The South Plains Fair’s History is Lubbock’s History
From Humble Beginnings to “The Grandaddy of West Texas Fairs”
Horses and wagons line the dirt roads of Lubbock – a fledgling city incorporated only five years ago but already boasting a population of approximately 2,000. Farmers gather around the town square, comparing prize pumpkins and sheaves of grain, discussing farming methods and the prospects offered by the wide open spaces in fertile West Texas. Their wives and children mingle nearby, making new friends, swapping home remedies and recipes, playing games – generally in awe of the sights and sounds of “the big city.”
That was the scene unfolding nearly a century ago. The Panhandle South Plains Fair was drawing city and country folk together and helping Lubbock earn the nickname “Hub of the Plains” – an improvement over “the city that shouldn’t be,” as Lubbock was originally called, because of its isolated location and lack of major cross country highway links. The Fair and the city have grown almost simultaneously since those humble beginnings. Today, the Panhandle-South Plains Fair is known as “The Granddaddy of West Texas Fairs,” and ranks second only to Dallas’s State Fair of Texas in attendance and continuous history.
Growth Founded in Tradition
The first Fair was held in the fall of 1914. There were no fairs held during the World War II years of 1942-45. The annual extravaganza of today bears little resemblance to the first Fair, but one tradition remains firmly intact: the goal of the Fair, which is to strengthen community ties within our region and promote growth and prosperity throughout Lubbock and its surrounding communities.
In 1921, the Fair brought the first carnival to the city. Culinary, sewing, and craft categories were added to provide competition for women. The first livestock competitions also began this year. Business in Lubbock was growing and the Fair catalog was a natural place to promote the town’s merchants. By 1928, the Fair had grown in popularity to the point that it was lengthened from three days to six. The 1928 Fair drew more than 120,000 patrons. The Fair’s run remained at six days until 1973, when it was lengthened to eight days. In 2000, the fair was extended to nine days.
Overcoming Difficult Times
1932 was a low point in Fair history, as five days of torrential rains preceded the exposition’s opening. The Fair opened and closed in driving downpours, and the crowd dipped to 68,000. Despite 30-degree temperatures and ever-present rain, more than 150,000 patrons came to the 1938 exposition. That same year, the Merchant’s Building was constructed on the fairgrounds. Attendance held steadily around the 125,000 mark until 1942, when the Fair was canceled as the nation headed into World War II. In 1946, the Fair returned along with peacetime. Attendance climbed back over 100,000 by 1947 and Fair directors added the Cattle Barn.
Major headlining stars headed to Lubbock following the construction of the Fair Park Coliseum in 1954. The first act to perform on the stage was the touring wing of the Grand Ole Opry, with Elvis Presley in 1956 and hundreds of other stars ever since.
In 1963, Fair crowds topped the 200,000 mark for the first time. By 1967, growth in the Women’s Department prompted expansion of the Women’s Building. This division now draws more than 6,000 entries in its eight separate departments and is run by more than 200 volunteers. In 1972, Fair directors began a scholarship program that, to date, has contributed more than $500,000 to Texas Tech University, Lubbock Christian University, South Plains College, Western Texas College, Wayland Baptist University, and area chapters of 4-H and FFA.
1976 saw record crowds of 324,721 fans – and the 10 millionth Fair visitor walked through the famous turnstile in 1983. Each year, more fans push through the turnstiles of the South Plains Fair than any other event or gathering in West Texas. Approximately 80% of the money spent at the Fair remains in Lubbock. Charitable groups use the Fair as a major fundraising time, and on average over $750,000 is raised during the Fair’s run.
A Brilliant Future
New events and features continue to be added to the Fair each year. But for all the changes and growth, the Panhandle South Plains Fair remains a place for people of all ages to enjoy. From the midway rides—bigger and faster each year—to the agricultural exhibits, the corn dogs to the superstars, there is literally something for everyone! Throughout the Fairs past and present, there exists an air of fun and nostalgia that can be equaled in few other places. Generations of people have grown up with the South Plains Fair—”a showcase of diversity by day, and a luminous, sparkling array of brilliance by night!”