2020 and 2021 issues funded in part by grants from the Utah Commission on Service and Volunteerism
and Salt Lake County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
June 12, 2021

Utah State Fairpark and Fair have colorful, varied history

Utah State Fairpark and Fair have colorful, varied history
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By Sheena Wolfe

Pond-jumping horses, the Bearded Lady, Whippet dog races, “Phroso” the mechanical man, chocolate-covered scorpions, twin-sibling contests, elephant rides, horse racing, two-headed calves, and the first color television are some of the attractions appearing at the Utah State Fair over the decades. For more than 100 years, the buildings and grounds at the Utah State Fairpark have hosted them in addition to entertainers, association conventions, sporting events, and expositions.

The first fair took place in 1856, one year after the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah passed legislation to form the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society (DAMS). The DAMS was tasked with “promoting the arts of domestic industry” by holding an annual exhibition of local agriculture, livestock, and domestic products, awarding premiums to those judged highest in quality.

Some of the items that received blue ribbons during the first fairs included door locks, turpentine, shoe blacking, penmanship, sign painting, soap making and patchwork quilting. Awards were also given to livestock and agriculture, including gooseberries, potatoes and fall pears. These goods highlighted some of the handicraft and agricultural enterprises of the Mormon pioneers, according to a history printed in a 1928 “Golden Jubilee” fair book.

Records show that early fairs were held at various locations in Salt Lake City until 1902. In 1896, legislation was passed to purchase 66 acres for a permanent location at North Temple and 1000 West. This purchase facilitated the building of livestock barns and exhibit buildings. Most of the original buildings, including the livestock barns, were completed between 1905 and 1928. Most of them are still in use today.

“Most people do not realize how old most of our buildings are or that the fairpark was placed on the National Historic Register in 1981,” said fairpark Executive director Larry Mullenax. He noted sadly that the most famous building, known as the Coliseum, was condemned by the Utah Fire Marshall in 1991 and finally torn down in 1997 despite years of planning to save it.

The Coliseum was designed by Brigham Young’s son and grandson, architects Joseph Don Carlos Young and Don Carlos Young, and completed in 1913. According to Fairpark records, spectacular ice shows, various association conventions, and wrestling and boxing matches – featuring top competitors of the day, such as Gene Fullmer, 1957 world middleweight champion – were held in the Coliseum. The venue also hosted world-renowned entertainers, including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Liberace.

Other performers billed at the Fairpark include Paul Revere and the Raiders, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Santana, Pearl Jam, Fleetwood Mac, Louise Mandrell, the Gatland Brothers and Foreigner, according to the Fairpark’s Assistant Executive Director Judy Duncombe, who has worked at the fair for more than 38 years.

According to Duncombe, the Fairpark once had an auto racetrack. Car racing there began in 1903, and according to a Deseret News story of that year, the first races were a “bust” because the cars of that day were not fast. Nonetheless, car racing at the Fairpark remained popular until the 1970s when upkeep of the track became problematic, and surrounding homeowners complained of the associated noise.

Other historic events at or relating to the Fairpark were documented in a recent report to the Utah State Legislature: it was used as barracks for World War II soldiers in 1943; for a centennial exposition, including the Water Follies and an indoor waterfall, in 1947; and when Evel Knievel jumped 13 Toyotas by motorcycle in 1968. The report also highlighted what the fairpark has undergone and survived: a plan to move the Utah State Fair to Lagoon in 1964; major renovations to existing buildings in 1988; privatization and nonprofit incorporation in 1995; the addition of White Ballpark in 1999; the opening of Fairpark TRAX station in 2013; and the addition of a 10,000-seat arena and a skateboard park in 2017.

Present and future emphasis, said Mullenax, is on continuing to attract year-round events in addition to the Utah State Fair. The new stadium has gained the Fairpark numerous sold-out concerts and given the Days of ’47 Rodeo a permanent home, he said. In addition, there are several new outdoor events that Mullenax hopes to see scheduled on an annual basis such as the Goodguys Car Show (which occurred for the second year in May), the Outside Adventure Expo (scheduled for the end of June), and the new International Market (to be held on weekends throughout the summer). 

“We will continue to market the Fairpark to host everything from weddings, expos, and concerts to industry trade shows and sporting competitions,” Mullenax said, noting that current events attract more than 500,000 people a year.

The Utah State Fairpark has a supply of pictures and newspaper accounts of the fair from over the years, but Mullenax would like to receive some personal stories from locals who attend the fair, especially those who have memories of past experiences there. Those who have a personal story are asked to contact the state fair at Utahstatefair.com.

This year’s state fair will be held Sept. 9-19. A new master plan for the Fairpark’s future is currently being developed and will include comments and suggestions from surrounding neighbors and stakeholders.

Weigh in on the Utah State Fairpark’s master plan

Utah State Fairpark is undergoing a master plan update to better support its organizational mission to serve as a permanent, year-round destination hub, and area residents are being asked to participate in the planning process.

By going to www.utahstatefair.com and clicking on the “Future of the Fairpark” link, community members can post ideas and take a survey. Ideas already posted include opening access gates to pedestrian traffic through the site; year-round access to small local dining with music and dancing; turning the green area of the park into a multi-use area with games, covered picnic tables, a walking path, and children’s play area; and adding shops and restaurants along North Temple. The survey asks multiple choice questions dealing with usage of Fairpark and how it should be maintained or improved for the future.  

In addition to posting ideas and taking a survey, nearby residents and stakeholders have been participating in focus groups. Ideas being discussed at the focus groups include designing pedestrian walking paths with year-round access, building a small convention facility, adding additional parking spaces, and moving the livestock facilities closer to the arena. Retail shops, restaurants, and a hotel along North Temple were also debated.

The architectural firm EDA, which is known for creating spaces that harmonize with community and environment, is facilitating the process. A draft master plan will be presented to the public in August or September.


Photos courtesy of Utah State Fairpark


Published in Summer 2021