Clay County Fair: Built on dreams, tradition

‘World’s Greatest’ County Fair

SPENCER — If not for the big dreams of a group of people more than a century ago, the Clay County Fair may never have achieved the title of “World’s Greatest County Fair.”

The fair only came about in September 1918 after the community took part in various homestead era fairs, ag society expositions, a state high-wheel-bicycle meet, a trotting association and community barbecues and picnics. Records show the first fair of that type took place in Spencer in 1871, just five years after pioneer settlers drove their covered wagons from Wisconsin to Spencer Grove.

It was located where the former administration building was located on the current fairgrounds.

The Clay County Agricultural Board was organized in that time, and in 1879 they announced it would hold its first fair that September, located northwest of Spencer on 30 acres of land. The Board of Supervisors allotted $200 to help build fences and buildings.

Ten years later the fair was successful enough to print a 64-page premium book, offering more than $2,000 in premiums. Both fairs that had been offered in Spencer until that time offered competitions in many areas, including livestock, manufacturing and mercantile displays.

Spencer merchants arranged for a Clay County Fair and Picnic in 1913. It took one steer to feed everyone, and the steer was cooked with the help of a threshing machine steam engine.

Four years later, the Clay County Fair Association completed Articles of Incorporation. The first Clay County Fair, as it is known today, took place in September 1918, just six weeks before the armistice of World War I.

The fair association was incorporated for $18,000. The land was purchased for an additional $12,000 along North Grove Street, currently Fourth Avenue West, where the fair sits today.

First Clay County Fair

The first official fair in 1918 drew more than 30,000 people and took in gate receipts of $16,000. Since World War I was going on, the fair had a military feel, with grounds policed by Iowa National Guard soldiers.

Gov. W. L. Harding visited the first day as a guest of honor. Events from that first fair included a military drill, a trapeze act from Dare Devil Rich and a greased pole climb. It also featured vaudeville acts, pillow fights and wrestling matches, in addition to popular bands of the day.

A funeral of sorts was conducted following the end of 1918 Clay County Fair, with full military honors, including the firing of a farewell salute of three rounds over the remains of that fair.

It was meant to honor the success of the fair, and denote that it was part of Clay County history.

The first official Clay County Fair in 1918 was one of 93 fairs that took place around the state that year. It was ranked in several categories, including fifth in ticket sales at the outside gates, sixth in grandstand sales, third in amount of money on hand as of Nov. 1, 1919, and second in profits f the year, beaten only by the Inter-State Fair in Sioux City.

Just three years after it became an official county fair, the press referred to it in 1920 as “Iowa’s Greatest County Fair,” and premium books carried that slogan through the 1928 fair.

The fair was enjoyed by 110,105 people in 1928, and was then deemed the “World’s Greatest County Fair,” just before the Great Depression struck.

Other highlights

The current grandstand was constructed in 1931. Over the years, it has featured artists including Red Skelton, Bob Hope, George Strait, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Music genres that have performed include rock and roll, hard rock and Christian.

Weddings were conducted in front of the grandstand from 1932 to 1938 as the finale to the Hollywood Revue.

The first Clay County Fair Queen, Althea Stuhr, of Everly, was crowned in 1939.

The fair was suspended from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II, and in 1947, the Smoky Mountain Railroad debuted in the KICD building, replacing the featherless chicken display.

New automobiles were showcased under the grandstand following the end of WWII. New buildings were constructed as well, including an indoor show arena with bleachers, 4-H barns for swine and dairy as well as a dormitory, open cattle barn and a National Guard building.

That same year an airfield was laid out on property north of the fairgrounds for the Flying Farmers group. It was a group of men who learned to fly during the war and were honored guests at the fair.

The historic east gate was repaired in 1952. The Commercial Exhibits building was built in 1954, and in 1958, more than 2,000 high school band musicians performed on the fair’s first Band Day.

The fair increased to seven days in 1961, the same year the first rodeo was held.

Attendance surpassed 200,000 for the first time in 1963.

In 1968, the fair was extended to eight days.

The Girls 4-H and Textile buildings opened in 1970.

In 1984, the fairgrounds were damaged by a tornado. Eight years later, in 1992, the Varied Industries Building was constructed. Three years after that, in 1995, the fair saw 300,000 guests for the first time.

The original Grandpa’s Barn was built in 2011, and was made into a permanent structure in 2018.