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"Hindsights"


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Strolling Through the Gillespie County Fair

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

The craggy face was still grim but more relaxed than it used to be when its owner hung his Stetson on a peg at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hoping to mingle discreetly with the crowd at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds, Lyndon Johnson might have pulled it off except for all those guys in dark suits and sunglasses keeping ordinary folk at a respectable distance.

Over the last 140 years the Gillespie County Fair has had more than its share of exciting moments - none bigger that a visit from the 36th President of the United States, strolling through the midway with his grandkids and secret service detail.

The Gillespie County Fair dates to 1881. John Braeutigam hosted the first fairs at the site of old Fort Martin Scott. Braeutigam bought the property after the army moved out in 1866.

The Breautigam family lived in one of the buildings and converted the officers' quarters into a dancehall called Braeutigam's Garten. It was the first dancehall in Gillespie County.

Fort Martin Scott was a natural place to hold a county fair. The old barracks became the exhibit hall. The parade ground across the creek was the racetrack. There were dances at Braeutigam's Garten.

Then in 1889 the Gillespie County Fair moved uptown to an area known as Central Park. The park occupied the area between Travis and Schubert Streets, in front of the Public School, where Turner Hall and the Coach Tony Knopp Swimming Pool are today.

The county held two fairs at Central Park. Attractions included athletic events, exhibits, a horse-powered merry go round and horse races on a track several blocks away. Each day, just for fun, the ice factory froze a large bouquet of flowers in an ice block.

In 1892 a group of citizens formed the Gillespie County Fair Association. Later that year the Association bought 40 acres of land across the creek (where HEB is today) from Peter Bonn. The asking price was $2,500.

The Fair Association constructed buildings to house exhibits and laid out a 1 mile racetrack. Morris Ranch built the stables and tack rooms. Gillespie County held the first county fair at the new site in September 1892.

Texas Baseball team watching horse races at Gillespie County Fair
The baseball team waiting at the backstop to watch the horse races at the Gillespie County Fair
Clck on image to enlarge

Courtesy Gillespie County Historical Society

The Fredericksburg Giants often played baseball on fair weekend. The diamond was on the infield of the racetrack. When a horse race started, the baseball game would pause, and the players would gather at the backstop to watch the finish. Once the race was over, play resumed.

While most fairs ran according to schedule, occasionally things went off script. On September 13, 1916 the Fair Association arranged for an airplane to fly in on fair day, but the plane crashed.

Another year so much rain fell on fair weekend, the cooks buried the BBQ meat in the pits over which the meat was supposed to be roasted.

In the early 20th century Hermann Lehmann, an Indian captive for 9 years, was a star attraction at the Gillespie County Fair. He dressed in Indian clothing, danced and told stories about his time in captivity.

In 1926 the Fair Association built a 2,000 seat grandstand overlooking the racetrack. That same year two teams first played polo on the infield.

Over time the fair hosted elephant races and offered hot air balloon rides. The Fair Association crowned the first fair queen in 1949.

When the railroad came to Fredericksburg in 1913, the Fair Association sold a 200 ft. strip of land at the back of the fairgrounds (along what is today Park Street) to the railroad for tracks and a depot. Then in 1975, after building the new fairgrounds on a 90 acre site along the Kerrville Highway, the Fair Association sold off the remaining 21.79 acres of the old Bonn Property for $263,000.

Throughout its long history the Gillespie County Fair has been a destination for race fans and a getaway for families. Even President Johnson couldn't resist the fast horses, the Ferris wheel and the cotton candy.

Then again he always preferred the Hill Country to Camp David.
Sources:
"Gillespie County Fair Began Here In 1881," Fredericksburg Standard, June 30, 1976.
"87th Gillespie County Fair Marks End Of Era," Fredericksburg Standard, August 20, 1975.
"Capsule Account Of Long - Colorful History of Fair," Fredericksburg Standard, August 25, 1976.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" Febrary 15, 2022 Column



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