This past week at the Missouri State Fair, I could see how agri-tourism works together to provide good opportunities for Missouri residents. Our fair is a showcase of agriculture, with an emphasis on youth in agriculture. It should make us all proud that many of our local and statewide youth had projects on display in the 4-H building, while others had prize livestock filling the various barns and pens at the fair. Their hard work and their talents were on display for thousands to admire.
Each year the eleven day event draws over 350,000 people to the fairgrounds in Sedalia. This year marked its 114th year. The 40th General Assembly passed legislation and appropriated $15,000 in April of 1899 to establish the fair. However, it wasn’t until the 41st General Assembly appropriated $50,000 that construction on any permanent structures was begun. The first fair was held in 1901.
Historically, most of the agriculture fairs in our nation began as harvest festivals. Missouri’s first fair began as such in the month of September, but the date was later changed to mid-August. At that time the five-day event drew in just over 25,000 people.
Missouri’s first fair was met with numerous obstacles. 1901 was a severe drought year, and farmers were very disappointed with both their crops and their garden produce. Reports were that the drought put a “blight upon our state” with crop failures and poor harvest results. Many were so depressed they did not even feel like attending a fair. Then, at the close of the event, the first fair director had some harsh words for members of Missouri’s General Assembly. He stated: “The appropriation for the permanent improvements of the grounds was altogether inadequate. Where a quarter of a million dollars was needed, only $50,000 was given, and it came very late.” Even back in the early part of the 1900’s, there were money issues that had to be addressed.
From its humble beginnings, Missouri’s State Fair has grown into one of the best state fairs in the nation. By 1910, its attendance had reached 100,000, with the Wright Brothers providing daily exhibitions. In 1911, President William Howard Taft attended the fair for Mule Day, something unique to our state, as Missouri is known both nationally and internationally for breeding quality mules. The fair was suspended during the war years of 1943 and 1944. In 1952, the fair celebrated its golden anniversary, but was marked with tragedy when a tornado hit the midway area at the fairgrounds at 1:20 p.m. on August 20 and a carnival employee was killed. In addition to President Taft, there have been three other U. S. presidents to visit our state fair: Harry S. Truman visited in 1950, Ronald Reagan visited in 1984, and George W. Bush visited in 2004, when he spoke at the fair’s historic Coliseum while on a campaign stop in the state.
Perhaps one of the most significant dates to remember in Missouri State Fair history is 1996 when Missouri’s General Assembly passed legislation creating the Fair Commission. For years, legislators and Department of Agriculture directors have sought the creation of a non-partisan board to administer the duties of the fair. With the appointment of this commission, the responsibility to oversee the operations of our state’s fair is now in the hands of this nine-member group. Four members are from each political party and the ninth member is Missouri's Director of Agriculture.
In addition to the eleven day mid-August State Fair, the 400-acre fairgrounds are now utilized on a year round basis and are booked for more than 350 days a year, helping to contribute to our being a pro-tourism area. Besides boasting a first class state fair, Missouri has a year round list of other tourist-drawing attractions: floating opportunities on our state’s rivers, hiking, golfing, bicycling, and a nationally recognized state park system. Also included are numerous historical sites statewide, over 1,000 miles of hiking trails, and over 6,000 known caves and caverns.
Sometimes we fail to realize that we live in a state that is remarkably and historically rich and talented. Missouri is one of the most diverse states in the nation, and both agriculture and tourism have joined forces to help showcase that fact.