Historic Memphis Fairgrounds

...From 1897 to the present

   


Memphis Fairgrounds Park has occupied 168 acres in Midtown Memphis since 1897.  Since that time the park has been used for various public events and activities.  There was a racetrack there until 1912.   It was a fairground from 1912 until 2008, when the Mid-South Fair moved to Desoto County.  The area is still used by the Liberty Bowl, the Children's Museum, Fairview Middle School, and now, the Salvation Army's Kroc Center.  Old time Memphians remember The Fairgrounds Amusement Park - especially The Pippin Roller Coaster and the Grand Carousel.  In 1976 the park name was changed to "Libertyland" , a name that lasted until late October 2005,   when the Amuseument park closed.   Today,  all







 

the rides have been moved, sold or destroyed, and the land has been cleared.  In 2007, the Salvation Army purchased an area where the huge Kroc Center is being built.  The Zippin Pippin was sold to the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin.  It re-opened in their Bay Beach Amusement Park in 2011.   No one seems to know where the vintage Grand Carousel is.  The Coliseum is to be demolished to build a (surprise) parking garage for the Liberty Bowl.  Now, Fairgrounds Park has become  part of "Lost Memphis" and the name of the park will be changed.

Below, all the exhibits and various sections of the Fairgrounds will be covered in separate segments:  Montgomery Park, Tri-State Fair, Fairgrounds,  Amusement Park, Municipal Pool, Mid-South Fair, Libertyland, The Coliseum, Liberty Bowl, Children's Museum, The various structures in the park, Fairview Junior High, Tiger Lane and Kroc Center.

 

Thanks  to the Memphis Public Library and the University of Memphis Library for many of the  photos on this page


 
Montgomery Park Racetrack
 

Prior to 1850, the land known as the Fairgrounds, was part of the 5,000 acre Deaderick Plantation.  In 1851, the Memphis Jockey Club purchased a big chunk of the land and developed it as a horseracing track.  In 1869 they built a grandstand and new stables.  In 1882 Col. Montgomery bought the racetrack and surrounding land and named it Montgomery Park.

 The Tennessee Derby, an American Thoroughbred horse race, was the main attraction at the racetrack, and was run annually from 1897 to 1906.  There was only one grand stand, but attendance at the race track would run around 4000 per race day.  This Derby rivaled the Kentucky Derby at the time for prestige and purse money, but relocated after Memphis banned gambling in 1905.    The race track continued until 1912 and was used for Rodeo's and various other outdoor events.

 
  Harness racing 1887 Harness racing 1887 Vintage Montgomery Park

1911 postcard

       
Winner 1909            Geo Adams Rodeo 1903 Wildwest Poster 1911 Montgomery Park PLACE
 

Grandstand 1910            

The Track 1903

Club House 1903

Stables 1903

 

Montgomery Track 1912

Jockey Club Drawing 1909

Jockey Club 1891

Race Day

 

1916 Postcard 1891 Rare ... Lady'sticket 1892 Badge Cornelius Vanderbilt

H.Montgomery

 
     

1892 Montgomery Track      

1909 Race Trophy

 

 
Fairgrounds Park 
 

The city of Memphis purchased the 168 acres of land in 1897 where Montgomery Park is located.  Since the Shelby Country Fair has been staging their fairs on this land, the city called the acerage "The Fairgrounds".   In 1912, the city decided to use the land for a permanent fairgrounds and a city park.  They bought the Montgomery Park buildings from the Jockey Club and hired architect George Kessler, who had designed the Parkways and Overton and Riverside Parks, to design the space.

A little known fact about the Fairgrounds:  The very tall heavy-duty, chain link fence around the Fairgrounds was originally around the Pink Palace property during construction.

 

Fairgrounds Entrance 1941    

Entrance

Entrance

Entrance remodel

Entrance remodel

 

New Entrance

Old #2 Trolley 1937 Flood Victims, Circus Family 1800s Circus 1935
 

Circus Parade 1921 Vintage Circus Peanuts Ringling Animal Car              Fairgrounds -1930
 

Before renovation

Sunset Restored Pylon Fairgrounds Fairgrounds
 

Raising the Big Top. "One morning, a few days before the circus was to open, my uncle Johnny announced that he was going to take me to see them actually put up the tent.  I was excited, but Wow!  I didn't know the half of it!  He stood me between his legs on his motor scooter and off to the Fairgrounds. When we got there, several teams of men were hammering huge tent pegs into the ground, and elephants (the very ones that later would be performing in the show) were dragging the great, long poles and pulling the ropes to hoist the tent up. We watched for hours. It was about as much fun as the show itself - and it was free "!  - Eddie Cooper

 

Sequence of photos showing the Raising of the Big Top...

 
       
Fairgrounds Structures and Exhibits
 

SHELBY COUNTY BUILDING:  If there were ever a "theme building" at the Fairgrounds it would have been the Shelby County Building which opened in 1922.  The building, with it's distinctive tower and large exhibition hall, was the focal point when one drove through the East parkway Gate to the Fairgrounds.  During WWII, the 2nd Army used the Shelby County Building as their headquarters.  Indeed, they took over the entire Fairgrounds for the duration of the war.   In 1937, that large exhibition hall was set up with cots for the 1937 flood victims.  In recent years, it was no secret that Memphis had "thoughts" about demolishing the building, but it was too popular.   In 2003, an early morning fire left the building a brick shell and it was declared a total loss.  However, it took several tries before the tower could be pulled down.

 

< The Shelby County Building - 1922-2003 (Burned...Demolished) >

 

1926 Exhibit Hall 1920s 1937 Flood Victims
 

WOMEN'S BUILDING - CREATIVE ARTS CENTER:  The Women's Building has always been home to Culinary Shows, Art Work, and Quilting for over 80 years.  The first Women's Building was built in 1908 and was a 2-story building.  It was demolished in 1917 for a new one, which was not built until 1922.  This one burned in 1944 when it was occupied by the 2nd Army.  The empty shell sat vacant for years before the city rebuilt it in 1949.  This is the building that still exists.

       

< The Creative Arts Center - Originally named "Women's Building" - Still in use

 

New Women's Building 1922

Women's Exhibit 1908

Women's Exhibit Hall

Women's Burned 1944

 
OTHER BUILDINGS -  It's probably safe to say that all of the buildings have now been demolished for "The Great Lawn"
 

Youth Services-Demolished Boxing Area - Demolished Livestock Barns - Demolished Barns - Demolition
 

Roller Ad

Drawing- SCB

Steam Engine- Collierville Livestock Barns-Demolished Pipkin Building
 

Casino:  Hard to believe, but Memphis used to have a grand Casino, known as "The Showplace of the South",  with the largest dance floor in the city.  It was built by Lynn Welcher in 1930 for $100,000 - an enormous sum in those days.  There were innovative features like teak and rosewood floors mounted on felt, which gave it the perfect "bounce" for dancing.  It also had an enormous lighting system, like no other, in any ballroom.  All the big name entertainers and bands of the day performed here.  And public dances were hosted every Friday and Saturday night.  The Casino thrived for 20 years.  When the big bands began fading out in the 1950s, it was sold to the Memphis Park Commission for only $12,000.  The new manager started a policy of "No Alcohol" and that marked the end of the old Casino.  The building was turned into a public basketball arena.  The fire Marshall decided the building was a fire hazard and would cost $50,000 to bring it up to code.  Of course, rather than refurbish the historical building, the city demolished it in 1963.

 

 

Casino -Demolished            

Casino Ballroom

Casino 1934

Kay Starr Performs 1939

 

    Ballroom - 1930

Casino Mirror Ball

1934 Auto Exhibit

Casino 1939

Casino Demolition

 

 
Tri-State Fair   .    Mid-South Fair
 

Fairs have been held continuously in Memphis for 152 years - up to 2008 when the city wouldn't renew the lease of the Mid-South Fair.  The first fair "Shelby County Fair"  was staged in Memphis in 1856.  It ran for two days.  In 1858 attendance picked up and it ran for four days.  This was the period when traditions were being started, such as harness racing, which would continue until the 1930's.  By then the Montgomery Race Track had become a part of the fair's history.  Between 1873-1877 attendance dropped dramatically because of the yellow fever epidemic.  From 1880-1906 was a time of rebuilding after the Civil War. 

In 1908 the fair as we know it was born and the name was changed to
Tri-State Fair.  The newly organized fair leased the grounds of Montgomery Park for five years.  Since gambling had been outlawed in 1905, the racetrack had been mostly out of use.  In 1912, the city bought Montgomery park from the Memphis Jockey Club, and from that date, The Fairgrounds Park was established.  The Tri-State name change was a measure to entice more people around Memphis to attend. 

In 1929 the name was changed again to the Mid-South Fair, and it was the main attraction in Memphis for many years.   In addition to the traditional attractions associated with fairs, the Mid-South fair included a Carnival midway and rides, concerts, and a talent show.   The fair was not only popular among people in the Memphis area, but also those in adjacent cities in Tennessee, as well as neighboring states of Mississippi and Arkansas.  In 2008 when Memphis wouldn't renew the lease, the Mid-South Fair moved to northwest Mississippi. 

 

 

Tri State 1908 Camel Ride 1912 Tri-State 1912 Tri-State 1912 Tri-State 1909
         

Tri State 1912 Tri-State 1912 Tri-State races 1912 Tri-State races 1912 Tri-State races 1912
 

Tri-State 1908 Tri-State 1909 Fair Entrance 1940s Tri-State 1917 Tri-State 1910
 

Mid- South logo     Mid-South 1911 Mid-South 1955 Mid-South 1956 Mid-South Midway
         

Mid-South Midway Mid-South 60s Roy Rogers 1959 Radio active dime 60s Mid-South entrance
 

1st - 2005 Ribbons '48'49 Mid-South Pennant Mid-South Capsule Cash - 1968
 

Adams-Elvis 1956 Celebrating 150 yrs Mid-South Elvis 1956 Mid-South Midway
 

Mid-South Entrance 1938 Jewel Cowboys Radioactive dime Mid-South Official Mid-South banner
 

Elvis 1955

Circus 1937 Rodeo 1947 Bob Hope - Monk 1965 Program 1965

Sally Rand '52

 

Rodeo-Art McCrady Matchbook 1908 Tri-State Entrance        '56 Centennial Program  and Flyer
 

1911 Tri State Midway 1912-13 Tri State 1939 Tri State Races Tri State Pit Pass 1916 Tri State Midway
 

Envelope 1954 Tri-State 1930s Bryson's - Judge Medal 1918 Ticket 1966
 

Camel Rides - 1912

Tri-State Refreshments

Tri-State Entrance

Mid-South Tickett - 1966

 

Fair Ad -1962 1931 Ribbon French Fam. 1954 1932 Big Top 1913 Tri-State guide

           1950s Button

 
   

1922 Tri State Ticket   1950 Kay Starr   1912 Tri-State entrance
 
 

 
Negro Tri-State Fair
 

African Americans had attended and participated in the Tri-State Fair well into the 1870s.  Following the collapse of Reconstruction and the 1896 "separate but equal" legalized segregation,  Memphis blacks and whites occupied two separate societies.  In 1911, prominent African-Americans founded, organized, and ran their own fair called the "Negro Tri-State Fair". It was held at the Fairgrounds a few days after the white fair closed.  This was an important event in the black community for decades.  When the white fair changed its name to the Mid-South Fair in 1928, the black fair became simply the Tri-State Fair until it was discontinued in 1959.  The Mid-South Fair was integrated in 1962.

 

Life Magazine 1941

Life Magazine 1941

Healthiest Baby 1941

Newspaper Item

Science Exhibit 1951

 

 
Fairgrounds Amusement Park   1920-1974
 

The first Fairgrounds Amusement park was built to coincide with the 1920 Mid-South Fair.  It's name was "Joy Plaze" and it included two of the grandest rides of the time - the Pipin Roller Coaster and the Grand Carousel merry-go-round.  The Pippin was one of the oldest existing wooden roller coasters in the U.S.  It was constructed in the East End Park in Memphis in 1912, out of pine wood, by John Miller and Harry Baker.  When the East End Park declined in popularity, the coaster was dismantled and rebuilt in Fairgrounds park, along with the classic Dentzel Carousel.  Other classic rides in the old park were "The Whip", "The Old Mill" - a lover's lane by boat,  and "Noah's Ark"- noted for an air hose that blew  ladies skirts up as they walked over the air hose.

 

Fairgrounds entrance Entrance 1912 Grand Carousel Grand Carousel Tumble Bug
 

1918 Entrance 1930s Old Mill Old Mill
 

Dentzel Horse Grand Carousel Grand Carousel Grand Carousel Dentzel Carving
 

Elvis 1960 Elvis - Pippin Crump - Pippin Original Pippin Elvis -1950s
 

The Whip The Whip Fairgrounds 1960s Rocket 1952 Noah's Arc
 

Original Pippin entrance Giant Ferris Wheels Crump-Pippin Grand Carousel 1952 1920s Airplane
 
LibertyLand Amusement Park  1976-2005
 

In late 1974, the old Amusement Park was cleared to make way for LibertyLand - that is, everything was demolished except the roller coaster, the carousel, and gate office.  LibertyLand opened in 1976.  The Pipin was re-named "The Zippin Pippin".  The new park gradually attracted decent crowds, but it never made a great profit.  It continued to add attractions.  Each time a new attraction, such as "Revolution", "Tidal Wave" or "Rebellion" was added, attendance would pick up.  But it was short-lived.  Finally, in 2005, the park closed due to financial reasons.  Afterwards there were many attempts to save the park, but none of them worked out.  By 2010, all of the attractions and rides had been moved, sold, or destroyed, and the land was cleared.  The area is now, what else, a parking lot known as "Tiger Lane".  The Zippin Pippin was demolished and sold to Green Bay, Wisconsin.  What they really bought were the rights to the name and it's history, because they built their roller coaster from scratch.  The Grand Carousel is said to be "in storage" - but no one seems to know where it's stored, or what will become of it.    WARNING:  The Grand Carousel is a classic and famous merry-go-round with great horses, hand-carved by Dentzel.   It's not far-fetched to imagine that these horses might disappear one by one, unless someone is accountable.  These sculptures are very valuable and very desirable to collectors.

 

LibertyLand Entrance LibertyLand entrance the Log Flume Grand Carousel
 

Zippin Pippin Zippin Pippin Zippin Pippin Zippin Pippin
 

Zippin Pippin Zippin Pippin Zippin Pippin Pippin - Demolished
 

Entrance Gates

Revolution

Paratrooper

Souvenir Plate

Souvenir Cup

 

Clock Tower

Shot Glass

Souvenir Shakers

Souvenir Plate

Patch

 
   

Libertyland Postcard        
 
 

 
Municipal Pool
 

The pool opened at the Fairgrounds in 1922.  It was Memphis' largest swimming pool - a huge, oval pool, surrounded by sand beaches.  On the west side was a low building that housed showers and changing rooms.  Across the front was a big sign, warning all swimmers "ALL OUT WHEN BELL RINGS."   When the pool opened in 1922, the Shelby Country Baptist Association objected to men and women being allowed to swim together and called it a "veritable hellhole".  But generations of Memphians learned to swim at the old Fairgrounds "hellhole".  In 1947, the original Fairgrounds Municipal Pool was filled in  and there are scanty records that a new pool was built in the same year.  But today there's not a trace of either pool and we have not been able to find a date when the second pool was demolished.

 

Municipal Pool 1930 Municipal Pool Municipal Pool All out when Bell Rings!
 

Municipal Pool -1926

Circa 1930s

Circa 1930s

Circa 1947

 

 

 

 
Children's Museum
 

1990:  Fairgrounds Children's Museum opens in the old National Guard Armory, which was built in 1942.  The museum literally grew from a few women sitting around a kitchen table talking about a dream.  Their idea took on momentum and everyone they talked to liked what they heard.  Basically the museum is modeled after the Children's Museum of Boston.  It creates memorable learning experiences through the joy of play in hands-on exhibits and programs.  It's nice to report a success and also to report that a historic Memphis building (the Armory) has a new lease on life.

 

Children's Museum National Guard Armory Friends Exb. Going Places Exh Children's Museum
 
 

 
Fairview Junior High
 

Fairview Junior High Opened in 1930.  It was and is a beautiful Art Deco building designed by Edward Harrison.  It's now on the National Register of Historical Places list.  Architectural critics call Fairview "the architectural gem of the school system and one of the finest buildings in the whole city."  The architectural details around the building are much grander than those found in the other city schools.  The school name has been changed to Fairview Middle School.  Currently there are just over 300 students enrolled, so the school's days may be numbered???  But, recently the district replaced a lot of broken windows around the building.  Perhaps that's a good sign???

 

Fairview Fairview Details Replace Windows Report Card 1945  Diploma 1948
 
 

 
Liberty Bowl

 

The stadium was originally built as Memphis Memorial Stadium in 1965, as a part of the Fairgrounds.  It was built  partially as a way to bring the Liberty Bowl to a permanent home in Memphis.  The game became such a success for Memphis that the stadium was renamed Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in 1976.  The stadium seats 62,000 and the field had natural grass at it's inception but that was replaced with a FieldTurf in 2005.  Liberty Bowl is the home field to the University of Memphis Tigers football team.  In addition to sports, the Liberty Bowl has played host to major rock concerts.

Naturally, this being Memphis,  there's been a lot of talk about a "new stadium".  This time the glaring problem is the lack of club seats - the same revenue-killer that led Memphis to shut down the Pyramid Arena and open the FedEx Forum in 2004.  Liberty Bowl can be retro-fitted, but it would cost more than building a brand new venue from scratch.  Now what do you suppose will happen?

 

Liberty Bowl Liberty Bowl Liberty Bowl   Under construction
 

1979 Buckle        

Aerial View

1982 24th Liberty Bowl

1971 Shot Glass

29th Anniversary

 
 

 

Mid-South Coliseum
 

The Mid-South Coliseum was a multi-purpose arena that seated 10,085 people.  It opened in 1964 and the first act was The Ringling Brothers Circus.  Since then it served as the city's secondary concert and sporting venue and was once the crown jewel of arenas in Memphis.  It was one of the few stops on The Beatles final American tour.  Elvis Presley also performed here as well as many other famous performers.  In addition to concerts, the coliseum was the home base of the United States Wrestling Association, the home of the Memphis Wings Hockey Team, and the home to three American Basketball Association teams.  The facility was closed and moth-balled in 2006, because it failed to meet standards for access by the handicaped.

 

Aerial Coliseum VIP Entrance Coliseum Under Construction
 

Under Construction Sports Zeplin 1970 Elvis 1975 Last Elvis Concert 1976

 

James Brown 1968      Rolling Stones 1978 Beatles 1966  Beatles 1966 Beatles 1966
 

   Coliseum - interior          Stones Poster 1978 Stones 1978 The Who - 1975 Jackson 5 - 1977
 

Beatles - 1966 Beatles 1966 Shower Stars 1970 Postcard-interior Fair
 

 

Tiger Lane   When the major part of the old Fairgrounds were demolished in 2010,  a section from East Parkway to the Liberty Bowl entrance was redesigned and named Tiger Lane.   With the completion of Kroc Center to the north, most of the former Fairgrounds is , for now, public area.  And Memphis gets two more bronze Markers added to the collection to tell about what used to be here.

       

Restored Entry Pylon

Tiger Lane - Liberty Bowl

Liberty Bowl - Fountain

        Tiger Lane - Blue Bollards

       

Restored Entry Pylon

LibertyLand Entry site

LibertyLand Marker

             Pippin Marker

       
 
 

 
Kroc Center
 

In 2004, the Salvation Army received a gift in excess of $1.5 billion from the estate of Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.  In 2005, Memphis was selected as one of 30 cities to receive a matching gift to build a Kroc Center.  Memphis wanted this facility and had no trouble raising the necessary 25 million.  In 2007, the Salvation Army of Memphis purchased the land on the Fairgrounds, where the Kroc Center is being built.  When finished the 104,000 square foot Kroc Center will offer a comprehensive range of continuing education, visual and performing arts, health and wellness programs, family services and indoor/outdoor recreation for youth, adults, families and senior citizens.

After more than a year's delay because of engineering problems, the center opened February 2013.  There will be an update on the Center after it's been open for a period.

May 2014:  The Kroc Center charges an annual Membership fee "Individual...as low as $32 a month, plus a $50 registration fee.  Household...as low as $53 a month, plus a $50 registration fee."   Guest passes are available for 1 day at a cost of $4 - $10.

 

     

Aerial 2012     

       

Courtyard 2012 Chapel-Theatre 2012 Gym - 2012 Pool - 2012
 
 
 

 

CREDITS: The "Historic-Memphis" Team would like to acknowledge and thank the following organizations for their contributions which helped make this page possible:  Memphis Public Library, University of Memphis Libraries, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Greater Memphis Chamber, Memphis Flyer, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Memphis Heritage, Tom Leatherwood Shelby County Register, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Joe Spake,  and many other individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on individual photos.

 

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