Arizona's State Fair

The Depression Remade the Fairgrounds

During the week of December 4, 1905, heavy rainstorms forced state officials to reschedule Arizona’s first territorial fair. Weeks later, on Christmas Day, the fair opened its doors. Governor Joseph H. Kibbey made a few opening remarks to more than 2,000 Arizonans who had arrived by train to partake in the festivities. Throughout the week, horse racing took place along with competitive company drills and other military exercises.

Beginning in 1905, the Arizona State Fairgrounds--located at McDowell Road and 17th Street--have changed dramatically. Once a rural outpost at the edge of Phoenix, the fairgrounds were eventually surrounded by housing and suburban sprawl and located in the central core of the Phoenix region. Likewise, the facilities have expanded their usage beyond being a centerpiece of the region's agricultural economy; eventually hosting concerts, movies, and other various forms of entertainment. In the 1930s, when state officials suspended the state fair during the Great Depression, the fairgrounds became home to the state's efforts to spur recovery during the New Deal. The fairgrounds housed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) office.

In the early 1930s, Arizona Governor Benjamin Moeur convinced FDR and the federal government to allocate funds for public works projects in the state during the Great Depression. The WPA eventually opened its state headquarters at the south end of the State Fairgrounds and funded a variety of projects throughout the state between 1938 to 1943. The WPA funded hundreds of projects with the intent of putting Americans back to work and improving the country’s infrastructure. Between 1935 and 1942, the WPA put 8.5 million Americans back to work and spent more than $10 million during the Great Depression. The agency funded numerous public works projects that included roads, bridges, schools, libraries, botanical gardens, memorials, and city halls.

In Phoenix, for example, the agency widened and resurfaced over 1,000 blocks of city streets, including five miles of Central Avenue from the Salt River Bridge to South Mountain Park. Throughout the city, workers excavated twenty-eight miles of ditches along roadways, fifty-eight miles of curbs, eighty miles of sidewalks, and five miles of gutters. The agency also planted hundreds of palm and orange trees along Van Buren Street between Phoenix and the Tempe bridge. In Arizona, the agency constructed 690 miles of highway and around 475 miles of miscellaneous city streets. By 1935, the federal government had become the largest employer in Maricopa County, putting $10 million annually into the local economy. Children around the state benefited greatly from the public works projects of the WPA. The WPA built 38 new schools in Arizona, providing the state’s children with better educational facilities. The agency gave Arizona kids 21 new parks and playgrounds to enjoy.

The benefits were equally impressive across Arizona more broadly. The federal government built twelve WPA work camps in Arizona between 1938 and 1943. The WPA placed over 16,000 Arizonans on its rolls and, depending on their job skills, paid them $15 to $25 per week. The agency also improved the state’s highway system. In just five years, the WPA provided funds for 1,714 miles of highway throughout the state of Arizona. Arizona’s population grew substantially in the 1920s and 1930s, which meant the state needed additional methods of transportation in order to attract labor and capital. The WPA also funded several cultural projects in Arizona. The Federal Writers program produced a high-quality State Guide, which gave a detailed description of Arizona’s history, its major cities and towns, and other notable locations of historical significance. During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers Project hired over 6,000 writers to create pamphlets and books that highlight the history of a given state. The Federal Music project hired musicians from branches of music to perform in concerts for the public to enjoy. This program within the WPA ultimately produced 1,250 free concerts during the Great Depression. In 1936, between January 1 and September 15, over 32 million Americans attended a concert put on by the Federal Music Project. The project hosted a wide range of venues with numerous reputable individual musicians and singing groups, including the Federal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The WPA funded public works projects at the State Fairgrounds. In March of 1936, WPA workers started building the Grandstand with the hopes of completing it by the end of year. The WPA installed nearly 5,000 different seats on the Grandstand, replacing the old wooden seats that had burned down. The structure itself stood at fifty feet long with an adobe wall on three sides. It featured bas-relief medallions, funded by the Federal Artists Project, that feature scenes of everyday life in Arizona. WPA workers also built a new horse racing track inside the Grandstand. Once the WPA finished the project in 1937, the Grandstand hosted numerous types of events, including horse races, rodeos, demolition derbies, and even mud bog spectaculars.

In the second half of the 20th century, the state  fairgrounds remained vital, as the state continued to reimagine the fairgrounds for many different purposes. For example, in 1955, Marilyn Monroe filmed a scene from the movie “Bus Stop” on the state fairgrounds. In 1987, while on a trip to Arizona, Pope John Paul II gave a speech at the fairgrounds. Fair officials converted the WPA building into a haunted house, a gem and mineral exhibit, and the base of the Phoenix Roadrunners hockey team.

In 2014, the Arizona Preservation Foundation and other historical preservation groups led an effort to stop the Arizona State Fair and Exposition from demolishing the building. After obtaining a temporary restraining order to prevent the buildings from being razed, preservationists raised public awareness, working with city and state officials to identify opportunities to save the buildings through rehabilitating and reusing them. By 2016, that effort succeeded when the state government committed to returning the structures to their former glory with a $120,000 worth of funding that was matched by the City of Phoenix. Private sources of funding brought to the table by the preservationists, including both foundation gifts and contributions from small donors, contributed more than $120,000 in additional money toward the project. In 2018, the Arizona Exposition & State Fair's Board of Directors held a charrette that explored the future possibilities for the fairgrounds.

edited 12/17/2019: mt


Arizona State Fairgrounds 110 Years Old KJZZ correspondent, Nadine Arroyo Rodgriguez explores the history of the Arizona State Fair in the midst of the effort to save some of its signature Depression-era buildings from demolition. Source: Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez, "Did you Know: Arizona State Fairgrounds 110 Years Old," The Show, KJZZ, August 21, 2015; accessed December 17, 2019. Creator: Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez Date: August 21, 2015


Cactus Cowboy
Cactus Cowboy In 1953, a cactus cowboy graced the cover the State Fair Premium Book, which listed the rules, regulations, and categories of competition (and competitors) at the fair. Source: Arizona Fair Commission, "Premium list, rules and regulations of the Arizona State Fair, 1953," FC 1.3:P 63/ 1953, Arizona Fair Commission, Arizona State Government Publications, Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. Date: 1953
The Arizona State Fair
The Arizona State Fair Shown from the air, perhaps from a ferris wheel, the carnival midway of the Arizona State Fair was laid out in a straight line. The Grandstand and horse racing track can be seen in the left corner of the photo. Source: Ivan Henry, “Phoenix Arizona State Fair 1960s," January 23, 2011, The Circus Blog, accessed December 15, 2019. Creator: Henry Ivan Date: 1959
Aerial View of the Fair
Aerial View of the Fair In 1971, the State Fair Premium Book featured an aerial view of the fair, showing the grandstand prominently, as well as the recently built coliseum, which along with parking replaced the racing track. Source: Arizona Fair Commission, "Premium list, rules and regulations of the Arizona State Fair, 1971," FC 1.3:P 63/ 1971, Arizona Fair Commission, Arizona State Government Publications, Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. Date: 1971
WPA Grandstand
WPA Grandstand Built in 1936, the Grandstand emerged at the center of the fairgrounds. Twenty-three bas-relief terra cotta medallions (seen in the upper left, on the side of the structure) ring the grandstand. Created by artists David Carrick Swing and Florence Blakeslee, who were active in Arizona, the molds were funded by the Federal Art Project. The panels depicted agricultural scenes and featured of Arizona life from the period, including horse racing, cattle branding, and local industry. Source: "Grandstand, State Fair Grounds, Built by WPA," Negative No. 17903, National Archives Record Group 69-N, at "Arizona State Fairgrounds Stadium and Art - Phoenix Arizona," The Living New Deal, n.d.; accessed December 17, 2019. Date: 1938
Grandstand Bas Relief
Grandstand Bas Relief Sculptors Florence Blakeslee and David Carrick Swing depicted 23 scenes of everyday life in Arizona on the Grandstand. This mold emphasizes the role of air travel and automobiles in opening up the American west to tourists. The palm trees capture the 1930s desert vision espoused by Phoenix boosters. Water in the foreground suggests the lush monsoon rains. David Carrick Swing also painted the murals for the Arizona State exhibit at the Golden Gate International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1939. Source: Einar Kvaran, photograph, Federal Art Project sculpture, AZ State Fair Grounds, Wikimedia Commons; accessed December 18, 2019. Creator: Sculpture by David Carrick Swing and Florence Blakeslee Date: 1938/2018
Payday A WPA worker receives his paycheck after a long week of work. WPA workers earned anywhere between $15 to $25 every week, depending on their job skills and profession. Source: "Photograph of Works Progress Administration Worker Receiving Paycheck, 1/1939;" WPA Information Division Photographic Index, ca. 1936 - ca. 1942; Record Group 69: Records of the Work Projects Administration, 1922 - 1944; National Archives and Records Administration. Creator: Federal Works Agency Date: 1939
Administering the WPA
Administering the WPA The Works Progress Administration building was built in 1938, and served as the state headquarters for the agency until World War II began. Source: "Ordnance Service Command Shop Building Exterior," McCulloch Brothers Inc. Photographs, CP MCLMB A1687A. Arizona State University Libraries: Arizona Collection. Creator: McCulloch Brothers Date: September 16, 1943
WPA Civic Building
WPA Civic Building State Fair officials planned to demolish the Civic building in 2014, until historic preservationists stepped forward to oppose their plan. They succeeded in raising money and cash support. In 2016, Governor Doug Ducey make the state fair and fairgrounds "a “jewel of the State,” Source: Dustin Gardner, "Race to restore 1930s-era Phoenix Sites from Ruin," Arizona Republic, May 22, 2015; accessed December 17, 2019. Creator: Rob Schumacher Date: 2015
The First Lady Visits a WPA Work Site
The First Lady Visits a WPA Work Site Eleanor Roosevelt traveled around the country to observe the progress the WPA made in putting Americans back to work and revamping America’s infrastructure. She became heavily involved in her husband’s administration at both the domestic and foreign level of politics. Source: “Eleanor Roosevelt at Works Progress Administration site in Des Moines, Iowa,” June 8, 1936; Photograph No. NLR-PHOCO-A-58366, 195991; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882-1962; National Archives and Records Administration. Date: June 8, 1936



Max Beall, “Arizona's State Fair,” Salt River Stories, accessed July 21, 2024,