The history of fairs and exhibitions of agricultural and mechanical subjects in St. Louis began at a very early date. Various fair societies were formed as early as 1822, but none of them was permanent. In November, 1841, a county fair was opened at the St. Louis racecourse at the same time a Mechanics Fair was held in buildings on Fourth Street in front of the Planters' House. Combination of these interests for the purpose of holding annual fairs was agitated for some years, culminating in the incorporation of the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Association on December 7, 1855. Leader of the fair movement was Colonel J. Richard Barrett, a local member of the state legislature, aided by civic figures such as John O'Fallon, Andrew Christy, Thornton Grimsley, John Withnell, and Gerard B. Allen. Stock in the venture was not intended to pay dividends and profits were used to expand and beautify the enterprise. After a full subscription of stock was achieved, a board of directors was elected in May, 1856. It was decided to hold a fair in the following autumn and a site of 50 acres at the northwest corner of Grand Avenue and the Natural Bridge Plank Road was purchased from Colonel John O'Fallon for $50,000. This site was chosen due to its proximity to the water works, thereby providing an adequate supply for fountains and other needs. A nine foot fence was erected around the site and construction was pushed so that the fair was opened on October 13, 1856. Principal fair buildings then were an amphitheater, mechanics building, floral hall, machine shop, and livestock stalls. The fair was a success, with succeeding ones increasing in scope, gate receipts and premium prizes. In September, 1860, prior to the opening of that year's fair, 150,000 persons jammed the grounds to see the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII of England. It was said that a rather tipsy Miasouri governor, Robert M. Stewart, slapped the Prince upon the back and inquired, "What do you think of all this, Prince? Now don't you wish you were Governor of Missouri?"
The fair of 1860 was the last to be held before the Civil war, during which the fairgrounds and buildings were requisitioned by the army as Benton Barracks, a training area and hospital for federal troops. Fairs were resumed in 1866 and soon exceeded their predecessors in size and attendance. In 1870 a new, larger amphitheater was constructed and used for horse shows and sulky racing. The old one was converted into a display area for manufactured goods and textiles, until it was razed in 1876. In 1874, when Julius S. Walsh was elected as president of the fair, excepting Fair Week, the grounds were thrown open to the public for daily use as a park. By that time, the grounds had expanded into an area of 83 acres and several new buildings were erected under Walsh's regime. These included an Art Gallery, Natural History museum and the Zoological Gardens. The Zoo was very comprehensive for its day and included separate buildings for the display of birds, monkeys, deer, bears, reptiles, as well as paddocks for outdoor animal exhibits. The bearpits structure is all that now remains of the once famous Fair. A large Mechanical Hall was opened in 1876, being the largest building on the grounds, with dimensions of 150 by 250 feet. Another development was an art school in conjunction with the gallery. During its prime in the late 1870s, the St. Louis Fair had an international reputation combining the features of an agricultural fair with a metropolitan display. No other city in America could boast of such an annual spectacle during those times. Between 1856 and 1883, more than one million dollars had been spent on improvements and buildings at the Fair and in the latter year average daily attendance was 40,000 and $50,000 was distributed in premium awards.
After the mid-eighties, the Fair began to lose some of its previous public popularity when emphasis was placed upon horse racing. This started in 1883, when the Jockey Club was organized with racing on an old half mile track. In 1885, a new mile track was opened, with a grandstand seating 15,000 and an elaborate new club building. The racing attracted a different class of people, totally unlike the family groups which had hitherto patronized the Fair.
Another factor in the Fair's decline was the opening of the Exposition Building downtown, on the present site of the Public Library, in 1884. The Exposition, which was open for 40 days each fall, presenting the novelty of a large indoor exhibit was so convenient that many of the Fair's patrons visited it instead. In addition to the Exposition, the Fair had generated the Fall Festivities during the 1870s. Among features of the Festivities were elaborate street illuminations, begun in 1870 and the Veiled Prophet Parade and Ball, which started in 1878. By 1900, when the Fair had flourished for more than four decades, the citizenry decided that St. Louis had outgrown an agricultural exhibition. Last of the Fairs was held in 1902 when auto racing was tried as an innovation on the race track. By that time, the Fair was forgotten in the midst of preparations for the World's Fair of 1904. A further deterrent to later revival of the Fair was the banishing of horse racing in Missouri in 1905. The Exposition Building was razed in 1907 and only the Veiled Prophet remains from the old Fall Festivities.
Image - Bear pits in the zoo at the Fairgrounds
Image - The Amphitheatre at the Fairgrounds
Image - Clubhouse and Grandstand at Fairgrounds Racetrack in the 1890s
Image - Large Plant House in Shaw's Garden about 1870
Image - The former Bear Pits as they appear today
Image - Fairground Park Swimming Pool in the 1920s