The prime motivation for organizing the great Idaho Intermountain Fair of 1897 was to show off the state’s resources to the region and the nation. A secondary benefit, certainly anticipated by Boise’s business community, was that it would attract lots of people to the capital city who might spend money. These goals have characterized fairs since the Middle Ages in Europe, whether sponsored by the church, by merchants or by guilds of craftsmen. Today nearly every American city has its fair or festival. These occasions furnish entertainment and education, help local business and contribute to local pride. They would not flourish unless people loved them. They certainly loved the 1897 fair, and in the 120 years since Idahoans have continued to support fairs at every level.
Exhibiting Idaho’s resources in 1897 meant major displays of livestock, produce and minerals. Purple, yellow and white were chosen as the fair’s colors, representing fruit, gold and silver. Mining companies sent outstanding specimens of ores from their mines, chosen for beauty as well as richness: copper ores from the then-booming Seven Devils country, gold ores, and specimens of nuggets and dust from Elk Creek, Pine Grove and Rocky Bar districts. Owyhee ores from famous producers like the Black Jack and Poorman mines drew much attention, in part because so many Idahoans had invested in mining stocks. (For more on Idaho mining history, I recommend “Gold Camps and Silver Cities,” by Merle W. Wells).
The Idaho Statesman covered the fair in detail, including this rhapsody on the horticultural exhibits: “There is no one department of the fair more symmetrical, more gorgeous, more attractive than the general fruit exhibit. No artist ever painted prettier apples, peaches or pears than can be seen in the exposition building. Every variety known to fruit culture seems to have found its way to the Idaho Intermountain Fair.” That the fair was regional rather than local is shown by the fact that the fruit displayed came from seven Idaho counties and Malheur County in Oregon. The Statesman thought the fruit exhibit was superior to what had been shown at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
“Sixteen cherubs” were entered in the baby contest held Oct. 16, 1897. The three distinguished male judges “went about the booth fondling each infant and displaying familiarity with babyhood seldom acquired even by men of mature years.” Master William Balderston Jr. was awarded a silver cup as the finest baby younger than 10 months. A blue ribbon was pinned to his white dimity dress while he was held by Queen of the Fair Bessie Vollmer, of Lewiston.
Wondering what ever became of William Balderston Jr., I looked him up on the internet and found his obituary. When he died in August 1983, he was hailed by The New York Times as “The Father of Car Radio” and “Ex-President of the Philco Corporation.” I also learned that Philco was bought by Ford Motor Co. in 1961. What a remarkable age we live in that I could trace the career of our 1897 fair’s “finest baby”
Ever since that first fair children have been given high priority in exhibits, activities and educational opportunities. In 1897 large exhibits of student work came to Boise from Pocatello, Genesee and Payette, and the schools of smaller places like Chesterfield, Downey and Silver City were also represented. When the fair closed, Superintendent of Public Instruction Louis Anderson said the school exhibits had been of great benefit because teachers could see what others were doing and because a spirit of rivalry had been generated that could lead to all-around improvement. Many school districts that had not sent work in 1897 would show regularly at later fairs.
Today’s Western Idaho Fair took that name in 1967, but it had been called Gem State Fair in 1915, State Fair of Idaho in 1917, Idaho State Fair in 1919 and Ada County Grange Fair in 1926. Whatever it was called, Idahoans have always loved it.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.