The way Nicky Standlee sees it, the Panhandle-South Plains Fair is more than a yearly event. It’s a family affair designed to remind that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“It’s been around a long time,” said Standlee, who has been involved with the fair for more than three decades. “I think a lot of the attraction has to do with things you saw growing up that became special to you.”
With the exception of the World War II years of 1942-45, the fair has been a staple of the Lubbock community calendar since its three-day debut in 1914. It has expanded in size, scope, length and attendance during the ensuing years, but its connection to a simpler time remains unchanged.
Standlee has served as superintendent of the fine arts department in the women’s building for 35 years. She wanted to get involved because of the example of her mother, 88-year-old Lou Beth Robinson, who is in her 61st year as a fair volunteer.
“I love being involved in it with my mother,” said Standlee, who also serves as a member of the fair’s board of directors. “I’ve always enjoyed it probably because I saw how much my mother enjoyed it. I grew up with. She says she wouldn’t do it if I didn’t do all the real work, but she’s out there every year with a great attitude. She keeps the rest of going and really enjoys the atmosphere of the fair.”
Standlee said her mother’s original connection to the fair was through the Young Home Demonstration Club, which featured representatives who made sure all aspects of the women’s building on the fairgrounds ran smoothly.
“Those ladies did an excellent job and set our history for us,” Standlee said.
History is a cornerstone of the fair’s appeal. According to the event’s Web site, the Lubbock fair ranks second to the State Fair of Texas in attendance and continuous history.
“Our business started with an agricultural link,” said Herb Higgs, who has served as the fair’s general manager for the past seven years. “As history will show, fairs at one time were on the edge when it came to new technologies. That began with carnivals to the super thrill rides you see today.”
According to the Web site, a carnival accompanied the fair for the first time in 1921. In addition, the fair offered expanded craft competitions and a greater emphasis on showcasing local businesses. The event doubled its run to six days and drew more than 120,000 people. In 2000, the fair’s run expanded to its current nine-day format.
Higgs is only the fair’s fourth general manager. He said much of the credit for the event’s longevity and success goes to A.B. Davis, who served some 40 years as the fair’s first general manager and also was director of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce. Early newspaper accounts show the chamber and The Avalanche-Journal played key roles in helping the growing town land the fair.
“The common link and leader of both was A.B. Davis,” said Eddie McBride, Lubbock Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “He was instrumental. He didn’t start at the chamber until the 1920s. But even before then, one of the first things the Lubbock chamber did was bring the South Plains Fair to Lubbock.”
Higgs said the fair’s ability to consistently reinvent itself and expand its offerings have been keys to its staying power.
“Bridging into entertainment with name stars was important,” he said. “There was a time when if you wanted to see a certain caliber of entertainer, you had to go to a fair to see them.”
Josiah Trevino, 5, tosses a ball to try to win a prize as his mother, Angel Balderrama, looks on at the Panhandle-South Plains Fair.
The Fair Park Coliseum came on line in 1954, according to the Web site, allowing the event to connect with more people. The first act to perform on the stage was the touring wing of the Grand Ole Opry, with Elvis Presley in 1956. Numerous stars have appeared since.
Former longtime Avalanche-Journal Editor Chas. A Guy threw the newspaper’s support behind the event. That, coupled with the link to the chamber, assured the fair’s presence and success in Lubbock.
“The fair has meant so much to so many people no only in Lubbock, but in the region since it began in 1914,” said A-J Publisher Stephen Beasley. “This newspaper has served the city and the South Plains for almost 109 years, and that role has included playing a part in the success of the fair for many, many years.”
Higgs agreed the support of the chamber and the newspaper have been instrumental.
“I think regardless of where a fair is located, if it’s in a town with a chamber of commerce, it is always in the best interest of the fair and the community to be good partners,” he said. “I think it’s important to have good ties to local businesses, and if you have a friend in the local newspaper, that’s obviously a benefit.”
By 1963, fair attendance topped 200,000 for the first time, according to the Web site. Four years later, growth in the women’s department necessitated expansion, as well. The division draws more than 6,000 entries in eight departments and requires more than 350 volunteers.
“I know people don’t know that women’s building is 100 percent volunteer,” Standlee said. “That requires a lot of hours and a lot of dedication. There are numerous people who have been there a long time — some of them have been there longer than me, but not longer than my mother.”
Attendance surpassed 300,000 in 1976, and the fair’s 10 millionth patron entered the turnstile in 1983, according to the Web site. Higgs said the challenge for any fair is to provide new offerings without undermining the event’s tradition.
“Fairs have to find a way to evolve,” he said. “In a lot of instances, that will come in the area of green initiatives, being more proactive in recycling and things like that. We will continue to look at that while keeping our base strong and moving along from there.
“Obviously, I’m very honored to run this fair, which has been an important part of the community for more than 90 years. It has enjoyed the support of the community, and we want to continue to be a good partner and continue to grow in Lubbock, a growing and vibrant town.”
Jacintha Adame serves a slice of pizza to Kelsey Hodge, center, and Brittany Hodge, right, at the Rosati’s Pizzeria booth at last year’s Panhandle-South Plains Fair.
For 35 years, Standlee has enjoyed an inside view of the fair’s growth. She said the simple appeal of the fair will always be its calling card.
“I think just seeing everyone’s talent and what they have produced is special every year,” she said. “We have such a great variety. I love to see all those things, and there isn’t one corner of it that I don’t take in thoroughly.”CutlineThe lights from a midway ride at the Panhandle-South Plains Fair make the attraction appear like a high-speed roulette wheel. The fair has provided fun, food and entertainment for the Lubbock area for 91 years.
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