PROVIDED PHOTOS - Special thanks to Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum for help sourcing archival photos

In 1923, Amarillo was a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. She was the debutante shucking her braces and shopping for a ball gown, or the young buck with a bottle of cologne and change in his pocket. Amarillo was growing up and deciding what kind of city she would be.

The witnesses to Amarillo’s high-flying 1920s have passed on, but two long-lived civic institutions celebrating centennials this year and next provide a few clues as to what Amarilloans of a century ago hoped to leave behind. One organization is the earthy and dusty Tri-State Fair. The other is the elegant Amarillo Symphony. These two different institutions cultivate two different visions, but both tell a story about who we were, who we are, and who we might still become.

Building in the Boom Years

In the summer of 1923, a group of civic leaders chartered the Amarillo Tri-State Exposition, hoping to draw on the successes of earlier regional fairs that were held in the city and establish a solid framework for an annual event to celebrate and promote the region’s agricultural expertise. The first Tri-State Fair took place in September that year on Buchanan Street, in and around the old Municipal Auditorium. Today, it’s the site of the city’s Centennial Plaza.

By that point in the city’s history, the oil and gas industry had become ascendant, flooding the city with newfound wealth and a taste for the finer things. Not long after the first Tri-State Exposition, the Amarillo Philharmonic Club organized a symphonic performance that launched what would become the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra. 

This fall, as the Tri-State Exposition celebrates its centennial year, the Amarillo Symphony begins its 100th season.

Beth Duke, executive director of Center City of Amarillo, spent three decades chronicling both organizations during her time at the Amarillo Globe-News. She says the Fair and Symphony reflect Amarillo’s multifaceted personality. Both show the city’s willingness to make things happen without help from the outside.

“The 1920s were boom years for Amarillo,” Duke says. “Many of our great historic buildings downtown were built in that era. The city’s prosperity encouraged leaders to establish traditions that grew into the quality of life that we enjoy today.” Those traditions included our agricultural heritage, she says, but farming and ranching weren’t the only things on local minds. “At the same time, women created clubs such as the Amarillo Philharmonic Club, which established the Amarillo Symphony, and the Just Us Girls club, which founded Amarillo’s public library. They knew that if Amarillo was going to have these cultural traditions, they would have to start them on their own.

“Some institutions have come and gone. Some big cities have lost their symphony orchestras, but Amarillo’s pioneer spirit keeps our Symphony and the Tri-State Fair & Rodeo going strong,” Duke adds.

This creative drive has only gained momentum over the past century as both groups work to stay relevant at a time when entertainment and cultural enrichment is so readily available from multiple sources. And though they’re selling different experiences, leaders from the Fair and Symphony count on the same sense of community to stand apart from the rest. 

Livestock and a Food Court

The railroad allowed local ranchers to ship cattle to big cities back east, but also attracted a generation of farmers eager to tap into our abundant land. This railroad town quickly grew into an agricultural powerhouse, and a little more than a decade after its founding, Amarillo was dreaming of a way to promote this agricultural bounty to a wider world.

“There was a recognition by citizens that this area needed a fair, a place to display, show off, gather and share that sense of community,” says Brady Ragland, CEO of the Amarillo Tri-State Exposition. Area leaders gathered in Tulia to determine where to host the fair. “There were representatives from both Lubbock and Amarillo—and we won,” he says.

It wasn’t the first local fair, however. According to regional historian Lana Payne Barnett of Tulia, the precursor to a regional fair was a livestock show held in Amarillo in 1897. The Amarillo-Panhandle Fair and Livestock Association formed two years later, and Amarillo’s first true fair arrived in 1903, on land where Llano Cemetery is now located.

In the following years, fairs were held only sporadically until a string of successful events at Glenwood Electric Park in 1913 and 1914 proved fairs could not only be popular with the public but also financially viable. But World War I undercut these efforts, until civic leaders got serious in 1921 about funding an organization that could stage annual events at an established location. In 1923, the Amarillo Tri-State Exposition was born.

Ragland points out that the Exposition has survived intact since that time, though the World War II years and the early months of the pandemic in 2020 saw fairs canceled or postponed. Today’s Fair looks different than it did even 25 years ago, but something about it remains comforting and timeless.

“The sense of community and sense of togetherness that fairs across the country still bring to people is something that is more and more unique to our current way of life,” Ragland says. “As much time as everyone spends glancing at a nine-inch screen, and learns their news in whatever political channel they take it in, fairs have a unique way of bringing together the fabric of the community.”

Looking ahead, Ragland says the Fair’s leadership is placing a strong emphasis on education and scholarships. Its youth shows enjoy record participation rates and the organization is on track to award $100,000 in scholarships to around 130 youth in the tri-state area. Competitions in veterinary science, culinary arts and even robotics now stand alongside traditional livestock shows. What hasn’t changed is the Fair’s ability to cut across social and political divisions through a shared community experience.

“It may be that we have a more unique opportunity now than we had before,” he says, alluding to the mysterious power of taking action through non-action—achieving success by limiting change. He points out: “People still feel connected when they share in the appreciation of a livestock show, a carnival and a food court.” 

In other words, the Fair cuts through our digital focus with real sights, sounds and smells—truly tangible moments that bring families together.

A Vision for the Finer Things

Downtown in the Amarillo Building, seemingly far removed from the dusty barns of the Tri-State Fairgrounds, Larry Lang also has relevance on his mind. He’s describing plans not just to celebrate the 100th season of the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra, but to remain viable long after the celebrations end. As with the Fair, the Symphony owes its start to the wealth generated from Amarillo’s vast resource of land.

It started in 1924 with a ladies music club. “They were the wives of the cattle and oil barons here at the time, and they were interested in having the finer things in life, and interested in the arts,” Lang says, emphasizing that these visionary women had to act because they knew no one else would do it for them.

“David Palmer, our artistic director for Chamber Music Amarillo, often says since we’re remote, we have to do things ourselves, to create things ourselves,” Lang says.

Grace Hamilton, an Amarillo piano teacher and member of the Philharmonic Club, was the first director of the Symphony and played a leading role until her death in 1958. Her work launched a century of seasons that have been uninterrupted by economic distress, war and, most recently, the COVID pandemic. In 2020, the Symphony presented concerts online and in the open air of Amarillo’s Hodgetown baseball stadium with members of the audience sitting several seats apart.

“We’ve never had a season where we weren’t playing, which is really remarkable when you consider what has happened during these past hundred years,” Lang says. “A lot of that comes from the community. People love the arts here. They go to the museums, they support the ballet, the Nutcracker and the opera. It’s stunning, really.”

Throughout its existence, the Symphony’s resident players have largely come from the faculty of Amarillo College and West Texas A&M University, which by 1924 was called West Texas State Teachers College. But Lang points out that the Symphony regularly brings in guest artists, and through its history has featured world-famous musicians such as violinist Itzhak Perlman, composer Percy Grainger and many others.

These names mean something to a classically trained musician or lover of symphonic music, but the Symphony’s challenge has always been to make its music meaningful to the general public, just like the Fair connects urban dwellers with the rural way of life. Relevancy is key.

“We’re working very hard on that, especially myself and our new conductor George Jackson,” Lang says. “George and I came at the same time a year ago and we’re committed to being relevant to the community and representing the community.”

The Symphony’s centennial season promises to be a showcase of relevancy. The first program was held at Hodgetown last month, featuring country and western artist Randall King, a native of Hereford. In October, Hispanic Heritage Month, the Symphony presents Celebraciones, featuring mariachi vocalist Nayelli Peña and Trio Los Reyes along with the Amarillo Symphony Youth Orchestra. A November program features a symphony by Johannes Brahms that culminates with a bluegrass ensemble playing with the orchestra. 

“We really want to do things that get people in the door, get them excited about what we’re doing and show them that it doesn’t have to be stuffy,” Lang says. “Sure, we can do [classical]  music and we will. We’re going to play Brahms and Beethoven and Mahler, which we do very well. But we also want to play other things that catch people’s attention in a new way.”

Lights, Sounds and Emotion

In a year when two of the city’s oldest institutions reflect on a century of service, that new way will continue to inform both organizations. The Fair will lean heavily on tradition as it opens up to the modern world for nine big days in September. The Symphony intends to use brass and stringed instruments and clashing cymbals to call up deep emotions in its audience members. 

“The key is the balance for us,” Lang says, “because we don’t want to lose the connection to the music and the musicians by adding too much.”

With that in mind, the Symphony’s big finale next spring aims to elevate concert goers beyond that starry canopy of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. And if Ragland and team have their way, at some point during this year’s fair and rodeo, a kid who’s never seen a steer or a barrow hog is sure to marvel at an animal way bigger than the family pet.

In these moments, the ordinary aspects of life in Amarillo will join with a universal symphony of light and sound. Somehow, it’ll still feel like home.

A Decade of Milestones

Amarillo’s boom years established multiple local organizations that still exist, which means the next few years will bring several major community milestones.

The 125th anniversary of Clarendon College (current)
Established in 1898, Clarendon College is the oldest institution of higher education in the Panhandle, and the current academic year is its 125th.

The 115th year of Family Support Services (current)
This nonprofit traces its roots to the 1908 formation of Associated Charities, Amarillo’s first charity.

The 100th Amarillo Tri-State Fair & Exposition (current)
This year’s fair and rodeo are September 15-23.

The 100th season of the Amarillo Symphony (current)
The current season is underway, and the next performance is September 15-16.

The 90th birthday of Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (current)
The largest history museum in Texas first opened its doors to the public in 1933.

The 100th anniversary of the United Way of Amarillo & Canyon (in 2024)
The local history of this community nonprofit dates back to 1924.

The 115th anniversary of West Texas A&M University (in 2025)
West Texas State Normal College opened its doors to 152 students in September 1910.

The 100th anniversary of Amarillo Little Theatre (in 2027)
One of the oldest continuously operating little theaters in the country, ALT began in 1927.

The 100th anniversary of Amarillo College (in 2029)
The first classes of what would become Amarillo College took place in September 1929.

Music & the Midway

By Chip Chandler

Long before Amarillo native Kevin Fowler became one of Texas country’s biggest acts, before he wrote No. 1 Billboard hits for Sammy Kershaw and Mark Chesnutt, before he toured the nation with rock band Dangerous Toys, he was already making a mark at the Amarillo Tri-State Fair & Rodeo.

Just not on stage—then, at least. 

“Some of my earliest memories while growing up are going to the Tri-State Fair,” Fowler says. “My parents actually ran a corn dog stand at the fair my entire childhood. It was my first job.”

Fowler’s first-ever concert experience was at the fair, too.

“My cousin and I snuck in to see Alabama. I thought it was the best thing ever,” Fowler says. “From then on I was hooked on live music.”

In its history, the Tri-State Fair has played host to several top Nashville and Texas country acts, dating back, at least, to “Hee-Haw” star and country icon Roy Clark in 1977. Countless Panhandle kids got their first exposure to live music on the fairgrounds, whether in the original Coliseum or in the Amarillo National Center or on one of several outdoor stages over the years.

“They had really big names go through there back in the day,” says consultant Linda Brown, who worked for the fair for about a decade beginning in 2002, returning in 2022. “There were lots of pretty big artists and lots of up-and-coming artists.”

Alabama, who Fowler sneaked in to see, was just one such act. This writer can remember the Oak Ridge Boys name-checking Amarillo in their hit song “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” in their 1980 concert to uproarious applause in the Rex Baxter Building, as well as blind country star Ronnie Milsap teasing that he was about to walk off the edge of the stage during his 1984 performance.

“I was coming over from Pampa with my Dad to see Conway Twitty (in 1983) and Merle Haggard (in 1986),” says Arcadio Rivera, a longtime Tri-State Fair board and entertainment committee member, who has booked several top Texas country acts to play the fairgrounds. “I even shook Conway’s hand.”

George Jones, old Possum himself, played the fair in 1987, followed by the likes of Ray Stevens in 1988 and The Statler Brothers in 1989. The ’90s were a more fallow period for country headliners, though: Legacy country star Pam Tillis performed in 1991, a decade after her father, Mel, first performed there. Martina McBride’s 1996 concert was one of the last big names for several years.

Brown’s arrival in 2002 changed things.

“When I came, things were very different,” Brown says. “The board changed a lot of things, upgraded a lot, built a lot of beautiful buildings—all done to serve the people of the tri-state area.”

That included a return to live entertainment featuring significant country acts.

“We had everybody from the Bellamy Brothers (in 2003) to Joe Diffie (in 2007),” Brown recalls. 

Among them: “American Idol” host Luke Bryan in 2007 and The Band Perry in 2010.

“And lots of Texas country artists played there very early. Arcadio played a big part in that,” Brown says. 

Among them: Ray Wylie Hubbard in 2012 and 2014, Jason Boland & The Stragglers in 2015 and Amarillo natives Cooder Graw in a reunion performance in 2016.

“Kevin was one of them, too,” Brown says. “And he has always loved the fair. In fact, when he was first starting out on the scene, he called me and said he’d gotten an offer to play in Amarillo during what he knew was fair week. He said he wouldn’t take it if I thought it would hurt the fair.”

No surprise there: “The fair is in my blood,” says Fowler, who headlined in 2003 and 2004.

“Saying it’s an honor to get to play at the Tri-State Fair is an understatement,” he says. “I think it’s awesome that the fair chose two local boys like me and Aaron Watson to play for the 100th anniversary of the fair.”

That hometown heroes show, set for Sept. 16 in the Amarillo National Center, is just the beginning, Brown says.

“Amarillo has had a lot of big names at one time,” she says. “I would like to see that return, if it’s feasible, and I think Brady (Ragland, the fair’s CEO) is interested in that, too … Our intentions now are to go back to bringing the bigger names, upping the concert experience for people.”

Rivera agrees such events are a crucial component of the fair.

“People from all around the tri-state area come to the fair to let their hair down a little bit, to forget their woes,” he says. “Hearing live music helps them get away from their troubles a little bit. It really is medicine for the soul.”

Meet Conductor George Jackson

By Jason Boyett

Over the past 100 years, the Amarillo Symphony has had exactly 18 music directors, and the 18th relishes the opportunity to lead the orchestra through a milestone season.

After the conclusion of conductor Jacomo Bairos’ tenure in 2022, a Symphony search committee passed the baton to UK native George Jackson for the 2022-2023 season. Audiences were quickly thrilled by Jackson’s approach. He’s a popular guest conductor throughout Europe, known for his enthusiasm and contemporary approach.

Jackson doesn’t have a traditional resume. He learned to play violin in childhood, he says, but “I spent most of the teenage years basically being in what you’d call a garage band, playing in friends’ living rooms and playing gigs and pubs and writing songs,” says Jackson, who was a guitarist and drummer. “The violin and classical orchestra was very much on the side and not as important to me as being in a band.”

Jackson grew to love live music, though, as well as live performance, upon joining an orchestra as a 16-year-old violinist. “It was really through that that I became interested in symphonic music. I didn’t really know anything about the background to symphonies or to composers or any history of music.”

He was a quick learner, however, and says big orchestra pieces became the soundtrack to his teenage years. In Dublin, Ireland, he studied musicology in college and that introduced him to conducting. “No musical background, no family background in music at all. Just kind of a curiosity and being a teenager, really, and finding my way into it from that,” he says.

That unconventional path has made him a conductor with a willingness to push the envelope—particularly with this centennial season in Amarillo, which began in August with a Hodgetown performance featuring country artist Randall King and local standouts Eric Barry and the Opera Cowgirls. Upcoming concerts include Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Copland’s Rodeo in September, October’s “fun and fiery” Celebraciones featuring Mariachi singer Nayelli Peña, and a concert titled “Brahms and Bluegrass” in November.

“It’s a bit of everything. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible, because even if somebody comes [to the Symphony] just once, I think it’s almost a civic duty to offer something to everybody out there,” Jackson explains. “Live music is just live music. There doesn’t need to be a differentiation between a symphony orchestra and a band or a singer-songwriter.”

One year into his tenure in Amarillo, Jackson says he’s been overwhelmed by the audience response and the local arts culture. “What I’ve noticed about the average Amarillo audience member is that they’re incredibly curious and they’re incredibly open to anything new,” he says. Jackson has also noticed a local humility that surprises him—and challenges the global perception of Texans. “Everybody’s very humble. You know, ‘What are you doing coming here with this little orchestra and this concert hall at the Globe-News Center?’”

He says locals don’t seem to realize how esteemed are both the Amarillo Symphony and its concert venue—not just across the United States, but around the world. “The Amarillo Symphony is an incredibly well-regarded orchestra,” he says. “The Globe-News Center is one of the best concert halls of its size that you can find anywhere.” 

Jackson regularly travels between Amarillo and Europe. He conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in a performance over the summer and, earlier in the spring, led the Philharmonic Orchestra of North Macedonia. Next February, he travels to Paris to conduct at Maison de la Radio et de la Musique. His constant presence in international venues reminds him of the quality of his Amarillo gig.

“A lot of cities across the world would be very jealous of the setup there is in Amarillo. This is really special. This is a very special place for the arts,” he says.

Over the coming months, Jackson hopes more people will take a chance on the Symphony—especially those who have never attended a concert. “The centenary is a great year to come and visit us for the first time,” says Jackson. “We’re making a conscious effort to make sure we’re putting on good entertainment and hopefully a good evening out.”

Tickets for the new season are available at amarillosymphony.org. 

Author

  • Wes Reeves

    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.

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