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VOL. 118 | NO. 4 | Wednesday, January 7, 2004

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Fairgrounds Has Long Memphis History

Midtown landmark endures myriad of uses, century of change


The Daily News

When the Mid-South Coliseum opened its doors in 1964, it was probably fitting that its first act was the Ringling Bros. Circus, because the multifaceted event reflects the broad range of activities the coliseum and the Mid-South Fairgrounds have hosted through the years.

The coliseum, which now serves as the citys secondary concert and sporting venue, was once the crown jewel of arenas in Metro Memphis. And it wasnt alone in that distinction.

The fairgrounds, too, once was the center of activity in Memphis. Now its just one venue typically the last thought-of venue in a city that will open a world-class NBA arena Downtown in the fall.

Important role. But, although Memphians interests have shifted over the years to other areas, the fact remains that the fairgrounds site is important to the citys entertainment history.

You look at the fairgrounds where its situated and the many events that have taken place there over the years it plays a vital role in the Memphis community, said Terry Norman, administrator of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and the fairgrounds.

Judith Johnson, a consultant who recently researched the fairgrounds for the Memphis Area Transit Authoritys proposed light rail system, said the area has always been central to the citys history.

The fact that (former Mayor E.H.) Crump put a lot of money into it it was an extremely important part of the culture around here, she said. They thought it was really important.

Rich history. The development of the fairgrounds in the early 20th century was part of the City Beautiful Movement, which saw its Memphis beginnings with the creation of the Memphis Park Service in 1900. The first project was Overton Park and the Parkway System, which opened in April 1906 and brought Memphians to the eastern fringes of the city, according to The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.

Memphis bought into the whole thing, Johnson said.

The Mid-South Fairgrounds, bordered by Central Avenue on the north and Southern Avenue on the south, stretches from East Parkway to Hollywood Street. The site was once a plantation that was sold and turned into Montgomery Park, a premier horse racing facility.

It was very popular until horse racing was outlawed, Johnson said. They turned it into an amusement park and moved the Pippin.

Place for amusement. The Pippin is the Zippin Pippin, the famed wooden roller coaster now found in Libertyland Amusement Park. Originally located in East End Park, an amusement park across Poplar Avenue from Overton Park, the Pippin was dismantled and moved to Montgomery Park when East End was sold for development, said Michael Sicuro, compliance historic preservation analyst for the city.

Now the Pippin might find itself with historical recognition, as the Tennessee Historical Commission has deemed it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. If nominated, the roller coaster will join the Libertyland carousel, Mid-South Coliseum and Fairview Junior High as fairgrounds properties on the Register.

History lost. The fairgrounds once housed many significant buildings that would be historic gems today were they not torn down over the years.

Of course, the most recent loss was the Shelby County Building, which burned to the ground in December. The loss of that structure has prompted discussions about the fairgrounds future.

Preparing for change. A study examining the fairgrounds future role could be commissioned sometime this year, Norman said. Various ideas have been thrown about, including turning the 176-acre Midtown property into a youth sports center.

This is not the first time the fairgrounds has been examined for its future viability. The late 1950s also saw the city looking for new options.

Several ideas were discussed, one of which included moving the fair to Riverside Park, where the Mississippi River could be better utilized. According to an article from former newspaper the Memphis Press-Scimitar, the fair recommended in 1958 that the fairgrounds be moved, and the proposal included a new coliseum and a new stadium. But in late 1959, the city approved a Planning Commission and Park Commission recommendation that the fair remain.

Big plans. A year-round fairground was proposed in 1960, one that would be enlarged and rebuilt to handle continuous use and 1.5 million fairgoers the Press-Scimitar reported on May 30. It was to include a 120-foot wide, 700-foot long lagoon down the center of a promenade extending east from the main entrance on East Parkway to a new band shell in front of the Shelby County Building. Four 40,000-square-foot exposition buildings were to front the lagoon, with an indoor arena in the vicinity.

The football stadium was not included in the plan, which never materialized. The site of the proposed lagoon now is a parking lot.

In 1972, a $1 million monorail system serving the fair area was discussed. It would have been connected the coliseum, Blues baseball stadium (later renamed Tim McCarver Stadium) and Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1965. It would also have served as an attraction during the fair.

In late 1974, demolition work began to clear the amusement park to make way for Libertylands opening in 1976. Everything from the old park was torn down except the roller coaster, carousel and gate office.

Part two in a series on the impact and future of the Mid-South Fairgrounds will focus on its use as a venue for The Big One flea market.


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