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Fairgrounds Work

The railing of the horse racing track at the Missoula County Fairgrounds is being removed. Removal of the racetrack, which hasn't been used since 2010, is the first step in a major redevelopment of the 160-acre fairgrounds in the heart of Missoula.

The Missoula County commissioners are asking for public comment for the development of the fairgrounds. There should be a public conversation about the fairgrounds and our history and the cache that comes with the listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Usually an individual building is no longer eligible for listing if it is torn down; it is rare for a building to remain standing and be removed from the national register. Montana has never seen the removal of an entire historic district from the national register. The adoption of the proposed master plan and design guidelines will result in the loss of the Missoula County Fairgrounds Historic District.

The county fairgrounds nomination presents such a compelling, colorful and thoughtful story that covers so much of our history and the fairgrounds, it should have been more of a driving force in the fair planning process. There is a colorful and eclectic collection of historic themes at the fairgrounds. If we think about these themes as a tapestry of our collective experiences and sense of who we are, these historic threads are being removed.

Horse racing has always been one of the colorful signature events of the fair, the track, grandstand, horse barns and more are being removed. The historic grandstand tied the rodeo, the horse racing, the demolition derby, the pari-mutuel betting and the beer garden together and it’s all being removed. There were two historic structures from the Internment Camp at Fort Missoula, one is being returned to the Fort, the other has been demolished. The historic landscape is being removed; how people move through the fair, how the fair was designed and built and more shapes the landscape.

One person commented in the early planning meetings that the mishmash of buildings, the food court and vendors was "classic Missoula funk," this mishmash that added to sense of place will be removed. The 4-H cafe will not be rebuilt. Demolishing the WPA Maintenance Shop removes yet another thread from the fairgrounds tapestry. During World War II there was no county fair, this building was re-purposed for the war effort. Victory Gardens were planted across Missoula County, the Maintenance Shop was transformed into a massive processing plant to can and preserve thousands of pounds of foods. The loss of so many threads of the fair’s history leaves us with less than a whole piece of cloth, we are left with just a few threads.

Others will count the buildings, sites and structures. There are no set numbers for exactly how many should remain when considering if a property should be delisted. The numbers for the fairgrounds are disappointing. There are 11 contributing buildings, three will remain while eight will be removed. There are two contributing sites: one will remain and one will be removed. There are four contributing structures; all four are being removed. In total, there are 17 buildings, sites and structures that contribute to the historic district; 13 of them will be removed. Losing 76.5 percent of the contributing buildings, sites and structures is a big number to contemplate.

The city of Missoula lauds its 10 historic districts for helping to shape the character which makes Missoula unique. Those 10 may become nine if these plans are adopted. The fairgrounds is one of the icons that makes Missoula special. Generations of western Montanans have displayed agricultural products and livestock at the fair, watched horse races and rodeos, and mingled in this celebration of rural life. We should move carefully before we contemplate removing an entire district from the National Register of Historic Places.

Daniel S. Hall is president of Western Cultural, a historical and archaeological research firm in Missoula. He has spent nearly 30 years working professionally with the National Register of Historic Places.

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