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History of the Mid-South Fair And Rodeo, Memphis, TN
1958- Gary Telford Performs With Duncan Renaldo "The Cisco Kid"

by Gary Telford

The Cisco Kid and Gary Telford In the mid 1850s, the United States and Memphis were growing and changing. Memphis' location on the Mississippi River and its intersection with the rich agricultural states - Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas - put the city in a prime position to become an important distribution and merchandising center.

Agriculture and industrialization came together in Memphis. During the time Memphis was emerging as a major regional city, frontier conditions prevailed, and there were not the kinds of transportation and communication links that would come later. One of the main challenges of the time, in both the business and social realms, was to find ways to meet and communicate with others in the region. In response, the Shelby County Agricultural Society was formed in 1854 to promote the interest of not only local planters and farmers, but also those of the merchants and businessmen of the community.

In its second year of existence, the society decided to stage a fair in the fall of 1856. The Shelby County Fair was introduced to the public. The fair ran for two days - October 22 and 23. The aim of the first fair was to always exhibit the best in agricultural produce and the latest in machinery and inventions. The emphasis of the exhibits was to be the "best and the latest," which is still important today. The total of premiums awarded in 2001 was over $276,000, compared to $350 in 1856; yet the first fair was profitable.

The fair ran for four days in 1858 and attendance was picking up. During this time traditions were being started, such as harness racing. It continued at the fair until the 1930's, as the racetrack became an increasingly important part of the Mid-South Fair history.

For anyone who has ever attended Memphis or Shelby County Schools, the 1870 fair marked the beginning of another cherished tradition which continues today. It was the first year the Mayor proclaimed a one-day holiday at all schools in order for children to attend the fair.

The four years between 1873 and 1877 brought threatening years as the fair was faced with extinction when numbers dwindled. This was due to the yellow fever epidemics, and resulting economic depression.

The period from 1880 to 1906 was a time of rebuilding for Memphis and the fair. The few fairs held during those years never regained the momentum they had before the Civil War and needed to grow into sustained annual events. In 1908 the fair's named was changed to the "Tri-State Fair," in order to broaden the areas served. New "special days" were featured that year, such as Governor's Day, Farmer's Union Day, and Children's Day. New grounds entertainment was also added and it was the first time the fair had a midway. One of the acts of the 1908 fair was Dakota Dan's Wild West Show.

In 1911, prominent African-Americans founded, organized, and ran their own fair called the Negro Tri-State Fair. This was an important event in the African-American community for decades until it was discontinued in 1959. Three years later, in 1962, the Mid-South Fair once again became a unified event when it was integrated.

During World War I, the fair held its ground. The military even used the fair as an opportunity to recruit soldiers. A plan was also drawn up during this time to improve the grounds. The plan would make way for new buildings and an amusement park.

The early 1920's brought reconstruction and expansion to the fairgrounds, including a midway. The amusement park called "Joy Plaze" was installed. In it were two of the grandest rides of the time - The Zippin Pippin roller coaster and the Grand Carousel merry-go-round.

In 1929, the fair changed its name once again. This final time, it was named "The Mid-South Fair." In late October, the calm contentment of fall was broken, when on October 29, the stock market crashed. Suddenly America was thrown into economic turmoil. The Mid-South Fair struggled through the early 1930's, because of declining fair attendance.

The first championship rodeo was held in 1936. The new event was said to be the first and only contest rodeo ever held in the South. The fair offered $2,400 in cash prizes for the contestants that year. The rodeo has grown along with the Mid-South Fair. It has evolved into one of the PRCA's top rodeo championships, and one of Memphis' traditions with a Miss Rodeo Queen Contest and musical entertainment each night.

The Mid-South Fair was cancelled in 1942 because of World War II and the fair grounds were used a camps until the war was over in 1945. Before the fair reopened in 1947, many improvements were made on the fairgrounds. Buildings were rebuilt and repairs to burned structures were made. In keeping with the "new" fair and in response to the post-war baby boom, the Youth Talent Contest was created in 1953. The contest included several classes of talent including vocal, instrumental, dramatic, acrobatic, dancing, and novelty.

In 1956 the Fair celebrated its 100th year. Over $17,000 in premiums were given away that year. But perhaps the climatic ceremony of the Centennial Celebration was the time capsule being buried on the fairgrounds, which will be opened in 2056. The centerpiece of the event was the Centennial Village, a Williamsburg-like replica of an 1856 town portraying the day-to-day existence of its people.

The most memorable moment of the Centennial fair was the surprise appearance of Elvis Presley. Ironically, just a few years earlier, Elvis had competed in a preliminary round of the fair's Youth Talent Contest and had not made the cut. Elvis had a penchant for the fairgrounds, especially the Dodgem Car rides and the Pippin roller coaster. He would rent the fairgrounds amusement park at midnight so that he and his friends could ride all night. The amusement park, now Libertyland, was not the only attraction Elvis found at the Mid-South Fair. He also admired the beautiful winners of the Miss Mid-South Fair and Youth Talent Contests.

In September of 1958 the Mid-South Fair and Rodeo had booked Duncan Renaldo (The Cisco Kid) to perform at the Rodeo for about seven days and nights. Upon the arrival of the Cisco Kid and his horse Diablo, I, Gary Telford, was introduced to him and we had a lot in common for the love of horses, rodeos and performing. After our conversation he ask me if I would like to be a part of his act in the rodeo while he was there, I said yes and I really enjoyed each performance with him. He was a great performer and everyone really enjoyed his act. After the rodeo was over and he was getting ready to go back to California, he ask me if I would like to go back to California with him to his ranch. I declined this offer but have always wondered what this association might have come to. He said well Gary, if you ever change your mind here is my address and phone number and he wrote it down on the back of the picture shown here. Duncan Renaldo was born April 23, 1904 and died of lung cancer September 3, 1980 in Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County, California. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery, Section J., Tier 6, Grave 82.

The late 1960's saw great change for the Mid-south Fair, from famous entertainers like the cast of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Three Stooges", to the addition of the Miss Youth Personality Contest to big lists of events at the fairgrounds. The biggest change was the building of the Coliseum in 1959, due to the crowd of over 8,000 people drawn by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans' performance. The rodeo was held in the Coliseum in 1966 for the first time. On July 4, 1976 (America's 200th Anniversary), Libertyland amusement park was officially opened.

The fairs of 1990 and 1991 broke all past attendance records with 492,975 attendees in 1990 and 565,615 in 1991. Later in the 1990's, the children's "Lit'l Buckaroo Barn" was constructed. The barn is geared strictly towards children, with interactive farm activities for the children to do. The barn is still part of the Mid-South Fair today.

Throughout the decades the fair continued to grow, each year adding more contests, events, and entertainment. the present-day Mid-South Fair is changing daily, with the modernizing and updating of the commercial exhibits.

From opening day in 1856 through the ups and downs of the present, The Mid-South Fair is dedicated to educating and connecting the region to its agricultural heritage; promoting local industry; providing safe, fun, family-oriented entertainment; and rewarding agricultural and craft achievements through an annual exposition.