That time of year has returned. You smell hot dogs and funnel cakes filling the air as you walk toward the gate. Handing over your ticket, you hear all of the familiar sounds: live music, mechanical rides banging and vendors coercing young boyfriends to "win a prize for the lady." Then, you enter the fairgrounds at Expo Square for a fast-paced night of fun.
The annual Tulsa State Fair quickly approaches again with the Expo Square opening its gates for approximately one million visitors on Oct. 1 (always falling the fourth Thursday after Labor Day) for 11 days of shopping, food and, of course, rides.
It's definitely a place for families and, especially, kids to take part. Local mom, Amy Scott, attends with her children Ashley and Jaden every year.
"It's a family tradition for us," Scott said. "I love the rides. The kids love going." Ashley enjoys the arts and crafts and loves to look at all the things people make. Jaden takes after his mother in his love for the rides. "He wants to ride everything," Scott said, "even the ones he's not big enough for." But, while the Scott family has attended the Tulsa State Fair for the past nine years, the history of the event started long before.
The first fair was held before statehood and long before it gained stature as a state fair, even. The Tulsa State Fair Web site pinpoints the event's first year as 1903 at an old baseball park on North Archer carrying the theme, "A Street Fair and Carnival."
Local farmers got the first fair off the ground with a four-day event that brought rides, food and, strangely enough, a public wedding to Tulsa. This was the first highly publicized event in the area with rides, even though there had been several street fairs held in Tulsa since the 1890s, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Back then, the activities stirred Tulsans up, as they could go to the fair and enjoy a 100-foot-tall Ferris wheel, singing, dancing and acrobats.
In 1926, the fair moved to its current location that Tulsans recognize as today's fairgrounds, but it didn't look the same back then. Originally, the empty area's sole purpose was to be used for the fair, but after a $3 million project got underway, the International Petroleum Exposition - or, rather the Expo Center - made a home in 1966, and not only hosted the fair, but several other events year-round.
In 1931, a half-million dollar bond issue passed to improve and expand the fair, and this allowed for it to gain "state fair" status four years later. But it wouldn't always serve as a high point in the fair's history.
The fair hit a low point in the 1940s with no state fairs being held between 1941 and 1943 due to World War II.
Tulsa's fairs were not the only ones that fell into peril as other fairs, such as the Iowa State Fair and the Arkansas State Fair remained closed or cancelled during wartime, too.
That did not stop the tradition from moving forward in 1944. The Tulsa State Fair reappeared and held a livestock show that year, but there were no rides or attractions to see. The livestock shows have always been the starting base of several state fairs, but it was hard to picture a Tulsa State Fair without rides.
Mark Andrus, current CEO/ President of Expo Square, said, "There were a lot of amusement ride companies (back then) that usually traveled the country that didn't because of the gas rationing at the time."
One Tulsa World newspaper article from 1980 said that the Tulsa State Fair "degenerated into a second-rate, 5-day event" during the 1940s, but it praised those people who took over late in the decade. Whether it was the management, World War II, or a combination of the two that caused the temporary decline of the Tulsa State Fair, Tulsans soon got to see it return to its glory.
The Tulsa State Fair had always had its own small livestock show as a part of the events. In 1949, however, the fair joined with a larger, local livestock show, which made a strong impression on the current tradition.
In 1957, the year's fair took on a salute to Oklahoma's 50th anniversary as a state with the theme "Oklahoma's Golden Anniversary Exposition." But the following year started a rising benchmark for the fair itself as annual attendance grew to reach 600,000, according to the state's historical society. It was numbers like these that led to the 1965 Tulsa State Fair being the tenth largest in the United States, with 856,497 fairgoers.
In 1966, the same year that the Expo Center was constructed, the Golden Driller was donated to the Fair and moved to its current location. A true Oklahoma landmark, and now a state monument, the Golden Driller, which was built in 1953, is 76 feet tall and weighs 43,500 pounds. It might be a quirky sight, but when arriving at the fair grounds, the Golden Driller is the first thing visitors see.
Bumped and Bruised
Unfortunately, after years of the fair going off without a hitch, one did come. The Tulsa State Fair had a long tradition of themed fairs and had never run into any big problems. But in 1987, what the fair board thought would be a tribute to Oriental culture quickly turned sour.
Several ads had been printed for that year's upcoming fair that said "The Orient Expressed," with a picture of a pig with exaggerated Oriental features wearing a coolie hat. Many Tulsans, however, did not take these ads well, and the Fair board spent more than $15,000 to recall posters and cover billboards. They also tried to make amends with Tulsans with an apology to the city.
"All the planets lined up perfectly against us, and the theme didn't work out," Andrus said. "It wasn't well conceived, and it wasn't well received."
The fair didn't stop, though, and went on to provide all 11 days of entertainment.
Without any other advertising fiascoes, the Tulsa State Fair bounced back and continued to hold the annual event, entering the 21st century among the 12 largest fairs in the nation, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.
The Tulsa State Fair hit another roadblock in 2007, though, with the exit of Bell's Amusement Park, which had been a part of the fair since 1951. Attendance was down, sales were down and Tulsans were furious. Bell's, remembered as one of Tulsa's most treasured traditions of the Fair, was denied a lease renewal before the 2007 fair. Attendance for the fair dropped heavily that year.
The fairgrounds CEO at the time, Rick Bjorklund, said in a report that he thought Bell's shutting down had nothing to do with the decline. Local blogs said otherwise. Blogs and forums on the subject from 2007 all carried posts, such as "With Bell's gone all you have is a carnival," and some even accused Bjorklund of "throwing out the facts" because they didn't fit his theory. Many comments on news stories show discontent as well. Tulsans spoke out publicly about Bell's discontinuance in the media, too.
"I've attended the fair in Tulsa every year since 1976, but because of the reprehensible way Bell's was treated, neither I nor my family will be going this year or any year after," wrote a man from Owasso on a Tulsa World online story.
Tulsans' contempt for the fair didn't last long, though. Last year's fair had the highest paid gate revenue ever recorded for the event. Approximately 915,000 fairgoers attended, and, according to Gerald Young, who has worked at the fair since the 1970s, the fair was among the top 15 in the nation.
After 106 years, families still come to enjoy what has become one of the largest fairs in the country. Each year people travel from all 77 Oklahoma counties as well as more than 800 exhibitors come to experience the Tulsa State Fair.
But, what does paying an $8 or $10 gate admission -- depending on what time of the week you go -- get a fairgoer in 2009? This year, there are concerts each night, which are free with gate admission. Many bands hop onto the Oklahoma stage during the 11-day event, including Everclear on Saturday, Oct. 3 and Shinedown on Oct. 10. One new thing at the Oklahoma stage this year is VIP seating. To sit in these exclusive front row seats or four rows behind means coughing up between $15 and $20, depending on the show. These tickets are available now on the Tulsa State Fair Web site, but if you're looking to score those seats for Shinedown, you're already out of luck. Other concerts this year include Grady Nichols, the Charlie Daniels Band and MercyMe. Amanda Blair, a first-time fair manager, has her eye squarely on the prize for this year.
"(We have) to make sure we meet expectations," Blair said. "Our job is to provide a quality product at a value. We've been in the business for over 100 years, so we have to continue being creative and thinking outside the box."
One of the outside-of-the-box ideas the fair board came up with this year is the Full Moon Dueling Pianos in the Budweiser Beer Garden. Starting at the Full Moon Café, the "Dueling Pianos" are the only rock-and-roll dueling piano act in Tulsa. Pay special attention to the rivalry going on as two of the dueling players are from OU and OSU.
Event decorator for the Tulsa State Fair Kim Cooper has not only attended the dueling piano acts but supports them whole-heartedly.
"They incorporate tunes that everyone knows," Cooper said. "It is a musical, comedy and audience participation act. You get to be a part of it."
Also new this year is three new animal exhibits: the Fishing Experience, Cool Dogs and Swifty Swine Racing Pigs.
The racing pigs might be new to the Tulsa State Fair, but not to the performance circuit as they travel all over the country nine months out of the year. Plus, the quick, small pigs have a driving incentive: a delicious Oreo cookie for the winner.
"They live better than I do," said Zach Johnson, founder of the company. "I don't get an Oreo every day." As an added bonus for the internal animal-lover, these pigs still have a home following their racing careers as they're donated to the 4-H club or FFA organizations, rather than a meat market.
"By the time we've finished racing with them, they are like family," Johnson said. "This way, we know they're taken care of, and we're giving back to the kids."
Many of those 4-H and FFA members involve young Tulsans who participate in the fair, too. Several traditions have made their mark in the Tulsa State Fair for more than half a century, some dating as far back as 1903. The livestock show has been a crucial part, where young people have been able to gain experience for one of their true passions. Broken Arrow senior, Samie Gleason, has been a part of the 4-H and FFA programs as well as the Tulsa State Fair since her freshman year. Gleason said she has worked with animals all of her life, starting on her grandparent's farm when she was young.
"I wake up at 5am every morning to go and feed my animals before school," Gleason said. "It's a lot of time and dedicaton." Gleason said she has learned responsibility and time management from being involved in the program, too.
Fair manager Amanda Blair takes note of the involvement from youth in the program.
"It helps mold young individuals into what they become in the future," Blair said. The school-aged workers are proud to be involved, Blair said, and already have highly developed work ethics.
Traditions meets Modern
While keeping with tradition remains important, the Tulsa State Fair prides itself on changing with the times. Every year, they aim for a new, fresh approach such as with this year's theme of "Flying High."
Kim Cooper, Tulsa State Fair Decorator and owner of Queen of Events, said the idea was tossed around soon after last year's fair came to a close and was soon picked to be the all-encompassing theme for the fair.
Around two weeks before the start of the fair, Friends of the Fair, a separate entity from the fair itself, holds a gala to help raise money for the following year's events. Usually the theme for the gala and the theme for the fair itself are separate, but this year the gala, the advertisements and the fair all carried the same theme. "The theme just really flows this year," Cooper said.
Tulsans and visitors can check out the theme in action at the fair, too. An aerial show presents dancers dangling from scarves high above the sky, or maybe a roof, as they perform in the QuikTrip Center. There will be four dancers performing at different intervals during the last half of the fair, starting Oct. 5.
With new attractions and exhibits like these, it isn't hard to believe that planning for this year's fair kicked off directly after the 2008 fair came to a close. Cooper said that the Tulsa State Fair is the biggest event she works on all year.
"It is a huge production pulled off with the precision of a skilled surgeon," Cooper said.
The fair staff has a lot on their plate throughout the year as they must map out the location of every vendor and game, sell booths, design decor and schedule maintenance crews.
"It says a lot for the Expo that we can produce an event so well with all of the changes and restructuring that have occurred in the last year," Cooper said. Fair manager Blair agrees that they stay busy year-round to keep everything exciting and current. Young, a 30-year fair worker, also noted that the Tulsa State Fair differs from many fairs because its staff works year-round on just the fair, while Expo Square has its own staff. Blair stressed, however, that it didn't need to be new to be fun.
The Tulsa State Fair keeps its reputation as one of the best fairs in the nation by balancing new innovative activities with strong traditions. Every year, it falls directly in front or behind the Oklahoma State Fair as the largest fair in Oklahoma (each having attendance around one million each year), and often ranks as one of the top in the nation. So, what makes it different from other fairs?
"We're the best fair in the country," said Young. "The Tulsa State Fair has always been a major fair. I think it's our livestock program and our carnivals." Blair credits it to the excellent facilities, which she calls some of the most up-to-date in the country.
The new developments that Vision 2025 enabled on the fairgrounds have made a good event even better. Millions of dollars have been spent to expand, update and improve the Tulsa State Fair. Blair thinks the future is bright and hopeful because they keep their focus on what is important. Mark Andrus, current CEO of the fairgrounds, however, thinks the future of the fair is bright and hopeful in large part because of Blair. "She is a huge asset," said Andrus, who hired Blair. "It's the single best decision I've made since I've been here."
"We always make sure there is something for everyone," Blair said. When this year's event is over, the Tulsa State Fair staff will start working hard on plans to make the 2010 fair even better.
One interesting new display for next year is a historical exhibit dedicated to the history of Expo Square and the Tulsa State Fair.
"Lately, we've been so consumed by the present we haven't had much time to think about our past or our future," Andrus said. "We want to get back to focusing on that.
"My best fair memories? They'll be the ones I have this year. I love this place," Andrus said. "We're here and (doing) well today, and we'll be even better tomorrow."
As a long-going tradition that has been around for more than a century, don't expect for it to go away any time soon. "We're really doing this for the right reasons," Andrus said. He keeps his focus on keeping the fair "clean, safe, friendly and fun," and is confident that it will keep Tulsans coming back for more years to come.
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