We look forward to it every year: The rides, cotton candy, the tractor pulls, the haunted house, the livestock shows, the fireworks. The Tennessee Valley Fair is our expression of an old American tradition. It's a pity that most Americans can't enjoy it as easily as Knoxvillians can.
In our media-distracted times, the old regional or state fair has dwindled, and there aren't as many fairs as there used to be. In 2018, many cities we’re used to comparing ourselves to—Chattanooga, Huntsville, Asheville, Lexington—have nothing much like the Tennessee Valley Fair.
Cruising to the 1910 Appalachian Exposition courtesy of Volunteer Voices: The Growth of Democracy in Tennessee
It goes way back. Knoxville had agricultural and industrial fairs, some of them along streets downtown, as early as 1856. Beginning in 1910, Chilhowee Park was hosting some very big fairs: a couple of Appalachian Expositions and one huge National Conservation Expositions in 1913. A reported one million people, many of them traveling from other parts of the country, came to that one, which lasted for two months and was easily the biggest fair in Knoxville before the 1982 World’s Fair. Before most people had cars, visitors got to Chilhowee Park by way of the electric streetcar from downtown.
You can’t invite a million people to visit every year, though, and in 1916 some fair organizers used the same fairgrounds to launch what they first called the East Tennessee Division Fair.
It wasn’t about math. “Division” refers to the three traditional “grand divisions” of Tennessee. East Tennessee thought of itself as politically, economically, and culturally different from the other two thirds of the state. Many states were settling on the idea of a single “state fair,” often in the center or capital of the state, but East Tennesseans weren’t content to go all the way to Nashville to go to the fair.
Using the fairgrounds of the famous expositions, several local organizers, including veterinarians like Dr. Homer Hamilton, and agricultural professors like Dr. Moses Jacob, started their own annual fair, like a state fair, but one mainly for East Tennessee.
The term “Tennessee Valley” became more popular when the Tennessee Valley Authority was established. East Tennesseans liked the new reference to the river that drained most of their region and started calling it the Tennessee Valley Fair that same year.
1910 Appalachian Exposition courtesy of Knox County Library
Its full, formal name was the Tennessee Valley Agricultural and Industrial Fair. It was a mouthful of a name. The shorthand, TVA&I Fair, may have been just a little too fancy, and led to more than half a century of misunderstandings of who was in charge. Old-timers, referring to Septembers of their youth, often talk about “the TVA Fair.” It's occasionally been described that way by national reporters, who perhaps assumed that the big federal dam building agency was in charge of the fair. Of course, there never was such a thing as the TVA Fair.
Eventually, without changing the fair’s mission, this local organization dropped the “A&I” from its promotions. Today it's the Tennessee Valley Fair, as it often was called in the 1930s.
Chilhowee Park Marble Gazebo photo credit Mike Steely
The only remnant of the 1910-1913 Exposition era is the old Tennessee-marble gazebo. The big Jacob Building, built in 1941, is not the grander original exposition building on that hillside site—it burned down in 1938--but it’s historic in itself, having witnessed almost 80 fairs now. And, as few younger folks today know, was a major concert venue before the Civic Coliseum, especially for jazz, R&B, and early rock ‘n’ roll shows. Among the jazz performers who did live shows at the Jacob Building—many of them dances—were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton. In the 1950s, strange as it may seem, it was hard to find live rock ‘n’ roll in Knoxville. Most mainstream white venues didn’t want to take a chance on it. However, the Jacob Building, which offered a steady diet of R&B for black audiences, featured most of the pioneers of rock, including Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, Ike and Tina Turner, and others, even a very young James Brown. Whites were allowed into the mezzanine balcony as “spectators.”
Sometimes the fair played a role in music history. It was during the September 1953, Tennessee Valley Fair that a couple of West High kids, Don and Phil Everly, met Chet Atkins. The guitar wizard was performing at the Fair that year and came to be convinced the brothers had a future in making records. (There are still shows now, of course, but now they're mostly outside in the Homer Hamilton Theatre.)
Rollercoaster Ride at Tennessee Valley Fair in 1963
When you go to the Fair, you join a century of local tradition. Everybody has a story about going to the fair, and every year, there are a few more.
The Tennessee Valley Fair will take place at Chilhowee Park September 7-16, 2018.