Centennial Park.
About 1900 the Nashville Retail Merchants Association members became interested in a resurrection of the state fair and in 1905 the Tennessee State Fair Association was chartered by a group of local businessmen. Joseph Frank, H. M. Brenneke, John Coode, Houston Dudley Jr., John Early and others declared the capitol stock of the corporation to be 100,000 dollars divided into 10,000 shares of ten dollars each. The association was created for the purpose of encouragement and support of art, agriculture, horticulture and mechanical arts. The group purchased, for $120,000, the Cumberland Park property on Nolensville Pike consisting of 125 acres. The grounds and buildings were readied for the fair to take place in 1906. The first fair was held in October but in subsequent years the fair was held in September.
Opening day was Monday, October 8, 1906 and the fair closed on Saturday. An extensive display of hundreds of electric lights, illuminated the grounds reminiscent of the lighting at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. General admission was 50 cents with an additional 25 cents to enter the Grand Stand. A post office and an information bureau were located on the grounds. An area was provided for picnicking in a shady grove on the grounds and fair goers were welcome to bring in their own food. Restaurant food was also available.
Transportation by steam locomotive was available with depots established near both the south and main entrances to the grounds. A hitch yard was provided for those arriving by carriage or buggy and a parking yard for automobiles was available. The Eighth Avenue and Glendale Street Railway line ran directly to the main entrance of the grounds.
The Agricultural and Horticultural Building was the only new structure erected for the inaugural fair. The two-story building, 18,00 square foot, building was constructed at a cost of $10,000. It stood adjacent to the Grand Stand. A big attraction in the Agricultural Building was the display of tobacco, which was a leading cash crop in Tennessee, with samples of each type of tobacco grown in the state. First prize for the largest and best arranged tobacco display in 1906 went to Joseph E. Washington of Robertson County. Also on view in the Agricultural Building were hundreds of plants and flowers including roses, carnations, geraniums and attractive designs in hanging baskets. T. S. Joy and Sons, Florists, were awarded many of the honors given is this area. Counties from around the state displayed examples of the best produce that could be found. Merchandise and food was display in beautifully decorated booths on the first floor. Artistic displays made from fresh fruits and vegetables competed for prizes. At the end of the fair, much of the produce was donated to area day homes for children and orphanages.
Large tents covered much of the infield of the race track. Inside was every kind of farm tool and machinery, displayed by leading manufacturers, many of whom were headquartered in Nashville. Carriages, buggies and wagons were on display in tents. A separate poultry building, cattle barns, horse barns and sheds were also on the grounds. Daily exhibitions of live stock included a nightly horse show featuring championship horses from Tennessee and Kentucky stables. Exhibited in the stock barns were dairy cattle, herd cattle, beef cattle, swine, sheep, mules and Shetland ponies. The Grand Live Stock Parade was a significant event of the fair.
The beautiful Cumberland Park Club House was adapted for use as the Woman's Building. Three stories high and surrounded on three sides by wide-columned porches, the building housed women's exhibits. Quilts, embroidered goods, crocheted items, lace work and sewn items were among the beautiful handwork displayed. Canned goods, preserves, jellies and jams of every kind could be found. Apple, tomato and watermelon preserves, tomato catsup and chili sauce, all of fine quality could be purchased. Pies, cakes, cookies, baked goods of every description were available. Demonstrations of household and kitchen appliances were held in booths located throughout the building. Creative arts from students in local schools were on exhibit.
A contest was held prior to opening to name the midway and Laughing Lane was the winning entry. The amusements along Laughing Way were provided by Parker Amusement Enterprises Company. Musical concerts and other forms of entertainment were available every afternoon and night at a platform erected in front of the grandstand. A favorite attraction was the airship piloted by Roy Knabenshue which flew from the fairgrounds to the State Capitol each day. Just two years earlier Knabenshue had become one of the first to fly a steerable balloon or dirigible.
In 1907 the Tennessee Legislature appropriated $5000 to the Tennessee State Fair Association to be used as premiums. Half of the money was to be awarded in the Tennessee Livestock competitions and half in the Tennessee agricultural products competitions. In 1909 the legislature authorized Davidson County to issue bonds for the purpose of raising money to purchase a permanent site for a state fairground and created a 13 member fair board to be headed by the Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture. Davidson County purchased the Cumberland Park property from the Tennessee Fair Association in 1911 for $150,000. Buildings, furniture and equipment were included in the sale. [see inventory ] In 1923 the state relinquished control of the fair to Davidson County and a county fair board was created. The county judge was a member along with six additional members elected by the Quarterly Court to serve six year terms. Under the 1963 Metropolitan Nashville Charter the board became the Metropolitan Board of Fair Commission comprised of five members, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Metro Council.
The Tennessee State Fair has been held every year since 1906, except for a four year suspension during WWII. The fair has weathered many storms including the Great Depression, a 1965 fire that destroyed most of the buildings at the fair grounds and a 1970 fire which destroyed the coliseum. The midway carnival rides provided the most excitement a Tennessee kid had all year. Cotton candy, corn dogs and snow cones were favorite fair foods. Special days, Senior Day, Children's Day etc. were designated on weekdays to draw people in. School children were given a day off from school and free admission. Entertainment was a big draw for fair goers and included the most popular performers of the time. Even as late as the 1970's some of the biggest acts in the country, such as Sonny and Cher, Captain and Tenille, Z Z Top, Dr. Hook, Marilyn McCoo, and comedian Bob Hope played the Tennessee State Fair.
In October 2009, Metro Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced that there would be no more fairs held at the old state fairgrounds. It was reported that the property would be developed and/or sold. A reprieve has been granted for both the fairgrounds and the fair. Just as it was at the 1906 beginning, this year the fair will be managed by a private group, chartered as the Tennessee State Fair Association. On September 10th, the fair will open at the fairgrounds on Nolensville Pike. This may be the last fair on the historic site. Don't miss your chance for one last visit to the Tennessee State Fair, September 10th through September 19th.
This essay "History of the Tennessee State Fair" was researched, written and published on the Friends of Metro Nashville Archives website by Debie Cox.
History of the Tennessee State Fair by Debie Oeser Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.