Twenty years ago, I wrote a centennial history of the Western Idaho Fair (1897-1997). I found the changes in the fair over that century fascinating and was surprised to discover the long list of celebrities who had appeared, performed or participated in some way over those years.
Earliest among them was cattle baron John Sparks of Reno, who shipped a carload of his prize-winning Herefords to Boise in 1897. Sparks had served in the Texas Rangers in 1861 and would later be elected to two terms as governor of Nevada. The town of Sparks is named for him.
In 1913, Hoot Gibson, rodeo and movie star, performed at the fair. He had won the all-around cowboy championship at the 1912 Pendleton Round-Up. Yakima Cannut, another cowboy star, was in Boise for the 1920 fair, and in 1946, rodeo clown and movie actor Slim Pickens was a star attraction.
In 1915, Barney Oldfield, America’s most famous race car driver, and the first man to drive an automobile more than 60 miles per hour, made an appearance at the fair as part of his own barnstorming tour, performing at county fairs and rodeos. His name became synonymous with fast driving, and the question asked of anyone speeding —“Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?” — became part of the language and is still heard today. When he drove a car 131.5 mph in 1910, it was hailed as “the fastest ever traveled by a human being.”
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In 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh, fresh from his epic solo flight across the Atlantic, toured the country in his famous “Spirit of St. Louis” plane. He visited the fair and gave a short speech.
In 1967, world famous aerialists “The Flying Wallendas” thrilled fairgoers with their high-wire and trapeze acts. They were noted for performing without a safety net. And several family members died over the years because of taking that risk. In 1968, television star William Shatner, Captain Kirk of “Star Trek,” made an appearance, and in 1969 NFL star Jerry Kramer, of the University of Idaho and the Green Bay Packers, spoke about his life in football. Boise’s own Paul Revere and the Raiders performed in 1971 and were back in 1975 with country-western star Marty Robbins.
Ronald Reagan, campaigning to be the Republican Party’s candidate for president in 1976, gave a speech at the fair. Gerald Ford would win the nomination and lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter, but Reagan would be elected in 1980. My wife and I met Reagan quite by accident the night of his appearance at the fair as we were both leaving the Red Lion Riverside. We had each been guest speakers at separate banquets that evening.
Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, spoke at the fair in 1988, the year he was elected president.
In the years that followed in that first century of the fair, many popular stars entertained, including: Bobby Goldsboro, Up With People, Mel Tillis, Shari Lewis & Lambchop, Rickie Nelson, Barbara Mandrell, Helen Reddy, Glen Campbell, Charlie Pride, The Osmond Brothers, Roger Miller, Muhammad Ali, Roy Clark, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Reba McEntire, Conway Twitty, The Kingston Trio, Frankie Avalon, Crystal Gayle, Ricky Skaggs, The Righteous Brothers, Three Dog Night, Willie Nelson, Jim Stafford, The Everly Brothers, Chubby Checker, Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, John Kay and Steppenwolf, REO Speedwagon, The Oak Ridge Boys, Seals & Croft, Charlie Daniels, and Confederate Railroad. Some of the all-time favorites, like Willie Nelson, came back for an encore performance.
Next week: more about Idaho’s largest fair in its first century.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.