The development of the Utah State Fair documents a major theme of Utah’s history: the decline of ecclesiastical domination of politics, society, and the economy and the rise of Utah as a secular, regional commercial center in the national trade and industrial network. The fair also serves as an important part of the popular cultural life of Utah’s residents.
A major goal of Mormon agricultural policy in pioneer Utah was complete self-sufficiency and independence from Gentile (non-Mormon) influence. The major instrument for implementing this policy was the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society (DAM). Incorporated by an act of the territorial legislature on 17 January 1856, its purpose was to promote the arts of domestic industry, and to encourage the production of articles from the native elements in Utah Territory. The DAM sponsored its first exposition in Salt Lake City in the fall of 1856 at the Deseret Store and Tithing Office, where the Hotel Utah now stands. Throughout the nineteenth century, the succeeding expositions and fairs were held irregularly, and at various locations. The fair was an instrument of both the territorial government and the Mormon Church. The territory made regular appropriations to the society as subsidies for selected industries, such as wool growing. The DAM Society gathered agricultural statistics for the territory, was designated recipient of the seeds and plants distributed by the U. S. Patent Office, and appointed an agent for the territory to receive and dispose of the titles to the public lands apportioned to the territory by the Morrill Act of 1862, in order to establish an agricultural college and experiment station.
The annual fairs also had a religious significance. They were invariably held to coincide with the October general conference of the Mormon Church, thus making the annual fall excursion serve both God and Mammon. Membership drives appointed all Mormon bishops and their counselors as agents of the society, asking them to urge their ward members to join the society and authorizing them to collect two dollars in dues. For many years Brigham Young selected or approved DAM’s president and board members.
In 1902 the present seventy-acre site on Salt Lake City’s west side became the Fair’s permanent home. There are forty-two permanent structures on the grounds, dating from 1902 to the 1980s. The Horticulture Building (1902), Fairpark Grand (1905, restored 1989), Coliseum (1913, designed by Joseph Don Carlos Young), and Bandstand (ca. 1910) are among the significant historical structures. In 1907 the name of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society was changed to the Utah State Fair Association. By then, the Fair’s purpose had changed, which reflected changes taking place in Utah as a whole. In 1890, under extreme pressure from the federal government, leaders of the Mormon Church made a formal decision to give up those things which made it different and had provoked hostility for half the century, and to integrate itself into the mainstream of American life.
In 1896, at statehood, the DAM came under the direct control of the state government. Its president and board of directors were appointed by the governor, with the consent of the legislature. The fair continued to be a testimony to hard work and the fruitfulness of the soil, but it lost its religious significance and was no longer viewed as a means of promoting self-sufficiency. With Utah’s agricultural system having evolved from a local market and subsistence orientation to a demand-driven commercial orientation, and with Utah no longer geographically, socially, and culturally isolated from the rest of the country, the state fair was now seen as serving public relations and commercial purposes. Its purpose was not only the extension of Utah’s markets and the advertisement of state resources, but also the promotion of the entire country. Thus, national and international exhibits were encouraged.
Whatever else the Utah State Fair has been, it has always remained a popular attraction, an important event in the recreational life of the state. In addition to the perennial agricultural and commercial emphases, the fair has become the scene of dozens of different kinds of exhibits, a queen contest, a midway, and a range of musical entertainment. During the 1980s, the State Fair was attended annually by virtually one-third of Utah’s population, more than half a million people.
Craig F. Radden