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N.M. State Fair celebrates its 75th anniversary

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — About 8,000 people a day came through the gates in 1938; now, it’s 35,000

Seventy-five years ago, the New Mexico State Fair flung open its gates in a new location that was then on the eastern outskirts of town.

Adult visitors in 1938 paid 35 cents for admission, children caught a break at 15 cents, and parking set a fairgoer back another quarter – big money in those days when the new federal minimum hourly wage was 25 cents, said New Mexico State Historian Rick Hendricks.

A blindfolded New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya takes a swing at a pinata during opening ceremonies at the 1985 New Mexico State Fair.

A blindfolded New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya takes a swing at a pinata during opening ceremonies at the 1985 New Mexico State Fair.

Albuquerque’s population was a modest 54,000, with about 6,000 to 8,000 fair visitors daily.

How times have changed.

Now, the fair sits amidst busy thoroughfares in a city with a population of 555,000, not including the surrounding metro area.

And more than 400,000 visitors are expected to pass through the turnstyles between Wednesday, opening day of this year’s fair, and its closing day, Sunday, Sept. 22.

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the State Fair brought on Rodger Beimer as a consultant to do historical research about the fair.

He says one of the biggest changes since 1938 has been to the State Fairgrounds itself.

The fairgrounds originally opened with 186 acres, but, over the years, additional parcels at Lomas and Louisiana and Domingo and San Pedro were purchased, bringing the grounds to 236 acres.

While old Route 66 along Central Avenue went east through the mountains, there wasn’t much building going on east of Nob Hill, Beimer said. Consequently, “the Fairgrounds were considered outside of town,” or at least on the fringes.

Nevertheless, daily fair attendance ranged from 6,400 to 8,500 over the eight days of the event.

Last year, the 12 days of the State Fair attracted 426,000 visitors, an average of 35,500 people daily, said Michael Henningsen, the fair’s media and communications director.

Today, people age 12 and older pay $10 to enter, children ages 6-11 and seniors 65 and older pay $7, parking is free and the federal minimum hourly wage is $7.25.

Cherokee Indian Eddie Swimmer performs his Hoop Dance at the State Fair’s Indian Village in 1984.

Cherokee Indian Eddie Swimmer performs his Hoop Dance at the State Fair’s Indian Village in 1984.

The fair has seen a huge increase in permanent buildings, which, in 1938, consisted of two or three, supplemented “by a lot of tents,” Beimer said.

Most events and entertainment, including the rodeo, were held outdoors in front of the grandstands at the racetrack and the infield. That changed with the opening of Tingley Coliseum in 1957.

The growing emphasis on multiculturalism over the years has led to a host of new structures that make up Indian Village, Villa Hispana, the African-American Pavilion, the Hispanic Art Gallery, the Indian Arts Building and the Fine Arts Gallery.

Fair concerts today are often held in Tingley Coliseum following nightly rodeo events. These consist mostly of country and rock bands, but, according to the Journal archives, grandstand concerts in 1938 were heavy on bands from Albuquerque and other public school districts and the University of New Mexico, as well as performances by the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps.

Also featured that opening year were “circus acts” of trapeze and aerial artists — including the Australian Queens who performed 175 feet up in the air without nets.

There were knife throwers, “dog and pony acts,” clowns, jugglers, and “Capt. Louis Roth and his fighting tigers,” according to Journal articles.

But agriculture was the primary focus of the fair, evidenced by the heavy schedule of poultry, livestock, dairy and horse shows, flower shows, agricultural and culinary product booths and model farms.

A “commercial” exhibit featured “radios, refrigerators, tractors, electronic generating plants and automobiles.” And the State Health Department featured a clinic exhibit “in which blood tests for syphilis are taken free.”

Foot races, horse racing and rodeo events were among the events in 1938. Tingley Coliseum was not yet built so the full complement of competitive rodeo events was held on the racetrack after the day’s pari-mutuel horse racing events, said Don Cook, director of racing for the Downs of Albuquerque.

In addition to quarter horse and harness racing, the racetrack hosted steeplechases, polo games and motorcycle races.

The eight days of horse racing attracted a total of 30,000 fans, who collectively wagered about $75,000, according to Journal archives.

Today, said Cook, the Downs at Albuquerque has a 17-day race schedule that generates about $100,000 per day – but that figure jumps to nearly $225,000 a day when figuring bets accepted at the Downs for races at tracks throughout the country via televised simulcasts.

The Downs at Albuquerque yearly takes in about $35 million in live and year-round simulcast wagering, Cook said.

Yes, times have changed.