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The Saline County Fair and Rodeo is considered one of the oldest continual annual fairs in Arkansas, with roots going back to a small gathering at Riverside Park in Benton (Saline County) in 1908. In comparison, the first Arkansas Livestock Show—later changed to the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show—was held in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1938, although there were other efforts to create a state fair in the later part of the nineteenth century. Since its inception, the Saline County Fair has grown to include a parade, a full rodeo, livestock sales, games, carnival rides, contests, live music, and exhibits showing off locally made products. Since the beginning, the Saline County Fair has been managed and funded by the Saline County Fair Association.
The first Saline County Fair Association was formed in the summer of 1908, and the first annual fair was held on September 29–30, 1908, at Riverside Park in Benton. The parade lined up at the corner of Narroway and Market Streets in downtown Benton to the fairgrounds, which in 1908 were on East Street. There were forty-nine units in the parade, including twenty-four floats. George A. Zinn was parade marshal, and a reported 3,000 people participated in the parade.
On April 11, 1911, the Jonesboro Daily Tribune reported that the Saline County Fair that year “was well represented in the way of farm products, livestock, poultry, and hogs.” The article said that Saline County was one of the “banner stock counties of the state, and at least 20 farmers competed for prizes on hogs and cattle.”
The Saline County Fair was home to some unusual exhibits during the Great Depression. For example, the 1931 fair opened on October 2 and featured a baby clinic at which a reported forty babies were examined; eleven were given blue ribbons. Myrtle Westbrooks was crowned queen by Congressman D. D. Glover, who also gave a short talk on the “cotton situation.” In 1932, the fair opened at Harmony Grove in Haskell (Saline County) on October 7–8, the only time it took place outside Benton.
During World War II, the Saline County Fair blossomed. On October 24, 1941, a reported 3,000 people attended the Saline County Fair parade. Speakers that afternoon were John L. McClellan of Camden (Ouachita County), Attorney General Jack Holt, County Judge Charles O. Smithers, and John L. Hughes of Benton. By 1942, the Gazette reported that several counties would probably not have fairs for economic reasons, but on July 10, 1942, the Saline County Fair Association “appeared to be undecided, intimating the show might be held if the people want it.” In 1945, it was reported that twenty-three home demonstration clubs in Saline County had pledged to continue their programs at the fair despite the war.
As the fair expanded, new larger grounds were needed. In 1950, the fair was held in rented tents at Tyndall Park in Benton. On May 5, 1951, J. G. Gerard, chairman of the Saline County Fair Association, announced that the quorum court had appropriated $50,000 to purchase land and put up new buildings.
On August 29, 1951, the Arkansas Democrat announced that the Saline County Fair Association had purchased thirty acres of the Louis Thomas property on the Malvern Highway, (Highway 67) and 2.5 acres of Gerard’s property, on which a livestock barn was located.
In 1952, Sheriff Pat Berry and Judge Ernest Maner took measures against alleged gambling operations at the fairgrounds. The Garland County Sheriff’s Office received several complaints of large sums of money being lost by residents in “questionable games of chance” at the fair. Warrants were issued for the proprietors of Shaffer Shows, who had provided games to the 1952 Saline County Fair. Judge Maner ordered the closing of “objectionable booths” at the fair and made it clear that future gambling would not be tolerated. The Saline County Fair Association reported that it was unaware of the concessions connected with the shows at the time the contract was made with Shaffer Shows.
The Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) donated a 75' x 100' exhibits building to the Saline County Fair Association on July 2, 1953. The aluminum-sided building cost a reported $18,000 and was built on the southwest corner parallel to Highway 67. By August 27, 1953, Alcoa’s exhibits building was completed, and a new entrance to the fairgrounds was built near Holland Chapel to allow parking without clogging the highway.
In 1954, a $65,000 National Guard Armory and a Motor Storage building were built, with facilities available for use by the annual fair in return for a site for the armory. Governor Orval Faubus took part in the opening parade in 1955, and a new concrete structure was added to house a rodeo. In 1958, Interstate 30 bisected Highway 67/70 in Benton. In the twenty-first century, the Saline County Fairgrounds are located alongside the interstate.
Every year, the opening of the Saline County Fair is marked with a parade through the Benton Commercial Historic District. Floats represent Saline County schools, clubs, churches, and political candidates, as well as local police and fire departments. Attendance in 2017 was around 26,000.
For additional information:
“3,000 View Parade Opening Fair at Benton.” Arkansas Gazette, October 25, 1941, p. 10.
“Aluminum Company of America Donates Exhibit Building to Saline County Fair Association.” Benton Courier, July 2, 1953, p. 1.
“Baby Clinic Features Saline County Fair.” Arkansas Gazette, October 4, 1931, p. 2.
“Carnival at Saline County Fair Runs True to Form—Gambling Concessions Closed by Court Order.” Benton Courier, September 18, 1952, Section Two, p. 1.
“Fair Association Formed.” Arkansas Gazette, July 14, 1908, p. 2.
“Fair Kicks off Today.” Saline Courier, September 4, 2018. Online at https://www.bentoncourier.com/content/fair-kicks-today (accessed January 30, 2019).
“Here’s How the County Fair Was Celebrated Forty-Five Years Ago.” Benton Courier, September 10, 1953, p. B1.
“Hundreds of Awards Made for Individual Exhibits at Saline County Fair.” Benton Courier, September 10, 1953, p. B1.
“Largest Parade in County’s History Opens Fair.” Benton Courier, September 3, 1953, pp. 1, 6.
“Saline Armory to Start Soon.” Arkansas Democrat, June 25, 1954, p. 9.
“Saline County Fair.” Jonesboro Daily Tribune, April 11, 1911, p. 6.
Saline County Fair and Rodeo. http://www.salinecountyfairgrounds.com/ (accessed January 30, 2019).
“Saline County Fair Opens.” Arkansas Gazette, September 30, 1908, p. 1.
“Saline County Fair Opens at Harmony Grove Today.” Arkansas Gazette, October 7, 1932, p. 6.
“Saline County Fair Set for September 2–5.” Benton Courier, August 27, 1953, p. 1.
“Saline Fair Plans New Fairgrounds.” Arkansas Gazette, May 5, 1951, p. 4B.
“Saline Fair Site Acquired.” Arkansas Democrat, August 29, 1951, p. 2.
“Saline Sees Fair Record.” Arkansas Democrat, August 28, 1955, p. 6.
“Soil Erosion Camp for Saline County Sought.” Arkansas Gazette, August 3, 1935, p. 2.
“Stock Fairs in Arkansas Will Continue.” Arkansas Gazette, July 10, 1942, pp. 1, 12.
“Women Exhibit Articles in Saline County Fair.” Arkansas Gazette, November 9, 1941, p. 63.
Yarbrough, Anna Nash. “Benton Turns Unsightly Gravel Pit into City Park.” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine, October 29, 1950, p. 44.
Cody Lynn Berry
Last Updated 1/30/2019
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