- Last Chance Stampede & Fair
Keith Hatch – Fairgrounds Manager
Kevin Tenney – Office Manager
Linda Henke – Administrative Assistant
Jim Pennington – Maintenance Supervisor
Scott Steffens – Maintenance
Brian Wohlers – Maintenance
Howard Schwartzman – Maintenance
To operate and manage a facility that provides and promotes a safe, clean, enjoyable and a comfortable environment for public use and participation. To provide an environment for individuals, families and the community that enhances partnerships and creates quality agricultural, business, recreational events and activities.
The Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds consist of one hundred sixty (160) acres located at the north edge of the city of Helena on the northwest side of town.
In 1868 and 1869, a group called the Helena Valley Organizers rented land near the Green Meadow Country Club and held an exposition to promote goods and services available in the area.
A new group formed The Montana Agricultural Mineral and Mechanical Associated (MAMMA), raised money, purchased land at the current fairgrounds location, erected the first buildings, and held the first territorial fair in 1870.
Helena citizens bought the land and buildings from MAMMA for $10,000 and turned the property over to the Montana State Legislature. The Legislature reorganized the fairgrounds and named it Montana State Fair. In 1903, the gates opened to 20,000 enthusiastic visitors.
In 1911, 25,000 people from all over Montana came to witness the first airplane flight over the Rocky Mountains, by a 19-year-old named Cromwell Dixon. He took off from the fairgrounds, landed atop the Rockies and returned to the roar of the crowd.
In 1915, the fair was at its zenith. Exhibits swelled to 15,000 and attendance rose to 50,000. The Montana State Fair had become an agricultural extravaganza.
In the following 17 years, falling agriculture prices, the depression, grasshoppers, drought and competition for fair dates with Great Falls caused a continuous decline in attendance. In 1932, the final State Fair was held in Helena. The month long, October 1935 earthquakes, killed two people on the grounds. It damaged buildings and water mains, destroyed the new horticultural building and the entrance to the facility.
For the next 20 years, much of the fairgrounds closed and the State Fair moved to Great Falls. Buildings continued to deteriorate.
The late 1950’s witnessed a new beginning at the Fairgrounds with the construction of the 20,000 square foot, dirt floor Multi-purpose building. In 1959, the Lewis & Clark Fairgrounds Association formed to open all parts of the 160 acres to public use. By 1961, the first Last Chance Stampede was held and by 1969, the Lewis & Clark County Fair was added to events on the last weekend in July each year.
Major changes and improvements took place funded in part by the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty” programs and other resources. Large areas of the southern and western grounds were reconfigured into a children’s park, picnic area, parking lots and recreational vehicle campgrounds.
Eventually, a new Non-profit Users Group came forward to manage the fairgrounds. The three-person Board of County Commissioners used public funds to help keep the fairgrounds open and hopefully improving. The commission funded a plan for reconstruction of the fairgrounds as they looked for a way forward. The $15 million price tag on the plan was viewed by most as too expensive for the people of the county.
As years passed the grandstand and other key buildings on the fairgrounds continued to deteriorate. In 2000, an engineers report condemned the beautiful old grandstand as unsafe for public use. Replaced by a temporary 1,800-seat grandstand and a volunteer built temporary rodeo arena, the fairgrounds continued to hold the annual Last Chance Stampede.
In 2002, the Users Group asked the County Commission to take back operational responsibility for the fairgrounds. The commission named a Fairgrounds Supervisor and in December of 2002, they created a community volunteer board of seven (7) members to serve three-year terms and act as an advisory group to the commission and fairgrounds staff.
The Staff and Fair Board worked throughout 2003 to create a business plan aimed at saving the Fairgrounds. The plan required the construction of a new grandstand and outdoor performance arena. It was to be connected by an entry hall and that area to a new 36,000 square foot, concrete floor, airconditioned Exhibit Hall. The expected costs exceeded $6 million dollars. The only way to pay for the new constructions was to ask the people of Lewis and Clark County to support an 8.18 mill, ten-year levy along with a 2.91 mill permanent levy for maintenance and capital equipment replacement.
Yes, the public was asked if they were in favor of this plan to save the fairgrounds and would they tax themselves to do it. They said yes in a June 2004 mill levy vote.
The following years saw the plans come forward, locating the new buildings at the interior edge of the old racetrack. Construction began in 2007.
In May of 2008, the Fairgrounds Foundation was established with a goal of gathering money from individuals, families and area businesses to help pay for some of the rebuilding and maintenance projects.
In November 2008, the Exhibit Hall and Entry Hall opened for pubic use. In July 2009, the beautiful new grandstands and outdoor performance arena opened to the 49th annual Last Chance Stampede and Fair.
In succeeding years the use of the Fairgrounds has tripled in events, setting new records each year for the Last Chance Stampede and Fair and welcoming new shows and entertainment to the Helena region.
In 2013 Fairgrounds Staff and the Fair Board have once again begun a year long planning process aimed at improving existing, older buildings and laying out the growth of the fairgrounds for the next 30 years and longer.
The Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds is alive and well and getting better each year. We trace that growth to the 144 years of work by volunteers, county staff and the many Boards of County Commissioners who have dedicated themselves to preserving this treasure of Lewis and Clark County.
Click here to view “One Possible Future”