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Much of the history of the Taylor County Expo Center is tied directly to the West Texas Fair. But it would not be accurate to lay the foundation there alone, for the Expo Center and Taylor County's involvement in it is more a story about economic development and social necessity than a single event tied to the center.

In 1880 there were 917 people living in the area, and ranching completely dominated the local economy. One hundred years later, in 1980, agriculture, continued to drive the local economy. Despite the setback experienced since the depression, cotton continued to be a source of revenue in the 1980's. Today, farming is still the predominant use of the land, although a new kind of farming dots the Taylor County Landscape-wind farming. Oil had been discovered in the county in 1929 but first became an important part of the local economy during the early 1940's. The agricultural economy also shifted; after 1945 cattlemen diversified their stock and began raising more pigs and sheep; poultry farming was also encouraged. Meanwhile, Dyess Air Force Base, completed near Abilene in 1956, also helped boost the local economy. Though farm consolidations and mechanization led to a steady decline in the number of farms during this period, the county's population rose to 63,101 by 1950, and to 101,078 by 1960, and 122,797 by 1990.

The first County Fair was actually a City Fair, the brain child of newspaper editor Charles Edwin Gilbert, age 24. Gilbert had arrived before the first town lot sale in 1881 and had begun publishing a newspaper, The Abilene Reporter. He believed that the area needed something to offer the agriculturalist. The soil was productive and Gilbert believed that men wishing to live here with their families would gain incentive in viewing exhibits of grain crops, fruits, and vegetables, which he planned to put on display. He envisioned a fair that could help showcase the area, luring new people here to take advantage of the possibilities of crops as money-making ventures. It was held in an upstairs room at the Wylie Building, which was then located at 1034 North 1st Street in 1884. Corn, millet, red top cane, oats, and wheat were on exhibition. But there was another plant getting lots of attention at that first fair: cotton. Cotton had been a staple in the South for years, but farmers were beginning to learn that it could be a viable crop in Texas, as well.

Four years passed and with the help from local citizens, including Henry Sayles, an exhibit showcasing the farming potential in the area was then put on display at the State Fair of Texas. The first "official" Fair (called a District Fair because other area counties were included) in the year 1888 at South Fourth and Oak (near the current courthouse). It was a three day event with lots of entertainment, pageantry, and produce.

One year later the Fair of 1889 earmarked the area as the hub of commerce in West Texas. It erased the mistaken idea that West Texas lacked even the rudiments of social maturity. It later indicated, by lands sales, that it increased migration to the west. It proved that the area was not depleted from an agricultural standpoint due to the drought of 1885-86. It became conclusive that Abilene was the focal point of rapidly growing farm region with at least a modicum of culture. The 1889 Fair was the last of its kind to be held and the District Fair Association folded. It was nine years before a similar event was held again. At the close of the fair, a group of interested citizens formed the Central West Texas Fair Association. It was composed of 16 directors who worked with a president and a committee of three from each of 15 to 20 counties represented at the Fair. The Association bought a 40 acre tract of land near Lytle Lake for $3,500 and began constructing building in 1897 for use the following year.

Fair Park

Officials of the Central West Texas Fair Association sold their 40 acre tract near Lytle Lake for $3,500, June 21, 1910, to the City of Abilene, for a public park, but retained the rights to hold a Fair there each year. Despite that, no fairs were ever held on that piece of property because it was simply to far from town to serve that purpose. In 1913, they agreed to trade the property back to the Fair Association in exchange for the privilege of putting a park on South 7th Street at Barrow Street. It was called West End Park because of it's location on the west end of the city's trolley system and proximity to the western city limits. On October 6, 1914, the Fair in its new location; now known as Fair Park was held once again. In 1930, the Fair Association sold the Fair Park site back to the City of Abilene, but retained the rights to hold fairs there. In 1937, the fair was revived and its name changed to the West Texas Free Fair, as no general admission was charged. Fair Park not only housed the fair, but also home to Eagle Field, where the Abilene High School championship teams of the 1950's played (there was no Shotwell Stadium yet and only one public high school). The West Texas Fair wasn't always a "sure" thing. Much like the early days when several years might pass before another fair was held; affected not just by the local economy, but by the events of the world itself. There were no fairs held between 1918 and 1921 because of World War I. from 1931 to 1937 no fairs were held because of the Great Depression. Fairs were stopped from 1941 to 1944 because of World War II, and from 1951 to 1955 because it had simply outgrown its facilities at Fair Park.

New Facility

On July 26, 1954, a group of 75 city and county residents presented the Taylor County Commissioners' Court a 1,535 signature petition calling for $600,000 in bonds to be issued to pay for the acquisition of land and the creation of an Agriculture and Livestock Exposition Center. Guy Caldwell made the presentation to the Court, telling commissioners that sites to the south and east of Abilene had been considered, but non were as advantageous as the old airport, which already had utilities to the site and plenty of concrete taxiways, runways, and aircraft parking aprons on which to build. Chamber members had even asked the City of Abilene to donate the land, but the City claimed it was unable to do so because the land had been pledged as securities in a 1950 City bond issue. The City's asking price for the abandoned airport site was $65,000. On August 28, 1954, more than 800 county voters turned out to cast a ballot in the Texas Democratic Party Primary run-off election. By September 18th, 1954 the election had been held and the proposition passed 2171 to 676.
Work on the new Taylor County Livestock & Exposition Center had began in January 1955 when an agreement was worked out between the County Judge Judge Reed Ingalsbe and the Abilene City Manager Austin Hancock. The agreement was that Taylor County would purchase the 127-acre site for $63,501 (500 dollars an acre). The opening was now set for March 26, 28-30th, although the construction work was still going on and the paint wasn't dry yet. The layout included seven covered livestock barns (3 cattle, 4 sheep and swine), a judging show arena with seating for 1,100, a horse barn, and rodeo arena. The Coliseum was not part of the original Expo Center.

The original Expo Center encompassed a horse barn and several smaller display building and was called the Taylor County Livestock & Exposition Center. The horse barn was equipped with bleachers for seating, but comfort was not at the top of the list. It was cramped and there was no heating or air conditioning inside. The Expo Center was governed by a board of directors, but the County owned the land and the physical facilities. In February 1967, a citizens bond study group called the "Committee of 100", put forth a package of civic improvements totaling 13 million dollars: $4.75 million of that going to build a new Taylor County Courthouse and Coliseum. The Courthouse price tag was 3 million dollars; the remaining $1.76 million going to fund the coliseum and other improvements to the County Livestock & Exposition Center. The Coliseum, if approved by the voters, would accommodate 5,000 persons, something that was not presently available in Abilene. In addition to tremendously improved seating facilities, the coliseum provided comfort for spectators-heat in the winter and cooling in the summer. The approval of the improvement would have an impact on two major events for the county - the West Texas Fair and the Abilene Fat Stock Show. On Election Day February 28, 1967 voter turnout was heavy. The votes were tabulated, all of the proposals passed 9,499 voting for the proposal, 5,349 voting against it.

In 1977, the West Texas Fair Association merged with the Taylor County Coliseum Board to create the Taylor County Expo Center Board, which continues to operate the Expo Center today under a renewable agreement with the Taylor County Commissioners Court. Under an agreement signed on May 12, 1981, the Expo Center Board leases from the county 97.8 acres, including the coliseum and the fairgrounds for a total sum of ten dollars, payable in installments of one dollar a month. The Expo Center Board also has to pay for its own insurance coverage and utilities. The County is responsosible for maintaining the grounds and facilities.

Expo Center Today

The Expo Center of Taylor County is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization that hosts over 231 events year around. The three biggest fundraisers include the West Texas Fair & Rodeo, Western Heritage Classic, and Evening for the Expo. The Economic Impact the Expo Center has is tremendous to the Abilene area, bringing in an estimated $20 million to the Abilene region. The Expo Center helps benefit Abilene by hosting events which brings in people from out of town and state, thus spending money on hotels, restaurants, shopping, gas, and more! Some of the events include, Equestrian Events (ropings, barrel racings, 4-H clinics, training clinics, AQHA shows, PRCA Rodeos), Texas Boys State Power Lifting Meet, Bunco for Breast Cancer, Cattle Barons Ball, AISD High School Graduations, Road Shows (concerts, monster trucks, WWE, circus),Trade Shows (West Texas Wildlife, Farm & Ranch Show),Private Party rentals (wedding receptions, reunions, birthday parties, and business meetings), and MORE!

The Expo Center passed a $55 million bond election in 2016 to renovate the Coliseum, Midway, First Financial Pavilion, Taylor Telecom Arena, and Guitar Arena. Renovations were complete in 2021.
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