By Myra Lee Adams Goff
Next week will be the annual Comal County Fair which had its first event in 1894.
When I was doing the research at the Sophienburg for the book It’s Fair Time for the Fair Association, there was one particular era in its development that intrigued me. It was the period beginning in 1923 for about 10 years. It was a period of extreme success, followed by almost complete failure and then success once again. To me, it showed the tenacity of the directors to keep this “the largest County Fair in Central Texas”.
Here’s how it happened: After some slack years, the Fair Association reorganized into a corporation in 1923, bought more land, put up more buildings, repaired the grandstand and then the unexpected happened; a fire totally destroyed the new grandstand. The choice was to rebuild or close up; they rebuilt. Then they took out rain insurance, and as luck would have it, rain came on Friday and Saturday. On Monday the insurance adjuster handed over $5,000 and with the additional gate receipts that year, the fair was in good shape financially.
The success of this fair spurred on spending for the next few years. Additional buildings were built and the land was improved. Write-ups in the New Braunfels Herald showed an overall optimistic spirit. Two gigantic pageants were held at the fairgrounds, the biggest with over 300 performers was called “The Gypsy Rover”.
The first fair queen, Alvina Vogel, was crowned in 1929 with much pomp, circumstance, and expense. The parades were getting bigger and so were the carnivals and rodeos. Slowly the Great Depression crept south but the local economy was looking good (so they thought) and the Fair Association decided to hold the 1931 fair despite economics. The depression was having a bigger effect than they realized and unfortunately, the fair went in the hole to the tune of $2,250, a big amount at that time.
Now here’s where they showed their tenacity. The FA decided to make some drastic changes in order to hold a fair in ’32. First they sent a letter to all those winners who would have received cash prizes in ‘31 stating that they were sending a certificate that could be redeemed “only after we have the money”. Secretary Edwin Staats suggested that they might want to consider just donating the unpaid certificate as many others had done. Then they cut out all activities that cost big bucks, like the queen’s contest. Elsie Meyer in ‘31 was the last fair queen until 1967. In addition, as much home talent as possible was used.
Of course, the carnival had to be engaged and a professional rodeo had to be hired. For entertainment, the arena was converted into a western ranch with ponies, steers, and broncos. Then there was a home talent rodeo in which only Comal Countians could participate.
Pageants that had become a big draw were eliminated. They called on the community to provide free entertainment, like the NB Unicorns football game and polo games. There was even a burlesque polo game on donkeys as a comedy act. On this team were Ernst Stein, Charles Scruggs, Paul Jahn, Pete Nuhn, Coach Rode, Red Babel, Barney Koepp, Dr. Rennie Wright, and Jack Eiband. There were no cash prizes for anything.
By far, the biggest innovative change was the practice of giving gate passes to exhibitors in order to attract large crowds. This practice has been carried on ever since. The strategy worked! The fair not only kept afloat, but it made a whopping profit of $150. When all was done, a Herald reporter observed,”No depression that ever existed can depress the fair spirit in Comal County”. If you would like to know more about the history of the fair, purchase their book It’s Fair Time at the fairgrounds or the Sophienburg.