Aug 242011

By Linda Kor–

This year the Navajo County Fair celebrates its 80th year. The theme for this year’s fair is “The Little Fair That Could-80 Years of Celebration,” which is appropriate with all of the changes the fair has experienced through the years. It has grown to become not only a source of pride for Navajo County, but can boast one of the finest rodeo grounds in the western region of the United States.

The first Navajo County Fair had its start in the southern portion of the county in 1931, but moved to Holbrook in 1938 when land was deeded to the county for a fairgrounds facility at the county seat. Funds were made available through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to construct the new facilities, and within two months the grounds had an exhibition building, stock pens, racetrack and bleachers with an adobe wall on the west side of the facility. A year later a cow barn, horse barn, grandstands and temporary sheds for the show animals were built.

Through the years other facilities were added, such as a farm exhibit building under the grandstands and a livestock exhibit building, an adobe fence another unit of the grandstand and more stables. Gabe Martinez donated a large multi-purpose building and the Taylor Road Yard provided a partial building for the 4-H auctions. Additional outdoor lighting was installed and the midway was paved. A restroom facility was added, the 4-H pens were improved, and the list of completed projects grew over the years to make the facility what it is today.

As far back as 1944 it was noted in The Tribune-News that the fair included exhibits, a rodeo, a roping contest for sheriffs, agricultural and livestock exhibits, seven horse races each day, dances and a card of 26 rounds of amateur boxing, sponsored by the 20-30 Club.

Although both the boxing and the horse racing came to an end at the fairgrounds, the county fair has grown in other ways. When J.R. DeSpain began helping with the fair in 1973, he recalled that the operations were a little different.

“Way back then we had two boards, one for the fair and one for the races. Not long after I began helping out they were combined into one board, then the races were dropped altogether in the 1980s. We were losing money on the purse, the county had to make up the differences and the racing commission had begun to discourage county fairs from holding races,” recalled DeSpain.

It was in 1980 that the bylaws were formulated for a non-profit organization, Navajo County Fair Inc., and a fair office was established. It was also in 1980 that the county supervisors approved $300,000 in their budget for the first phase of construction for a new fairground facility on the south side of the Holbrook Governmental Complex east of Holbrook. Estimates for the building program would be between $4 million and $5 million, and federal grants would be utilized.

Despite the excitement of a facility and the expansion that had been planned, the project ultimately failed. “It ended up being too much money in the long run and Holbrook didn’t really support the idea because it would take the fair out of the city,” stated DeSpain.

The fairgrounds remained at their current location and now DeSpain believes that the grounds have been improved to the point where moving to any other location would not be beneficial. Each year the fairgrounds are improved and added upon. By next year another building, one as large as Martinez Hall, will be placed on the grounds and grant funds will provide much needed upgrades to the electrical system, allowing for the removal of utility polls and wires throughout the fairgrounds.

“The fair has come a long ways over the years. We may not have done it perfect, but it’s definitely better off. The fairgrounds are something for Navajo County to be proud of,” stated DeSpain.

Photo by Linda Kor

The Navajo County Fair celebrates its 80th year of bringing rodeo, exhibits, carnival and great entertainment to the county. The job has required many hands, but for the past 25 years keeping the fairgrounds looking great has been the job of Fairgrounds Foreman Jose Villareal, who was recently honored by the Board of Supervisors for his hard work.