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 put together an exhibit showcasing the farming potential in the area, which 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.