When the 133rd Utah State Fair opened in Salt Lake City Sept. 4, a tradition continued that was launched in 1856, the year President Brigham Young won a $25 prize for exhibiting the best stallion.
The first fair in what is now the state of Utah opened Oct. 2, 1856, just nine years after the Mormon pioneers entered the valley of the Great Salt Lake. At the time, the concept of a state fair or exposition was fairly new."The fair started here about the same time fairs were started across the United States," said Jackie Nokes, director of the Utah State Fair since 1987, and a member of the Valley View 8th Ward, Salt Lake Holladay North Stake. "Ours is probably as old as any fair in the nation."
That the fair began so soon after the Utah Territory was colonized speaks well for the resourcefulness of the Mormon pioneers, she said.
Indeed, the exposition was seen by early Church leaders as a way to prove that the saints not only could survive, but thrive in their place of refuge in the Mountain West.
"They wanted to prove, `We came out here and we can produce; look what we can do in less than 10 years,' " Sister Nokes commented.
In a July 28, 1847, sermon, President Young said: "The Kingdom of God cannot rise independent of the Gentile nations until we produce, manufacture, and make every article of use, convenience, or necessity among our people."
Accordingly, the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society was incorporated by an act of the Territorial Legislature on Jan. 17, 1856. The purpose was to "promote the arts of domestic industry and to encourage the production of articles from the native elements in Utah Territory."
One way to accomplish that was to sponsor what was intended to be an annual exposition in Salt Lake City.
That first fair, in the fall of 1856, was at the Deseret Store and Tithing Office, located at North Temple and Main Street, just east of Temple Square where the Hotel Utah building now stands in Salt Lake City. The fair remained open for three days, with agricultural products displayed in the basement of the store, handicraft products on the first floor, and the third floor containing fruits of orchard and garden produce as well as household items.
In addition to winning the prize for the best stallion that first year, President Young also won first prize for the best celery exhibited.
The fair was held irregularly throughout the 19th Century, according to a document prepared by the Utah Historical Society to nominate fairgrounds buildings for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Various locations included the Social Hall, the Thirteenth Ward meetinghouse, the City Market between First South and West Temple Streets, and the Tenth Ward Square, now the location of Trolley Square on Seventh East between Fifth and Sixth South.
The Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, although created by territorial government, was also ecclesiastical in character according to the state Historical Society documents. An entire session of general conference in 1856 was devoted to a reading of the act of incorporation and bylaws of the society and to an "agricultural sermon" explaining its purposes.
Bishops of the various wards and their counselors were appointed officers of the society, and Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society representatives visited the wards to recruit members and advertise the fair.
The first president of the society was Presiding Bishop Edward Hunter. He was succeeded by Elder Wilford Woodruff, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and then by John R. Winder, a member of the Presiding Bishopric and later a member of the First Presidency.
President Young approved all major decisions of the society.
In 1902, the fair moved to its present and permanent location at 155 N. 1000 West in Salt Lake City. By then the ecclesiastical character of the society and the fair had changed. The society came under control of the state government, and its purpose was no longer to foster agricultural independence.
The state fair, by then, was seen as a means of extending the state's markets and advertising the advantages of Utah and its products.
Even so, like many such expositions across the country, the fair still promotes excellence in agriculture, gardening, home production and crafts, and arts.
"And it's a good way to bring people together," Sister Nokes observed. "All a fair is, is a giant show-and-tell. We never outgrow the love of showing and telling, and seeing, for example, whether someone else's pumpkin is as big as ours."
Among the Utah State Fair's most ardent supporters, she said, is President Ezra Taft Benson. "I don't believe President Benson has missed a single fair. He and his wife come out every single year. They love to go see the livestock. We have a wonderful time when they come out."
Although expensive to put on, a fair is worth the money, Sister Nokes said. "We are so inundated in today's society with the bad things that happen, it's a breath of fresh air to find people still growing carrots in the backyard, or still sewing quilts or doing needle point. And we find out that these things cross all barriers."