Benton County Fairgrounds

By Larry Horton

Entertainment from Days Gone By

For many of the natives, the Benton County Fair was once one of the highlights of the year.

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The Benton County Fair started in Rogers in the late 1880’s but moved to Bentonville with the beginning of the Bentonville Fruit Fair on October 28, 1902. Many of the other towns in the area had been having fruit fairs, so Bentonville decided to get on the band wagon and host their own. It was a way for the orchardist and gardener to display the best of their crop.

The first fruit fair was held on the lot where the courthouse currently sits, on the east side of the square. Later, carnival type attractions were added, such as a Ferris Wheel. Many years later it was moved to SW 8th and Main, where the Bentonville Academy had once stood. The location had been used by Bentonville Schools until 1928 when the new high school was completed on NW 2nd Street.

One of the old buildings that used to be the home of Bentonville High School.

One of the old buildings that used to be the home of Bentonville High School.

The county fair was a grand institution. Everyone, literally, showed up to see and be seen. It was a chance for those who didn’t come to town as a general rule to meet and greet old friends and neighbors, and show them how prosperous the year had been to them. My memories are from the 60’s and 70’s, when the fair came to town and set up on Tuesday, usually the second week of September. Wednesday was the night of the selection of the Benton County Fair Queen. Friday was “old-timer’s day” when the older folks got in for free. Finally, the kids always got a day out of school on Friday – the first day off after the summer break - and we were always excited by the prospect. Friday was the day of the fair parade through the middle of town, and those who weren’t in it, watched it.  The fair closed on Saturday, usually late in the evening. We were all worn out from going to the fair every day.

There were all sorts of categories. Livestock included cows, pigs, sheep, rabbits, and horses. Home-made jellies and jams, quilts, art – you name it, the fair had it. The old buildings that housed the exhibits were lined up along Main Street as pictured above. Some were original buildings from the school grounds with wood floors and walls and smelled of “old.” We would run in and out of the buildings every day, checking out whatever was new, and then hit the midway, which by the mid 60’s was filled with the typical carnival games and rides.

Several of the local social groups had food stands in the middle section of the west side. The Masons, Kiwanis, and Rotary Clubs all played a prominent role in the cooking. The hamburgers were the best and I know a of lot of people who went just to get a “Fair-Burger.”

One of the more interesting side notes in the fair history, to me, is the company that put the carnival on starting in the mid-1950’s until the 2000’s. Sonny Meyers Exposition and Bill Dillard shows was the company that did the midway and rides for the fair. Sonny Meyers was a champion wrestler from Missouri and Dillard was his brother-in-law. Meyer invested some of his money in the carnival business and Dillard managed it before finally buying out the whole thing. I guess Meyers was schooled in showmanship and brought it to the midway for everyone to have a look-see.

Finally, the one part of the fair that intrigued me, as a kid – The Willie G. Jones Hot Pants Show. This exhibition was in the northeast corner of the midway. Hidden behind a garishly painted façade, this heavenly garden of earthly delights was present every year. I never got to go in, but boy I wanted to!

The days of the fair being the highlight of the year are long gone. The fairgrounds were moved to Vaughn in the early 2000’s and with it went the nostalgia and the excitement. School no longer has a free day on fair-Friday. There are so few farmers and farm wives that the display of home made goods is almost an after-thought, as many of these items have been relegated to the various local arts and crafts fairs.

But those memories of the old fairgrounds are still fresh and those who remember the buildings and what happened there can be considered old-timers by now.

The Benton County Fair is held every year at 7640 Regional Airport Blvd. In 2017 it is August 8th through 12th.  I encourage you to go with your kids or parents and make new memories.