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Reminiscing about the fair

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The Alfalfa Palace in 1893. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Growing up in Roswell in the 1950s and ’60s, this time of year there were those things we all looked forward to that got us through the school year: The Eastern New Mexico State Fair, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday. Those were the things that made time pass a little faster, and after each one, we could start anticipating the next event until the long haul after Christmas vacation that seemed like an eternity. Those things are still the same for the kids today.

In those days, school wouldn’t start until the first of September, but then it would just be a short month and you would be at “Fair Time!” Oh the glories of the parade and cotton candy, candied apples, balloons and trinkets and the bright lights of the carnival and the rides. The rodeo was also a big thing in those days, along with all the other attractions.

Many of us might remember dressing in western wear that would have to be purchased at Tode’s, a western wear department store on Main Street. It was a fun place to walk into, with local cattle brands branded into the wood paneled walls. And if memory serves me, a saddle or two. We kids could climb up on and pretend we were riding a horse. Tode Brenneman was quite the character and storyteller. You always had fun in his store. It seems everyone dressed in western wear for the fair and parade,in those days.

Early fair — 1892

From the book of James D. Shinkle, “Reminiscences of Roswell Pioneers,” Mrs. R.S. Hamilton wrote: “in the early fall of 1892 there was a general opinion expressed by the citizens of Roswell and by stockman and farmers, especially those with orchards, that the time had come when something must be done to advertise Roswell and Chaves County that would “put us on the map” — a rather new phrase at that time.

After some discussion it was decided to hold a fair. The fairgrounds then was in the north west section of Roswell. They included part of what is now the municipal golf course and the old airport.

The ordinary shed like buildings in general use for such occasions were not satisfactory and someone suggested we build one large room of bailed alfalfa, and out of that suggestion developed the 1892 Alfalfa Palace.

The building was about 80 by 90 feet, with height in proportion, and in the shape of an oblong castle with battlements at the top of it, and all-around the walls, made by layering one bale of alfalfa the length wise and standing the next bale on end. We had wanted ‘something out of the ordinary’ and the Palace was it.

When we went inside we were dumbfounded. We felt we could never fill that great open space — neither could we fail to do the task given to us — and in desperation we invaded and stripped every home in Roswell and surrounding country, taking any and everything we could use. We took pictures, quilts, crazy and otherwise, counterpanes, whether of intricate design or not; all kinds of fancy work, old-time garments and hats, bonnets and beds — anything to fill up the Palace. And, after all, with the bunting and flags to help out, the textile department was rather attractive.

We had no anxiety about the canned fruit, jelly, bread, pickles, pie and cake sections. We knew the women would bring their choicest jars of all kinds of the beautiful, perfect fruit produced in this country at that time.

Neither were we anxious about the farmers department in the Palace. It was to contain all varieties of vegetables and melons galore (and they were of immense size), and as some of the farmers had come from states where the tall corn grows, we knew they had that same growth, reaching into the rafters; and sheaves of all kinds of grain, which were very decorative, and added much to this department.

From the orchards came such fruit as to be beyond description. Apples, peaches, pears, plums, etc., never grown any place else without a blemish or a worm.

The Alfalfa Palace and everything connected with the fair was a tremendous accomplishment.

1931 parade Roswell Daily Record, Oct. 5, 1931

Grand Parade Will Feature Opening Day of the Fair

The grand parade, which will usher in the annual eastern New Mexico State Fair, will start moving promptly at 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning and is expected to be the greatest procession of its kind which has ever marched down Main Street. The parade will move promptly at 10 o’clock. All units are urged to be in their places not later than 9:30 a.m.

The procession will move south from 11th St. on Main to Alameda — west to Richardson — South to Tilden — east to Maine, and north on Main to the carnival grounds.

This was when the fairgrounds was located on North Main Street next to the Spring River before moving to its current location.

There have been lots of changes since those early days. Not many dress up in the western wear these days, and we still miss Tode’s store from the days downtown was bustling, but we still have a lovely parade, and as a community we can support and enjoy our local schools, charities, businesses, first responders, NMMI cadets, the list goes on. Go out and have a good time, enjoy some cotton candy or perhaps a funnel cake, ride the rides, enjoy the exhibits, love and support our community and surrounding areas!

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at jdunna@hotmail.com.