Adapted from A History of the Mid-South Fair by Emily
In the mid 1850s, the United States and Memphis were growing and changing.
Memphis’ location on the Mississippi River and its intersection with the rich
agricultural states, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, put the city in a
prime position to become an important distribution and merchandising center.
Agriculture and industrialization came together in Memphis. But during the time
Memphis was emerging as a major regional city, frontier conditions prevailed,
and there were not the kinds of transportation and communication links that
would come later. One of the main challenges of the time, in both the business
and social realms, was to find ways to meet and communicate with others in the
region. In response, the Shelby County Agricultural Society was formed in 1854
to promote the interest of not only local planters and farmers, but also those
of merchants and businessmen of the community.
In its second year of existence, the Society decided to stage their first fair
in the fall of 1856. The Shelby County Fair was very well received with fully
half of Memphis’ 12,000 residents attending. The aim of the Fair was to exhibit
the best in agricultural produce and the latest in machinery and inventions.
The emphasis of the exhibits was to be the “best and the latest,” which is
still the emphasis of present-day fair exhibits.
During the 1858 Fair, the enduring tradition of harness racing began. It
continued at the Fair until the 1930s, as the racetrack became increasingly
important part of the Mid-South Fair history. Many new attractions were added,
but the Fair was still not receiving the support in needed from the community.
In 1859, the Memphis Daily Appeal featured several articles on the highly
successful St. Louis fair, sighting that businessmen had large investments in
their fair and also received large returns. Other articles were written about
the social and personal benefits of the fair. Along with reduced admission
prices and the positive articles, attendance increased. By 1860, the fair had
finally become an important fixture in social and business life in Shelby
For anyone who has ever attended Memphis or Shelby County Schools, the 1870
Fair marked the beginning of another cherished tradition. It was the first year
the Mayor proclaimed a one-day holiday at all schools in order for children to
attend the Fair. Today, Memphis City Schools still celebrate this tradition by
releasing students early on the first Friday of the Fair. The Fair had lost
status and influence in the years immediately following the Civil War, but the
early 1870s it had once again regained popularity.
The four years between 1873 and 1877 were threatening years as the Fair was
faced with extinction when attendance dwindled because of the yellow fever
epidemic, and economic depression. A scaled down fair continued through the
1870s but the economic conditions of the area almost halted the annual event.
The period from 1880 to 1906 was a time of rebuilding for Memphis and the Fair.
In 1908 the Fair’s name was changed to the Tri-State Fair, in order to broaden
the areas served. New “special days” were featured that year, such as
Governor’s Day, Farmer’s Union Day and Children’s Day. New grounds
entertainment was also added and it was the first time the Fair had a
In 1911, prominent African-Americans founded, organized and ran their own fair
called the Negro Tri-State Fair. This was an important event in the
African-American community for decades until it was discontinued in 1959. Three
years later, in 1962, the Mid-South Fair once again became a unified event when
it was integrated.
During World War I, the Fair held its ground. The military even used the Fair
as an opportunity to recruit soldiers. A plan was also created during this time
to improve the grounds. The plan would make way for new buildings and an
The early 1920s brought reconstruction and expansion to the Fairgrounds,
including a midway. The amusement park called Joy Plaza was installed. In it
were two of the grandest rides of the time, the Zippin Pippin roller coaster
and the Grand Carousel merry-go-round.
In 1929, the Fair changed its name once again. This final time, it was named
The Mid-South Fair. In late October, the calm and contentment of that fall was
broken, when on October 29, the stock market crashed. Suddenly America was
thrown into economic turmoil. The Mid-South Fair struggled through the early
1930s, because of poor Fair attendance due to economic conditions.
The first championship rodeo was held in 1936. This new event was said to be
the first and only contest rodeo ever held in the South. It has evolved into
one of PRCA’s top rodeo championships, and one of Memphis’ traditions with a
Miss Rodeo Queen Contest and entertainment each night.
The Mid-South Fair was cancelled in 1942 because of World War II. The
Fairgrounds were used as camps from 1942 until 1946. Before the Fair reopened
in 1947, many improvements were made on the Fairgrounds. Buildings were rebuilt
and repairs to burned structures were made. In keeping with this new fair and
in response to the post-war baby boom, the Youth Talent Contest was created in
1953. The contest included several classes of talent including: vocal,
instrumental, dramatic, acrobatic, dancing and novelty.
In 1956 the Fair celebrated its 100th year. The climatic ceremony of the
Centennial Celebration was the time capsule being buried on the Fairgrounds,
which will be opened in 2056. The centerpiece of the event was the Centennial
Village, a Williamsburg-like replica of an 1856 town portraying the day-to-day
existence of its people.
The most memorable moment of the Centennial Fair was the surprise appearance of
Elvis Presley. Elvis had a penchant for the Fairgrounds, especially the Dodgem
Car rides and the Zippin Pippin roller coaster. He would rent the Fairgrounds
amusement park at midnight so that he and his friends could ride all night. The
amusement park was not the only attraction Elvis found at the Mid-South Fair.
He also admires the beautiful winners of the Miss Mid-South Fair and Youth
The late 1960s saw great change for the Mid-South Fair, from famous
entertainers like the cast of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Three
Stooges,” to the addition of the Miss Youth Personality Contest to big list of
events at the fairgrounds. The biggest change was the building of the Coliseum
in 1959, due to a crowd of over 8,000 people drawn by Roy Rogers and Dale
Evans’ performance. The rodeo was held in the Coliseum in 1966 for the first
time. On July 4, 1976, Libertyland Amusement Park was officially opened.
The fairs of 1990 and 1991 broke all past attendance records with 492,975
attendees in 1990 and 565,615 in 1991. Later in the 1990s, the children’s Lit’l
Buckaroos Barn was constructed. The barn is geared strictly towards children,
with interactive farm activities for the children to do.
Throughout the decades the Fair continued to grow, each year adding more
contests, events and entertainment. The present-day Mid-South Fair is changing
daily, with the modernizing and updating of the commercial exhibits and
From opening day in 1856 through the ups and downs of the present, the
Mid-South Fair is dedicated to educating and connecting the region to it
agricultural heritage; promoting local industry; providing safe, fun,
family-oriented entertainment; and rewarding agricultural and craft achievement
through an annual exposition.
*Yellin, Emily. A History of the Mid-South Fair. Memphis: Guild Bindery Press,