The Western Montana Fair has been a staple of Missoula summers since it began over 100 years ago. With carnival rides, fun fair food, live music, community art and rodeos, the family-friendly event has something for visitors of all ages and tastes. While the classic attractions and features remain, this year’s fair brings several new changes.

"The biggest change this summer is that we are going free-admission, which we believe will enrich the experience for fairgoers," said Emily Bentley, director of fairgrounds development. "An accessible fair means that more people can come together and enjoy the community connection that is so important to our mission and such a cherished Montana value, cultivating a welcoming atmosphere and increasing folks' sense of ownership and nostalgia for the fairgrounds."

The free admission will enable visitors to plan multiple outings to the fairgrounds throughout the event without having to pay for entry each time. Organizers hope that this open-access will help attract and maintain investment in fairgrounds redevelopment.

"We will be suggesting a $6 per person donation in lieu of a gate fee that will go towards building a new Livestock Center to support local agriculture and youth development by helping 4-H and FFA have a home of their own during the fair, and a space for hands-on learning throughout the year," Bentley said.

Other changes for 2017 include a new stage at a new venue in the paddock area near the rodeo arena. With upgrades to sound, stage and lighting, the space also serves as a second beer garden.

Both beer gardens are being re-worked with a friendlier vibe that's more enticing to families. With smoking prohibited and all-ages allowed, families can enjoy fair food and drinks together on the grass in the shade. Fifty percent of proceeds from signature Western Montana Fair cocktails will go toward fairgrounds redevelopment.

Although the music lineup changes every year, quality entertainment remains a cornerstone of the fair's appeal. Musical acts this year include Shakewell, Sho down, Cold Hard Cash, Ryan Chrys & the Rough Cuts, The High Country Cowboys, and Miller Campbell.

Aside from all-day music, there are plenty of other acts to delight and entertain. There will be a magic show twice a day, laser tag, acrobats, stilt walkers and extreme bull riding. All the old favorites will make an appearance as well, such as the carnival rides, Demolition Derby, the Missoula Stampede Rodeo, DockDogs and 4-H livestock exhibits.

As part of the nationwide RAM Rodeo Series, the Missoula Stampede Rodeo dates back to 1915. With both men's and women's divisions, the riders compete for points that may earn them a shot in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Competitions such as bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, team roping and tie down roping bring exciting action every night.

Local art is present as always, but this year the photography and fine arts departments have been split into their own, separate spaces in order to better accommodate visitors. Last year, there were almost 2,000 individual entries across the two departments.

"Our fine arts and photography exhibits are by far our most popular exhibits at the fair; they're huge," said events manager Tom Aldrich. "The exhibits were so big we gave them each their own building this year, so it should be a lot less crowded in there as well."

To accommodate the increased space for the art venues, the fair's history exhibit has been moved into the fair office with an all-new display of historic photos. With help from the Art Attic for the framing, and historian Stan Cohen for the curation, the history exhibit becomes a visual timeline of the fairgrounds from start to present.

The art exhibits come from people of many different skills, ages and interests. A panel of judges is assembled by the exhibit superintendent, and blue ribbons are awarded to the winner in each category. With no fees required to enter the art exhibits, these local competitions are a great experience for aspiring artists of all ages.

"We have professional and amateur divisions, kids, adults; really anyone can find a category in the fair and there's an appeal for everyone too. The professional sees the appeal in having their work curated and displayed, the amateur might just get a kick out of seeing their picture on the wall or showing their parents — there's a reason and there's a division for everyone," Aldrich said.

Aside from photography and fine arts, there are many other art forms present at the fair. The Home Arts Division displays quilts and other homemade items while the new Home Resource Creative Re-Use Division features works of art made from old, repurposed materials.

"There's all kinds of art here," Aldrich said. "The thing I like to note with these exhibits is they're all free, they're part of the free admission package.

"Someone comes to the fair, they can spend hours in our exhibits and not have to pay a penny. We really love that we can give that to the community because people are entering this stuff and they want people to see it, but people can also enjoy it for free. Bringing people together like that I think is really important. Missoula's a very artistic community, we're also a very community-oriented community and I think the fair embodies the spirit of both of those for everybody."

In a further connection to the artistic community, all of the illustrations and graphics for the fair's promotional materials were designed by local artist Josh Quick. Keeping the tradition of having a local artist commissioned for the fair is important to the new fair committee, and will be continued over the years.

"I'm really excited about the fair art this year," said Aldrich, "Josh really captures the spirit of Missoula well, and so we thought he'd be a great fit."

As the fair moves into the future, there are big plans on the horizon for further development. There will be a development booth at the fair where visitors can see for themselves exactly what changes are in store for the fairgrounds. Construction on the improvements is slated to begin next year, and will be in progress over the next five years.

"We're going from 5 acres of open space to 19 acres of open space and Missoula residents really treasure and revere their open spaces," Bentley said. "We're also adding 6,000 feet of trail connections.

"So, for people that live in the neighborhood and that are traveling through, I think the fairgrounds will be a place that transports them using the landscape to tell the story of our agricultural history and our mountain farming community. And I think it's pretty exciting, it's a way to bring together the urban residents and rural residents in a way that is meaningful and promotes community expansion."

The Western Montana Fair runs from Aug. 8-13, and is located at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. For more information, please visit missoulafairgrounds.com/western-montana-fair.

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