In September of 1897, Denton was a booming town of about 2,500 people clustered around what is still the heart of Denton, our downtown Square. Things looked a lot different then. Our beloved 1896 Courthouse on the Square was brand-spankin' new. Both of our universities were still dreams in the making, and agriculture was the top economic driver.
Even the Denton Record-Chronicle had not yet arrived on the scene. The photo image accompanying this column today is the front page of the Aug. 5, 1897, edition of the Denton County News. And big news was happening. The Denton County Fair was just a month away.
I imagine those early Dentonites were excited. Men scoured their livestock and farm produce, selecting the best in their fields to show against their neighbors'. Women canned, pickled, baked and quilted with visions of blue ribbons for their efforts. And from youngest to oldest, everyone looked forward to four days of picnicking, horse racing, music and frivolity. It was the event of the year, a time when the community would come together to celebrate the town and the fruits of their combined labors.
That was 120 years ago.
In truth, fair-like gatherings were "a thing" long before 1897. According to the book North Texas State Fair and Rodeo (Images of America) by Nanci Kimmey and Georgia Caraway (available at the Discover Denton Welcome Center), a Denton County Fair and Blood Stock Association Fair started in 1885, a forerunner to the 1897 fair with similar content and community engagement. That's 132 years of documented Denton tradition between these two fairs.
And the tradition has never gone away.
This coming Friday, the North Texas Fair and Rodeo will open at the North Texas Fairgrounds on Carroll Boulevard (behind Kroger on University Drive) for nine days packed with much of the same stuff the community anticipated back in the old days.
Of course, it stands to reason that in all these years, some evolutions have occurred. For instance, everybody does everything in today's fair culture. Men, women and children all compete in showing livestock, domestic wares, photography and art. Horse racing has given way to the more encompassing multi-sport rodeo with sanctioned ties to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). We're talking bareback riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, calf roping, bull riding and more. And, while it's not a pro sport, my favorite rodeo event is the cowboy kiddos on sheep-back competing in the mutton bustin' competition. You've got to see it to appreciate it.
Music is further-reaching these days, too. The NTFR attracts top international celebrities like this year's Josh Abbott Band, Austin Allsup, Travis Tritt and Tracy Byrd, among others.
The NTFR is Denton's oldest, most-beloved festival, so it's not surprising that it is also the longest — nine days and nights. More than 120,000 people attend the fair each year, many from out of town. This is the true Texas that visitors seek, especially international visitors, like Ulrich Nonyu. Ulrich is from Central Africa and saw his very first rodeo, his very first cowboy, at the NTFR last summer. He shared his story in the fall 2016 issue of Denton Live magazine, and it is definitely worth a read.
The NTFR is just as appealing, though, to us locals. Why? This is the substance that made Texas Texas. It made America America. The NTFR is the one opportunity each year to experience from whence we came.
Denton is a city of festivals. We love our diversity and share it through celebration. The NTFR is one such celebration exactly. It is our roots, but as mentioned above, it is our present and our future, as well. It is a jubilee of our agricultural world, without which human life could not survive.
All of our festivals return an impact on our community through spending and visitation, and the NTFR is one of the biggest. But they go beyond just producing an event. On an average year, the NTFR invests about $450,000 back into the Denton community through their year-round work with more than 50 local nonprofit and fundraising events. The NTFR is a year-round re-investment in our city and our youth. As patrons and fans, we love the event so much that more than 800 of us volunteer precious free hours to help pull off an event of this caliber and nationwide, award-winning acclaim.
This ain't our first rodeo, folks. This is Denton from day one, traditions that have brought Dentonites together for as long as we've been a spot on the map. Though time marches on, some things actually do remain: our shared agricultural past, love for this town and reasons to gather and celebrate life. Bundle these constants, and you have the North Texas Fair and Rodeo.
I'm going to shine my boots now. See you at the fair.
For full schedule and ticket information for the North Texas Fair and Rodeo, visit ntfair.com.
KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton's original, independent spirit through the city's sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.