By Danny Freeman
On August 7, 1913, the Northern Arizona Fair Association of the five northern counties was formally organized and the by-laws were adopted. A membership fee was set at $2.50, and within ten days two hundred had signed up. A board of directors of 25 was agreed upon, with five from each county: Yavapai, Mohave, Coconino, Navajo and Apache.
The first fair was held October 27, 28 and 29, 1913, on the Dougherty Tract near Prescott. The dates were chosen to allow four days for taking down the exhibits after the fair and getting them to Phoenix in time for the Arizona State Fair. The Santa Fe Railway played a big part in publicizing the 1913, fair as well as for others following. It gave special fares to people going to the fair as well as special rates to ship exhibits to the fair. The Santa Fe was happy to do this because its railroad crossed each of the five counties involved.
The fair made a profit and the board of directors bought the land where the fair had been held. Joe Dougherty owned the land and agreed to sell the fair association 45 acres at $100 an acre, and he also gave the association an option to purchase 40 additional acres to the west, but this option was never exercised. It so happened that the Cowboy Contests, now known as rodeo, had been held on these same Dougherty grounds in July, 1913, as had some horse races. For many years horse racing was part of the program at the cowboy sports events. From 1913, to the present, 1999, horse racing, rodeo and the county fair have been held on the same county fairgrounds.
The name was changed to Northern Arizona State Fair Association on January 7, 1919. In the new by-laws, article III read in part: "The business and purpose of said corporation is to advance the agriculture, mining, stock-raising and other interests of the Counties of Mohave, Coconino, Navajo and Yavapai...." It still retained 25 board members, five from each county. On July 8, 1955, new by-laws were adopted for a new name. The new and current name is "Yavapai County Fair Association." It is still a non-profit corporation with 25 on the board of directors.
Prescott Downs is not a separate organization - it is a part of the Fair Association. Its books are kept separate for tax purposes. Members of the Fair Association stress that the name is "Yavapai County Fair Association." The members never want the public to forget is main purpose is to put on the annual County Fair. Horse racing is where the money comes from to support the fair.
Horse racing started in Prescott in 1866, - the young town was only two years old, but there were enough horses and people in the area to run horses. Horse racing has been a popular sporting event for centuries. At first, and for many years, the races at Prescott were matched affairs with money changing hands on every race. The first pari-mutuel betting on horse races in Prescott was 1939, when it was added to the rodeo program. The pari-mutuel equipment was leased from Nevada. This was a one-year deal. In 1949 Arizona passed a law establishing the state racing commission to oversee pari-mutuel betting on horse and dog races in the state. The Fair Association entered into an agreement with the state for pari-mutuel betting in Prescott, and it is still in effect.
The Fair Association started out owning the fairgrounds, but during the Depression the land was given to the County to obtain federal assistance to build a new 5,000-seat grandstand and two rock buildings for exhibits. These buildings are known today as Doc Pardee and Freeman. On May 18, 1936, the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors formally accepted title to the ownership of the Northern Arizona State Fairgrounds and improvements thereon with a provision that a 25-year lease be given the NASFA to continue running things at the fairgrounds. As a result, since 1936, the county fairgrounds have been owned by the County but managed by the Fair Association. The leases have been renewed while today the Fair Association has a management agreement with the County. Since 1913, the Fair Association has managed the County Fairgrounds. As far as is known, this is the only County anywhere where the County fairgrounds are not managed by the County. Through the years very little County tax money has been spent on the Yavapai County Fairgrounds. The Fair Association generates funds necessary to maintain and run the fairgrounds.
During the Depression and WWII, no fair was held at the fairgrounds. The last fair was in 1932; then in 1947 a new Yavapai County Fair started up in September, and this has been an annual September event ever since out at the fairgrounds. During the 14-year period, 1933 through 1946, there was a County Fair Commissioner, Bill Bianconi, who gathered exhibits and entered them in the Yavapai County Fair booth at the State Fair in Phoenix. This arrangement resulted in no break in Yavapai County Fairs since 1913.
Soon to come will the moving of the county fair and horse racing (Prescott Downs) to new quarters in the northern part of Prescott Valley just east of Prescott on Highway 89A. The new grounds will be about 14 miles from the present fairgrounds. The Fair Association and Yavapai County are now in the process of purchasing land to move the facilities. The present grounds are just too small, especially for parking and exhibits. A longer race track is needed to attract better running horses. Prescott Frontier Days and the rodeo plan to stay at the old fairgrounds. When the move to Prescott Valley occurs, that will mark the end of a long bond of the County Fair, horse racing and rodeo. The separation will be hard on the old-timers who have been in the area for a number of years, but as they say - Time Marches On!
Several thousand people attend the Yavapai County Fair each September from all over the county and state - even some come from New Mexico and California. The annual county fair is planned and staged by volunteers - takes hundreds of volunteers to put on the fair. Some work off and on all year getting the premium book compiled, and checking on exhibits and exhibitors. But when it is all over, all concerned think it has been worthwhile and satisfying.
This is the 86th year of the fair and the Fair Association, 1913-1999. The Association has had three names, but its purposes have basically remained the same as when it started in 1913, except now it is for just one County, not five. The 1999 Yavapai County Fair will be at the fairgrounds September 23 through 26. Come and enjoy it!
Danny Freeman is a long time Supporter and Historian of the Fair and Prescott's World's Oldest Rodeo.