History of the DeKalb County Fair
The DeKalb County Fair, located in Alexandria, was chartered April 15, 1856 by a special act of the state legislature with the fair date to take place October 5 – 7 of that same year. A snowfall caused the fair to be postponed until the following Monday. The 1856 fair had a grandstand, but it had no top and rail pens served as stables. Although there was no music, this fair was still a great success by anyone’s standards; providing the farmers of DeKalb County a place to show crops and livestock. As was common in antebellum times, anywhere large crowds formed sometimes slaves were sold.
The fair seemed to have gone on without many problems for the first five years, then in 1863 Federal troops camped on the grounds and when they left, destroyed the rail pens by fire. No structures were rebuilt until 1872 where they now stand on the present site, 400 yards east of where the first fair was located.
In 1874 they had an exclusive concession to sell whiskey. Though it is not recorded what the price of a drink was, $20.00 could buy a keg. To celebrate Tennessee’s Centennial, the two-day fair was held in 1897.
In 1903 high waters washed thousands of sheaves of wheat down Hickman Creek which runs along the grounds. The flood was so bad that it changed the creek’s path, only the first of many recorded floods that destroyed the fairground.
The DeKalb County Fair in 1908 was the first county fair in Tennessee; and some say in the entire south to hold a night fair. Up until that time all fairs had been during daylight hours only. A tractor engine pulling a leased generator made the electricity. Two new things were introduced to the fair that year, electricity to light the night and the admission to pay for it.
A night fire on June 14, 1914 destroyed the grandstand and from then until 1919 tents and circus seats were used. In 1920 the present grandstand was erected and a foot bridge was built in the location where it now stands. Articles from the Smith County papers imply that the grandstand was purchased from the Rome Fair after an accident involving a bull that gored a woman to death who was standing in the crowd. Because of the accident, the Rome fair was closed. The grandstand was dismantled and moved to Alexandria where it was rebuilt the same year.
The grounds were enlarged to double their size, and 60 new stables were added in 1921. In 1923 the largest women’s building on a county fairground in the south was built. Almost completed, it was demolished by a storm and had to be rebuilt for the opening of the fair. The next year the fair went from its regular three-day event to a four-day fair.
A tornado ripped through the area destroying the cattle barn and heavily damaging the women’s building, 37 stables, the grandstand, fences, and the bridge on June 24, 1928. Not to be outdone, the owners rebuilt again, only to have the free act platform; lady's restroom, fences and 24 stables wash away by floodwaters in 1929. Afterward a retaining wall was built to help prevent the overflow from Hickman Creek. It stretched 450 ft. and contained more than 600 loads of rock and dirt. Trains as well as motor buses offered special rates the week of the fair. Magnificent displays of fireworks were given every night.
The large two-story women’s building had to be torn down in the early 1960’s after a fire caused heavy structural damage to the stables on the first level of the building.
The early years held not only the DeKalb Fair but also a fair for blacks only. Although Blacks had access to all rides, concessions and exhibits, they were required to sit in a reserved area located on the south of the grandstand. A wall between the two sections was solid, so the occupants could not see each other. The Black Fair was operated by Dib Burks of Alexandria and his cousin Henry Belcher of Nashville. The Black Fair was held the Friday and Saturday following the DeKalb Fair and had entries and picnics. A dance was held in the women’s building with a live band.
Tornado-like winds and rain caused heavy damage to the grandstand and other buildings in 1974. In 1979, wind and rain once again tore through the grounds demolishing the women’s building and damaging other structures. In 1994 and 1995 the women’s exhibits were displayed in large tents. The women’s building was rebuilt and named in memory of Kenneth Sandlin, a board member at the time of his death in 1996.
The Alexandria Lions Club erected an open-air pavilion in the summer of 1996 next to the Kenneth Sandlin Center. Donated funds from the Alexandria Merchants were used to build the country store located behind the north end of the grandstand. Since it was organized in 1856, the DeKalb County Fair has been privately owned and operated. But in 1994 it was purchased by the city of Alexandria. A countywide board was appointed to operate the fair. The board leases the property and has complete control over the fair. The fair is run completely by volunteers with the money going back into the fair itself, making it a growing endeavor.
The area under the grandstand, which in the past had been used to sell liquor and later as the poultry exhibit, was again opened and used in the summer of 1995.
Many well known DeKalb Countians have been associated with its ownership. One of the most remembered and highly respected owners being Rob Roy, who served as secretary-treasurer for more than 50 years.