Preserving history

Hannah Gross, NLJ Correspondent

Photos courtesy of Weston County Historical Society

Dennis Dixon shakes hands with his son Dwight after receiving the “Champion” trophy for his livestock, above, in this historic photo from the Weston County Fair.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” For as long as most people can remember, the Weston County community has been coming together every August at the Weston County Fairgrounds to celebrate the county fair. 

What most people might not know, however, is the history of how the fair and fairgrounds developed in Weston County. 

According to Dr. Michael Jording, president of the Weston County Historical Society, the fair is a large part of the history of Weston County because it captures the rural, rodeo lifestyle that characterizes the western upbringing of so many of its residents. Although Weston County may be small, many renowned cowboys and cowgirls have been produced here, he said, as well as a number of Miss Rodeo Wyoming Queens. 

“There’s a tradition I thought we needed to document not only for the facilities, but there’s also these cowboys and cowgirls that were champions,” Jording said. “It’s important for me to know about their lifestyle. I can appreciate them better if I know who they are and their achievements.”

Jording believes the success of these rodeo champions is built on the history of the rural culture and beautiful facilities.

“This fairgrounds is a gem,” said Linda Hunt, who headed up the research for the Historic Stampede Street tour off the Newcastle Bike path. 

While she was researching information about Stampede Street, Hunt also dug up the history of the fairgrounds, which she considered the “second phase” of the project. With the sponsorship of Powder River Energy Foundation and First State Bank, there are now two signs posted at the fairgrounds sharing its history with all who enter the grounds. 

In 1904, the first Weston County Carnival and Fair was hosted by the Lion’s Club and American Legion, according to the sign posted by the fairgrounds office. The Weston County Fair Association was formed in 1907, but a fair was held sporadically at various buildings in town because the fairgrounds did not exist yet.

According to Jording’s research, some of the sporting events held in the early years included horse races, foot races, ball games, balloon ascension, pulling contests and rough riding competitions. Other events throughout the years included a “grand ball at city hall” and a barnyard golf tournament. Farmers would bring in samples of grains, grasses and other vegetables to display. At this time, prize money was funded by private donors and local businesses, and in 1908, the premium list totaled $2,000. 

World War I canceled the fair for several years, but in 1915, which first records the name change to “Weston County Fair,” local exhibits were sent to the Wyoming State Fair for the first time. Two years later, George Holmstead became the first agent of the Agriculture Agency, and he brought 4-H to Weston County in 1919. 

There were no fairs held from 1920 to 1924, but when it picked back up in 1925, Weston County produced winning entries at the state fair. With 613 entries, 1927 marked the first year that the Weston County commissioners provided monies from the county budget for $200 in prize money. 

The severe droughts caused by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s put a damper on the county fair for a number of years, but it was revitalized in 1935 when the Kilpatrick brothers from Nebraska donated the 36 acres, known as “Kilpatrick Park” in their honor, to Weston County. 

According to the signs posted at the fairgrounds, a half-mile racing track was built, and the first annual fair, called “Black Hills Western Gateway Celebration” debuted with an air show, baseball games, dances, horse riding shows and horse races. Hunt said the stone wall around the track is the only original part of the fairgrounds left. 

In 1937, the commissioners renamed Kilpatrick Park as the Weston County Fairgrounds and organized a committee to make rules, carry out the regulations and oversee activities. The old name has made a recent comeback, however, as those working on the Historic Stampede Street tour decided to rededicate the green space at the fairgrounds as Kilpatrick Park and recently put up a new Kilpatrick Park sign.

Around that same time as the name was changed, a new grandstand and 18 stable stalls were built, and the two-day county fair was held. It reportedly brought in 2,500 people, according to Jording’s research. The Weston County Fair was held in conjunction with the Western Gateway Rodeo, and the exhibits were displayed under the grandstand. By 1939, a stone building for fair exhibits and a new livestock building were constructed. 

The first beef show was held in 1946, and two years later, 15 market steers were sold at the market livestock for 43 cents per pound. Fred Perino was the auctioneer at the event, and he continued calling auctions for 52 years.

At the Aug. 8, 1947, Western Gateway Rodeo, one of the bulls escaped the arena and ran all the way to town before it was caught. Jording said he heard the bull even knocked over a lady who sustained impressive injuries. On the official program for the rodeo, a handwritten note was added in the top left corner. 

“This is all real! No playing. A bull got out. Cowboys chased him all over before they got him back!” the note reads. 

The first annual Weston County Junior Rodeo was in 1954. Buzz Fordyce and Jonna Bennet were the first all-around junior rodeo cowboy and cowgirl. The Weston County Fair went down in history two years later when Sharon Kay Ritchie, the Miss America of 1956, came to town. The city of Newcastle presented her with a small horse trailer, and George Butler of Butler Studios captured photographs of Ritchie visiting with the local 4-H clubs. 

“I think the appearance of Miss America is a testimony to the type of rodeo Weston County has,” Jording said. 

The four seasons indoor arena was constructed in the 1980s, and the Friends of Fair was organized in 1990. In 2011, then-Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead visited Newcastle to speak at the ribbon cutting of the Weston County Events Center. 

Fair hasn’t always looked the same, but it has always been a part of Weston County heritage and is something for the whole community to participate in. Jording said he enjoyed reading the names of local rodeo champions because he noticed that several did not have a ranching background, yet they still had the opportunity to learn the cowboy way of life. He credits that to the fair and fairgrounds. 

“I was barely a want-to-
be. City boys like me did not have much exposure to the county fair, and it was more a novelty each August. My interest now is from an historical perspective and an appreciation for the rural way of life. Whether we are city folk or not, all our lives weave together,” Jording said.

For more information on fair events for 2022, see story on Page 11.

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