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Fair
Preserve Historic Missoula has gathered information on the Western Montana Fair as part of a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Michael Gallacher/Missoulian

It's a scene that fills a lot of senses around here.

"Scarcely had the sun peeped up over Mount Sentinel yesterday before the fairground was alive with activities of all sorts."

The words could have been written last August, or 50 years ago.

In truth, they're dated Sept. 30, 1914, as the local newspaper marked the bustle of opening day at the first Western Montana Fair on its 46-acre corner of south Missoula.

World War I had broken out in Europe a few weeks earlier. Over the next 9 1/2 decades, other wars would mark the backdrop of the Missoula fair. So would fires and rain, parachute drops and fresh bouquets, buglers calling horses to the post, the auctioneer's staccato on Saturday morning and Tater Pigs, Smokey Bear, bucking bulls and purple-ribbon ewes.

Who among us can't smell or hear it right now?

"There's a real tangible association of place at the fairgrounds," Janene Caywood said this week.

Is there history here? Of course. Is it a historic site of national import? Almost.

At the invitation of Missoula County, Caywood and the young nonprofit group called Preserve Historic Missoula has compiled a historic inventory of the fairgrounds as part of a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

County commissioners got an overview of the report Tuesday at a courthouse presentation led Caywood, who did the bulk of the research for the nomination non gratis.

The 50-page nomination was sent to the state historic preservation office in early February. As is usually the case, it was sent back for corrections and additions, which have been made.

Now it's on to the state review board, which will make a final decision at its quarterly meeting in May in Billings. From there, it goes to the keeper of the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places for final approval.

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According to the nomination, the fairgrounds are eligible under both the "commerce" and "entertainment/recreation" criteria as host of the fair for most of the past century.

The fair offers "exhibits and displays designed to promote area agriculture and commerce," it argues. "Since the beginning, fair activities have included entertainment and recreational events (rodeos, horse racing and performances) intended to draw people to participate in the annual gathering."

The grounds also fit on the National Register for their architectural merit. The original buildings were designed by Ole Bakke, who as protégé and partner of noted architect A.J. Gibson designed many of Missoula's landmark buildings.

The proposed period of significance for the fairgrounds is from its origins in 1914 until 1960, or 50 years ago - the end of the historical period as defined by the National Register.

"We approached the fairgrounds as a cultural landscape," Caywood told the commissioners. "That meant that we weren't just going to look at the buildings. We were going to look at the whole site and see what parts of it retained integrity from the historical period."

To Caywood, as well as to Preserve Historic Missoula and Philip Maechling, the county's historic preservation officer, the grounds are significant in part for their layout. Three distinct areas have not changed significantly since 1914.

One is the racetrack and its associated infrastructure. Built at an oblique angle, perhaps because of the shape of the underlying land parcel, the track's orientation dictated the development of everything else on the grounds.

Another is the middle grid that contains exhibit buildings. The third is the open space along the northern quarter of the grounds where the carnival sets up at fair time. The open space, said Caywood, is just as important as the other two areas.

The nomination lists 17 contributing buildings, sites and structures that range from the two-story 1915 Commercial Building to the 1959 Floriculture Building, constructed at the end of the period of significance; to the half-mile racetrack and three wooden barns on the backside. The track and one of the barns were intact that late September morning in 1914, when the sun rose on the first fair day.

Twenty-six buildings and structures are not contributing, either because they were built after 1960 or they've been significantly altered. Those include the racetrack announcer's stand (circa 1970), the pari-mutuel betting plaza east of the bleachers (1963) and both the American Legion and Soroptomist bingo kiosks on the midway, although the latter was built in 1960.

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Dale Bickell, the county's chief administrative officer, said he expects consultant Crandall Arambula to return next month to reveal its final recommendations for a future fairgrounds, as well as a cost estimate and a phase-in plan. The firm used community input last year to arrive at three schematics, then whittled those down to one.

A study of the fairgrounds from an historic perspective is important to the planning process, said Dan Hall of Preserve Historic Missoula, who thanked the commissioners for allowing his group "a seat at the table."

"This is one of the things we've been saying from the start that needs to be done. We need to know what is historically important and what's not, so we can have an informed discussion," Hall said.

"There are things that under all three scenarios are going to go away that are not historically significant and that's fine. We shouldn't waste our time and our efforts having a conversation about the future of those buildings if they're not historically significant."

One often-overlooked building is on the list of contributors. The U-shaped maintenance shop near the east entrance of the grounds was built in 1940 by the Works Progress Adminstration. Under all scenarios, the building will disappear.

"Now we know the shop building has historical significance, and I think that should come into the discussion," Hall said.

The racetrack is also missing in Crandall Arambula's preferred alternative, replaced by a promenade that marks the track's historical footprint. With some exceptions, Missoula County has hosted pari-mutuel horse racing every year there was a fair at the site. The track sat silent the past three fairs, but a private company under the name Montana Downs LLC contracted last month to run two days of racing in 2010, with an option for more in 2011.

Two contributing one-story buildings were moved to the fairgrounds in 1955 from Fort Missoula, where they served as barracks for Italians and/or Americans of Japanese or German descent who were detained by the Department of Justice during World War II. One is the fair office, the other a 4-H exhibit building.

The latter could conceivably be moved back to the fort in the county's attempt to get Fort Missoula designated as a National Historic Landmark for its role as a Japanese detention camp. Maechling is finishing a grant application to fund the effort, and said money might be available for the move as part of a restoration plan at the fort.

A National Register listing doesn't inhibit development on a site such as the fairgrounds. For instance, Caywood said, an elevator or lift installed to make the two-story Commercial Building handicap-accessible would not detract from its contributing value.

New construction takes place in historic districts all the time, said Maechling.

"The question is, if you're going to put new buildings in, how do they relate to the contributing buildings and also to the open spaces that are contributing elements in the historic district?" he said. "It's kind of like site planning with a sense of the story."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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