Tri-State Fair & Rodeo

The coming of fall is a gradual revelation—a cooler morning here and there, a certain light and lightness of being we begin to notice with each passing day. 

The squash in the garden takes on a saffron hue, and maybe there’s a pumpkin that’s grown bigger and rounder than the rest. In the distance, when the wind is right, we might hear marching bands in training, knocking out the fight song. And maybe the distinct growl of a coach goading his squad to settle a score with a cross-town rival.

And then fall, riding the drift of fresh morning air, makes a show of its ultimate triumph where the squash and portly pumpkins join with marching bands and Friday night warriors to send summer on its way. For as long as I can remember, the Amarillo Tri-State Fair is fall, a vital cosmic process.

According to Panhandle historian Lana Payne Barnett, the first fair in Amarillo took place in 1903 on Llano Cemetery property. Fairs were held sporadically over the next few years until 1913, when the Panhandle State Fair opened at Glenwood Electric Park. Dignitaries from across the region were invited to speak at the opening, including my maternal great-grandfather, Albert Wesley Read of Memphis, sporting his grand champion mustache. 

The first fair to be known as the Tri-State Fair was held in 1923 on the grounds of the new Municipal Auditorium on Buchanan Street. The following year, Potter County purchased almost 130 acres between Southeast 10th and Southeast Third avenues abutting Grand Street on the east, and through a long-term agreement, the Fair made this east Amarillo setting its permanent home.

I grew up with the Fair because my father was a county agent—Texas A&M’s man in the field who brought the latest in agricultural research to far-flung farms and ranches. Some of my earliest memories involved riding with Daddy to gather stalks of milo and dried branches of opened cotton bolls to display at the Collingsworth County exhibit in the old Ag and Arts Building.

When that work was done, he would turn his attention to his 4-H kids’ steers across the way in the livestock pavilion, poofing their tails into an Aqua Net delight rivaling any Sunday hairdo sculpted in Wilma’s Beauty Box back home. 

Daddy’s gone now, and over the years, the Fair has been challenged by all the other amusements we’ve dreamed up. Granted, it can be a bit exhausting wrangling your kids for hours on the Midway, saying things like “you’re gonna puke that up” and being right about it. But we still go and spend our money because there’s nothing else like it.

We need this place where all the social strata can spill out into one big stream of sediment, yelling at their kids and reminding them where their food comes from in multiple languages. Because at heart, we’re all pumpkin farmers intent on a September payoff. And the Tri-State Fair is a reflection of where we’ve been and where we hope to go.  

Author

  • Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.