By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
By now you know that “it’s fair time!” This fabulous, fun-filled week of the Comal County Fair brings the entire community together and hopefully slides in on the first norther of the year. Yeah, that weather thing is not happening this year, but still very fun-filled. Everyone that grew up in New Braunfels or has lived here a while, has a “favorite thing” about the fair.
As a child, my favorite thing was what my mother called the hobby horses. The beautifully painted horses gliding around on the glittering, mirrored carousel captured my eye from early on. Even when we were out of tickets, I was content to watch. I never seemed to move past riding anything more than the carousel, which as a teen, I’m sure made me something of an oddity. The horses just seemed so glamorous (plus, I never felt the need to spin at a high rate of speed in a cage above the fairgrounds).
Later on, a different circle of horses caught my attention. There was less gliding and galloping, but beautiful more all the same. And I do miss it!
Horse racing was a very important part of the Comal County Fair for many years. The Comal County Fair Association was formed early in 1893, fashioned after a very successful fundraiser for the Krankenhaus (hospital) in 1892. Harry Landa was elected president. They selected a date later in 1893 to hold the first fair in Landa’s pasture (later LCRA and now The Landmark). Unfortunately, there was a terrible drought that year. The fair was cancelled due to being too dusty for horse racing!
In 1894, the first actual fair was held, complete with both saddle and harness racing. Saddle racing is that of a rider perched upon a saddle on the animal’s back. Harness racing is where a rider sits upon a two-wheel buggy pulled by a single horse with a specific gait, a trot or a pace. In his memoir, As I Remember, Harry Landa tells of his rather dismal business venture where he bought buggies and a string of trotters in order to be ready to run them at the 1894 fair. He ended up trading all for 30 rail cars of hay, something he felt was a much better proposition than racing.
After five years on the Landa property, the Comal County Fair Association purchased approximately twenty-two acres in Comal Town above the Guadalupe River. There, they built a racetrack and a dancehall. Financial difficulties prompted them to sell the acreage to the city of New Braunfels, who in turn leased the property back to the Association. They appeared to enjoy some successes, but there is no mention of fair from 1910 to 1922 (basically World War I era). During that time the city used the property as a dump, building an incinerator on site. The stack is still visible.
In 1923, the Fair Association reorganized, purchasing three city blocks adjacent to the city property. The old leased property and buildings had not been touched for more than 10 years. The group worked to add improvements and bring the track back to life. Just a month before the fair, a huge fire consumed the grandstand. It was rebuilt, granting them the ability to hold both harness and saddle races. Racing became a very popular spectator sport.
By January 1926, the Association added winter pony racing events to the calendar, stepping out of the county fair time frame. There were up and down successes through the years. Texas voters approved parimutuel betting just four years prior, but it was again outlawed in 1937. Racing had remained steady without legalized betting, but the popularity of horse racing had risen when parimutuel betting was legal in Texas at four large state-designated tracks. The Comal County Fair Association benefited from all the activity even though they were never licensed for parimutuel betting.
By 1958, Marcus Adams, Secretary of the Comal County Fair Association, was appointed a member of the Texas Racing Circuit. The circuit was made up of operators from six race tracks in southern Texas: New Braunfels, Junction, Fredericksburg, Brady, Boerne, and Sonora, running both thoroughbred and quarter horses races Many CCFA members served on the Texas Racing Circuit over the years. Of the tracks that made up the Texas Racing Circuit, only Fredericksburg still operates a race track.
Along the way, the local Comal County Fair race track became known as Dutchman Downs. During the ’70s, the track developed a reputation as one of the leading training centers for some of the finest quarter horse racing stables, complimented by local award-winning trainers and jockeys.
From the time that parimutuel betting was outlawed in 1937, proponents pushed to have it reinstated. Parimutuel betting appeared on Texas ballots more than four times. Finally, in 1987, the Texas voters approved a referendum legalizing parimutuel wagering again. It also created the Texas Racing Commission and a new set of rules. The rules required a track to have a clear quarter-mile straightaway for parimutuel licensure. With the layout of the fairground property backing up to the Guadalupe River bluff, there was no way that Comal County Fairgrounds could fit a quarter-mile straightaway. Races continued to run in 1987 and 1988 with the last run in 1989. Sadly, the 1990 races were canceled due to lack of entries. There was only one.
After trainers moved to other recognized tracks, the inside fairground track rail was cut open to expand the center rodeo arena. Now, the rodeo is my favorite thing. Go to the fair and find your favorite thing! Enjoy!
Sources: Gene Chollett; Danny Scheel; It’s Fair Time by Myra Lee Adams Goff, So phienburg Museum and Archives; A Pictorial History by Rosemarie Leissner Gregory and Myra Lee Adams Goff.