Centennial Celebration

Postcard, circa 1911, showing the then recently built pavillions

It was a relatively new century – a new age – and fairs were the bee’s knees. The Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition had been held in St. Louis just two years earlier, and state and county fairs were popping up everywhere. Not only did they provide a diversion for the entertainment-starved hinterlands, but in that age of invention and mechanization, the fairs provided a perfect meeting place for a public that was eager to witness those modern marvels and manufacturers that were eager to demonstrate them.

Especially agricultural machinery. The World War [WWI] loomed but had not yet erupted, so, still “down on the farm” and having not yet “seen Paree,” armies of young farmers contented themselves with visiting the fairs and taking home new notions that would revolutionize their lives and livelihoods.

A middle row of attractions bisects this quarter-mile-long midway

About that time, not coincidentally, a fellow named George Ferris had invented a dramatic new entertainment ride that was perfect for expo grounds, and the “spin-offs” of his big wheel soon included rides of enough variety and number to require lengthy esplanades called “midways” to accommodate the crowds they attracted.

In that environment, perhaps inevitably, the civic leaders of Shreveport proposed a fair for their city, but not just any fair. This fair would have to be such a big event that it would deserve the title of State Fair. The State Legislature reviewed the plans and bestowed the title, and the first annual Louisiana State Fair opened November 17, 1906, with enough demonstrations of modern day farm machinery and household contrivances, enough displays of exotic animals and prize livestock, enough sulky races, Little Egypt dancing girls and balloon rides, to attract a parade of dedicated fairgoers that has stretched across a century.

First place pears don a blue ribbon

Although sanctioned by state government, the big fair has existed autonomously, these past hundred years, as a private nonprofit enterprise, operated by a president/general manager and small year-round staff, with the support of a volunteer board of directors and, during the fair itself, throngs of volunteers.

By late September 2006, with the October 26 opening date of the Centennial fair fast approaching, workers have begun tweaking the lighting and sound system of the State Fair Grandstand to meet the specs of groups performing at this year’s big free shows, and little “big-tops” are rising here and there to accommodate smaller performances. From every direction, big trucks marked “Lowery Carnival Company” are traveling the interstates – destination Shreveport – bearing giant Erector Sets that will become spinning, swirling thrill rides, whose festive lights will create, for a time, a dazzling new nighttime skyline.

All the while, far away at quiet homes, farms and ranches throughout Louisiana, the expert hands of homemakers such as Ethel Kilgore of Haynesville are preparing entries for State Fair competitions – choice fruits and veggies for the art/science of glass-jar “canning” – and Future Farmers and 4H-ers including Lauren Tucker of Stanley High in Logansport are preening their “show” and “market” stock (sheep, goats, poultry, swine and, of course, beef and dairy cattle) to snag blue ribbons and top auction prices.

Although urban events, state fairs are built on the traditions of rural enterprise. “In fact, a fair without an agricultural base isn’t really a fair,” says long-time assistant manager and now State Fair General Manager Chris Giordano. “Your event has to have the animal and harvest aspects even to be considered for membership in the International Association of Fairs and Expos.”

Giordano was named to the top post earlier this year upon the death of his father, 14-year general manager Sam Giordano. “Mr. Sam’s” favorite slogan was “It’s not our fair, it’s your fair,” and his goal was to make each year’s fair as eye-appealing and enticing as any theme park, with meticulous grounds-keeping, hand-picked concessionaires and clean, safe rides.

The importance of the exhibits and competitions inspired the construction of handsome exhibit buildings from the very first. In less than a decade, the original frame structures had been replaced by impressive brick buildings – at the 30-year mark the fairgrounds could boast more than 23 permanent buildings.

The great copper-domed Hirsch Coliseum (for rodeos, ice shows, etc.) was built in 1954. Survivors from the ‘30s include the impressive Agriculture Building as well as the beloved State Exhibit Museum. Owned and operated by the State rather than the fair, the old circular museum, with its titanic outdoor Conrad Albrizio frescoes, opens its doors free of charge to fairgoers, proudly displaying not only the largest collection of Native American artifacts (Caddoan and others) to be seen in Louisiana, but also a famous series of exquisite 70-year-old miniature dioramas depicting Louisiana agricultural and industrial scenes. A special exhibit this year will tell the hundred-year story of the fair.

Other landmarks on the 157-acre Fairgrounds, both visible from adjacent Greenwood Road (U.S. 80) and Interstate 20, are Fairgrounds Field (home of the Shreveport Captains, farm club of the San Francisco Giants) and venerable State Fair Stadium, now called Independence Stadium to honor Shreveport’s audacious but successful mission to give America a respectable new bowl game. On December 27, the stadium will present this year’s Independence Bowl to a national TV audience, but many locals remember it more for its generations of high school football games and decades of annual State Fair clashes between archrivals Louisiana Tech and Northwestern State.

The midway scene remains unchanged through the years.

By the time the 2006 fair opens on October 26, the matriarch of the Kilgore clan of Haynesville will have entered 10 to 15 categories of the produce and canning competition at her local Claiborne Parish Fair, where she routinely scores a handful of blue ribbons. By then, she will have also entered those winners for judging at the State Fair. After that, things happen quickly. The first days, called Family Week, are really the most exciting time to see the fair – a week of dance-team, cheerleading and twirling competitions, not to mention the drama of the judging and ribbon fluttering at the Agriculture Building’s canning, quilting and arts competitions. Best of all, the stalls over at the stockbarns are filled with high-school students from throughout the state, currying their critters or just lolling with them on the fresh hay as they await the pleasure of the judges. That makes for a better petting zoo than a petting zoo, and the top-rated livestock will be auctioned on Wednesday, with state and regional companies bidding top dollar for the pleasure of claiming champion animals and providing what actually translates to serious scholarship money for the young owners.

Ethel and her husband J.R. both grew up on family farms in Claiborne Parish and they still enjoy planting a big garden every year and selecting their choicest produce for competition. “They really do the gardening and canning because they just love to feed that old-timey food to us five kids and our families,” says their son Keith Kilgore, who runs the drugstore in Haynesville and teaches art at Claiborne Academy (where he encourages the students to enter their paintings for judging at the State Fair.) “Mom enters the competitions because she feels like it supports the fair and because it helps preserve a way of life that’s slipping away, now that family farms are on the endangered list. Her only personal goal is winning enough premiums to pay for next year’s expenses, buying the Ball Jars and whatnot.”

Lauren Tucker of Stanley High in Logansport, showing a dairy cow – this year marks her last at the fair as a participant.

The big midway starts at the exhibit area, passes the Cattleman’s Steakhouse and a variety of fair-fare facilities, and then gets down to the serious business of fun and games – that is to say: rides, sideshows and games of skill (sort of). I was a regular fairgoer in the era of the 50th State Fair – a tyke oblivious to the significance of anniversaries – and back again for the 75th with two sons in tow – tykes, oblivious to anniversaries, perhaps genetically – and maybe their kids will have kids in time to be oblivious to the 125th. Nowadays, although the plastic duckies that youngsters grab from the float-by tank are wearing cool, modern sunglasses, the whole midway scene is incredibly unchanged. That voice on the loudspeaker, for instance: “Head of a girl and body of a spider … step right up!” That’s got to be the same guy! Moreover, that poor spider-girl must be getting a little long in the tooth herself! I’d always passed up the temptation before, but not this time. Despite the admission fee growing from “the tenth part of a dollar” to two whole bucks, I fork it over and go in to have a look … To think I’d been skeptical!

The midway is maybe a quarter-mile long, divided by a middle row of attractions, so by the time you hike up to the Goodtime Helicopter landing pad (adjacent to the Exhibit Museum) on one side and back again on the other, you’ve had an entire half-mile of thrill rides, Mystery House mirrors, cotton candy and baseball throws.

Along the way you might see Lauren Tucker hiking the midway with her mom, step-dad and brother – Lisa, Joey and Taylor Register – up from their J&L Farm near Logansport. They come several times during the fair, first to see cousins and friends from around the state enter their market cattle and smaller animals in the first week’s judging and auction, and again the next week, with her dad, Eugene Tucker – there for support – when she returns on for her own appearances in the dairy cattle and “showmanship” divisions. She’s been entering and winning such events since her single-digit years (always for the same sponsor: ToBev Farms in Gloster and its owner, “Louisiana Dairyman of the Year” Tommy Williamson.) Her recent big wins include: Grand Champion for Holstein and Senior Champion Showman at the 2004 State Fair, Supreme Champion and Supreme Champion Showman at the 2005 Black and White Sale and Show, and, at last year’s big LSU AgCenter competition, the title of Premier Dairy Exhibitor and selection as Louisiana delegate to the National 4-H Dairy Conference in Wisconsin.

The Centennial, however, will mark her last year at the fair as a participant, “And for a lot of other things,” says her mom. “When she graduates this year, it’ll be the end of her sports career as a softball pitcher and first-baseman, her career in ‘public office’ as three-year president of her 4-H Club, her dairy-judging career for FFA [Future Farmers of America] competitions and her veterinary career as after-school assistant at the DeSoto Vet Hospital.”

“At least I can still do the rodeos with my group roping team,” says Lauren, “and I’m shopping for a college major that’ll keep me involved with the cattle, maybe veterinary medicine or ag-business.” As she departs the dusty floor of the judging arena after her final division of the Holstein judging on November 5, a chapter ends for her and, seven days later, for the State Fair itself. The end of a century, but of course, at precisely the same time, another chapter and another century begin.

WILD 100
The fair runs Oct. 26-Nov. 12, and the big opening and closing Zambelli fireworks show,s and everything in between, is dedicated this year to the late general manager, Sam Giordano.

The Centennial’s “Wild 100” slogan translates to a western and frontier theme, complete with old-time Wild West Shows, chuck wagon cooking-and-singing demonstrations, an American Idol-style country sing-off and, perhaps most anticipated, a Mexican rodeo featuring bull riders who try to stay aboard for, not seconds but minutes, as mariachi bands play and sing. For competition and entertainment schedules, visit statefairoflouisiana.com or call (318) 635-1361.

Best Bets
Fair Pricing: First remember that the fair is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Then remember that there’s “Free till 3” (o’clock) parking and admission Wednesdays through Fridays (courtesy of local Channel 3 TV). Thursdays are also “Dollar Day,” all day, meaning (even after 3 p.m.) just a buck each to park, to enter and to ride each ride. Discounted simple admissions and pay-one-price admissions are for sale at Brookshire stores in Shreveport and Bossier City.

Best Advice: If you plan to travel up the old Angola Road (Hwy 66) any Sunday this October to see the Angola Prison Rodeo, time’s a-wastin’. Contact the rodeo right now at (225) 655-2008 or www.angolarodeo.com to buy your tickets, because it’s always an early sell-out.

Once there, it would be utter nonsense to miss the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum, housed in a cottage just outside the prison gates, with its actual electric chair, its gallery of prisoner art, its gruesome collection of prison-made weapons and its memorabilia of movies filmed at the prison through the years (Dead Man Walking, Monster’s Ball and many others.) Usually closed Sundays and Mondays, the museum promises to be open on all rodeo days.

Categories: Travel