Home of the Montana Territorial and State Fairs 1870-1932




On the Map...
46°37'7.51"N 112° 3'19.41"


1868 & 1869 Territorial Fairs Held
Near Site of Green Meadow Country Club

Helena's first racetrack, the "Fashion Course", was laid out in 1868, and was located close to where the Green Meadow Country Club and Spring Meadow Lake are today, about a mile and a half southwest of the current fairgrounds.

The Fashion Course was part of a small resort on the banks of Ten Mile Creek operated by a Mrs. Coady (aka Cody). It was first named Two Mile House, being two miles from Helena, then later named Ten Mile House. It was on Coady's site that the first and second Montana Territorial Fairs were held in 1868 and 1869. No traces of the track or the Two Mile House resort remain and its exact location is unknown, although a May 20 1872 story in the Helena Herald places Coady's upstream from the Ten Mile crossing on what is now Country Club Avenue.

1868 Helena City Directory Ad for the Two Mile House & Racetrack


COURTESY OF ELLEN BAUMLER

Horseracing proved popular, and in 1870 a private consortium purchased the current fairgrounds site, and began building the track and other facilities.

The fairgrounds was the site of the Montana Territorial Fair beginning in 1870, and of the first Montana State Fair in 1903.

On September 30 1911, aviation history was made at the fairgrounds when young Cromwell Dixon became the first person to fly across the Continental Divide, taking off from the fairgrounds, landing at Blossberg some 17 miles to the west, and returning.

Fair attendance declined during the hard economic times of the 1920s, and the last exhibition of any size was held there in 1932. By 1933 the facility was abandoned, and its buildings were allowed to decay.

In 1958, volunteers organized to repair the facility, and in 1961 the "Last Chance Stampede" was formed. In 1990, a fair was reinstituted, and the grounds were once again established as a center for community activities.

However, lack of maintenance funds continued to plague the problematic facility over the years. The original grandstand was condemned and torn down in 1999, and metal-framed stadium seating was put in place.

A variety of events are currently held at the fairgrounds, including the Last Chance Stampede and the Lewis and Clark County Fair.

VISiT THE FAIRGROUNDS WEBSITE


Download a Detailed History of the Fairgrounds, by the
Helena/Lewis and Clark County Historic Preservation Commission

Click on the two PDF links below for a lengthy and fascinating history of the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds. Part One is an historical summation, Part Two contains numerous maps, aerial views and photographs. NOTE: Part Two is a very large, graphics-heavy file, so allow time for the complete download.

Courtesy of Paul Putz

Behind the Grandstand, circa 1915
Model Farm Irrigated by Electricity


COURTESY OF SEAN LOGAN • CLICK ON IMAGE FOR A BIG VIEW IN A NEW WINDOW

View of a "Model Farm irrigated by electric pump", set up near the Machinery Pavillion just south of the grandstand. The display was sponsored, not surprisingly, by the Helena Light & Railway Co., and Butte Light & Power Co. Available online newspaper archives reveal nothing more about the Model Farm. Thanks to Helena historian Sean Logan for sharing this wonderful photograph!

 

Montana State Fair Agricultural Exhibits, Early 1900s


CULBERTSON PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DAVID POOR COLLECTION
CLICK ON IMAGE TO OPEN A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW



CULBERTSON PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DAVID POOR COLLECTION
CLICK ON IMAGE TO OPEN A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW

 

 




COURTESY OF THE DAVID POOR COLLECTION



Cromwell Dixon
First Flight Over the Continental Divide, 1911



Stereoview of Cromwell Dixon and his airplane at the Montana State Fairgounds, September 30, 1911. Dixon was a nineteen year old aviator from Columbus, Ohio. On September 30, he became the first pilot to fly across the Continental Divide. The young pilot took off from the fairgrounds at Helena and landed thirty-four minutes later in a field near Blossberg, some 17 miles to the west. Dixon wired the officals at the fairgrounds that he had landed safely, refueled his bamboo and fabric aircraft, and lifted off for his return flight to Helena.

Strong tail winds aided his return; and after circling the fairgrounds twice, he landed safely. Governor Edwin Norris proclaimed Dixon "The World's Greatest Aviator" and presented him a check for $10,000. Dixon died just two days later when his plane crashed in Spokane, Washington.

For more about Cromwell Dixon and his historic flight, please go here.



Looking East, 1913


COURTESY OF THE DAVID POOR COLLECTION • CLICK ON IMAGE TO OPEN A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW

 

At the 1915 Fair, Ralph B. Adams Demonstrated the
First Wireless Radio Used by U. S. Forest Service Lookouts

 

Elephants at the Fairgrounds, date unknown





Charles A. Lindbergh at the Fairgrounds, Sept. 6 1927



Historic 1870 Racetrack
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places


DETAIL OF AN 1895 TOPOGRAPHIC MAP, SHOWING THE FAIRGROUNDS AND TRACK

From the racetrack's 2006 Nation Register of Historic Places registration form, by Ellen Baumler...

"Constructed in 1870, the historic racetrack at the Montana State Fairgrounds constitutes a significant link to the proud history of horseracing in the city of Helena, and throughout the state of Montana.

One of the earliest regulation tracks to be built, the resource has a long and important history as the center of recreational racing in the area. As the location of the first organized and regulation races in the state, the fairgrounds track is the place where the colorful and important history of Montana horseracing got its start.

Throughout the late 1800s, Helena's track was intrinsic to the state's racing circuit, where breeders, horses and jockeys influenced the national racing scene. Throughout the years, and especially during the State Fair's heydays between 1870 and 1932, racing at the track was attractive to elite thoroughbred aficionados as well as standardbred enthusiasts."

THE ENTIRE .DOC NRHP REGISTRATION FORM, WHICH INCLUDES A DETAILED HISTORY OF THE TRACK AND NUMEROUS PHOTOS, MAY BE DOWNLOADED BY RIGHT-CLICKING HERE.




Montana State Fairgrounds, 1910. Trotters at the finish line

Excerpts from the racetrack's 2006 Nation Register of Historic Places registration form, by Ellen Baumler...

"By the 1890s, races at the Helena fairs were big business, attracting owners and horses from Deer Lodge; Great Falls; Butte; Toston; Helena; Spokane Falls, Washington; and Denver, Colorado. At the First State Fair in 1890 (although still there was no state involvement), the Denver Trotting Stables had numerous entries. The Denver horses and other jockeys and horses that had been at races at Butte, some 100 in all, arrived with some fanfare on special Montana Central cars built for transporting racehorses. An aggregate purse of $15,000 and mutual and other kinds of betting were incentives for numerous entries in 1890."

"Automobile racing began in 1914 and gained popularity in 1915. An automobile track was constructed within the racetrack in 1916, but horse racing-despite the abolishment of betting-was still a popular facet of the state fair through the 1920s. It waned as the decade passed the mid-mark and again gained momentum in 1927. Carloads of thoroughbreds arrived via the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern and racing enthusiasts hung on the fence around the track, watching the horses' daily workouts."

"In 1930, horse racing was again the most important attraction and betting had resumed. Seven races daily for six days made a rigorous program. In July, horses, jockeys and trainers began to gather for the fair, August 18-23. By the 21st of July, 'more than 250 horses from the best circuits in Canada, Mexico, and the United States' were stabled at the fairgrounds with 100 more horses due to arrive. The races promised generous purses and the pari-mutuel machine system of betting 'added zest' to the finish line. In this system, a machine registers bets as they are placed and calculates and posts changing odds and final payoffs, making races even more exciting. Nearly 25,000 people attended the fair.

"In 1931, again horse racing was an important part of the program. The Lewis and Clark Racing Association held a "race meeting" at the fairgrounds for six days in early August of 1931 under the new pari-mutuel machine system. 31 The fair then opened ten days later. Six days of races during the fair included purses of more than $13,500. 32 The state fair, however, last held in 1932, lapsed during the depression. In 1933, the depression forced cancellation of the Montana State Fair at Helena. Most people simply could not afford the price of admission."



1938 Aerial View of the Track


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION

The faint outline of a 1916 half-mile automobile racing track can be seen in the infield of the horse track.



1955 Aerial View of the Track


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION

In the summer of 1953, the Capital City Racing Association built a quarter-mile stock car track inside the 1916 auto track. It was in use until at least 1956, when Valley Speedway opened.

 

Stock Car Crash at the Fairgrounds, 1950s



Fairgrounds Renovation Started in 1958

From the racetrack's 2006 Nation Register of Historic Places registration form, by Ellen Baumler...

"In 1958, Bill Carson organized concerned citizens to begin renovation of the fairgrounds. A county-supported board of directors formed and many volunteers repaired the dilapidated property. With the first Last Chance Stampede in 1961, horseracing returned to the fairgrounds and the track continued in use until the last race in 1998."



Derelict Helena Downs Starting Gate


PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLEN BAUMLER

 

Short Video Clip of a 1972 Race

V I D E O
CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO DOWNLOAD

A very short video clip of horses running at the Fairgrounds track in 1972. Taken from the 1973 Helena Chamber of Commerce promotional film "Helena - City of Gold".

COURTESY OF KITTY ANN QUIGLEY TAALER



Incremental Degradation of the Track
1995 Aerial View of the Track

From the racetrack's 2006 Nation Register of Historic Places registration form, by Ellen Baumler...

"In 1999, temporary, metal-framed stadium seating was introduced in lieu of the original grandstands [demolished in 1999]. In 2005, a small portion of the track, approximately one-eighth of the surface, just east of the homestretch and west of the first turn, was blocked off by metal-framed stands. In order to create a rodeo arena, the track surface was turned, and a section of the infield was denuded of grass."

 

The Blocked-off Homestretch, Stadium Seating and Rodeo Arena, 2006


PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLEN BAUMLER • CLICK ON IMAGE TO OPEN A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW

 

Huge County Facilty Built in Track Infield, 2008
Legal Action Unable to Prevent

In 2006, a group of historic preservationists and horseracing enthusiasts, allied as the Save the Track Foundation, filed injunctions against and eventually sued Lewis & Clark County over its plans to construct a huge exhibtion hall and grandstand facility in the infield of the historic track. The Foundation claimed that the County had bamboozled voters during a 2006 levy election by announcing only after the election that the site of the facility would be in the track infield.

In March of 2008, State District Judge Thomas Honzel found in favor of the County.



Recent Photos of the Track and County Facility
2011 Google Maps Satellite Views




The new metal exhibit hall, grandstands, and rodeo arena now sit in the center of the historic site. Consequently, the central south portion of the track has been removed to accommodate parking.

 

Views of the New Facility, June 2012
Photos Courtesy of Ellen Baumler



Looking West from the First Turn, June 2012


PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLEN BAUMLER • CLICK ON IMAGE TO OPEN A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW

 

The First Turn, June 2012


PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLEN BAUMLER • CLICK ON IMAGE TO OPEN A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW

 

Backstretch, Looking East, June 2012


PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLEN BAUMLER • CLICK ON IMAGE TO OPEN A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW



Lost Fairgrounds Structures
For more images of these structures, along with maps showing their former
locations, please download part 2 of the Historic Sites Review, linked to above.

The First Grandstand, circa 1870 - 1906


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION



The Second Grandstand, 1906 - demolished 1999

260 feet long - 60 feet wide • seated 5,000 people


 


Exhibition Hall
Built in 1870, enlarged 1903-4, burned about 1923


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION

 

Towers were added to the south side of the Exhibition Hall in 1904


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION

 


Horticultural Hall, 1914-1935 - destroyed by earthquakes
A man was killed by its collapse


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION



Telephone Exchange, circa 1914 - circa 1950


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION




Fish and Game Commission Aquarium, 1915 - circa 1960


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION



Dairy Building, 1911 - circa 1960


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION



The West Barns, 1924/1929 - 2011


FROM THE LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS HISTORIC SITES REVIEW
HELENA/LEWIS & CLARK COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION

 

West Barns Shortly Before Demolition, May 2011
Photos courtesy of Kerry Brown
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Interior and Exterior Photos of the West Barns
A Powerpoint presentation created for the Historic American Buildings Survey

Courtesy of Lewis & Clark County Historic Preservation Officer Pam Attardo


Click on image to open Powerpoint presentation



Demolition of the West Barns, 2011


COURTESY OF KERRY BROWN



Demolition seen from Space...

Last Chance Stampede
Started in 1961

The Treasure State Rodeo, held at the fairgrounds 1944-47, was a precursor to the Last Chance Stampede.

 

1964 Last Chance Stampede Poster
by Helena artist Irvin "Shorty" Shope (1900-1977)


 

1961 Last Chance Stampede Queen Candidates at the Nite Owl


THE WES AND CAROL SYNNESS COLLECTION

The girl on the far left in Sonja Synness; fourth from the left is Kitty Ann Quigley, "Miss Frontier Town". "Miss VFW" is Judy Buswell (thanks to Kathryn Fehlig). Miss Rotary was Carol Pickering Anderson, Miss Jaycees was Abby Fredrikson Pence (thanks to Gail Hatch).

Can you help identify any of these other lovely young ladies?



Bucking Bronco Chutes at the 1963 Last Chance Stampede



COURTESY OF KITTY ANN QUIGLEY TAALER




Chariot Race, 1963 Last Chance Stampede


COURTESY OF KITTY ANN QUIGLEY TAALER

 

 

Last Chance Stampede Parade Color Guard, Main at 11th, 1968


COLLECTION OF KENNON BAIRD • CLICK ON IMAGE FOR A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW



1977 High School Rodeo National Finals, Looking East


THE WES AND CAROL SYNNESS COLLECTION • CLICK ON IMAGE FOR A BIG VERSION IN A NEW WINDOW

 

1977 High School Rodeo National Finals, Looking North


THE WES AND CAROL SYNNESS COLLECTION

 

 

Last Chance Stampede Parade on Last Chance Gulch, 1989


PHOTO BY KENNON BAIRD