For some, the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo is serious business
When the wagons start rolling to open the 2016 Galveston County Fair & Rodeo on April 8, they’ll be headed toward the future — a future of improved agricultural practices fueled by nine days of roping, riding, showing of prize animals and the awarding of about $55,000 in scholarships to area students.
“For some, it’s all about the fun and food, but for many of our young people, this event is providing a path to tomorrow,” Galveston County Fair & Rodeo President Paul Tibaldo said. “Amid the cotton candy and cook-offs, there is a serious side — ensuring the ongoing vitality of our region’s farming economy.”
Galveston’s agricultural roots run deep. During the 1800s, Bolivar Peninsula was known for abundant produce and long-staple cotton; figs later became a major cash crop in the northern part of the county. During the Civil War, the town of La Marque was called “Buttermilk Station” for the tangy beverage enjoyed there by soldiers traveling between Houston and Galveston, and dairying and raising cattle was a significant industry well into the 20th century on both the mainland and the island.
In 1934, seeking to further stimulate improved herd management, the Galveston Chamber of Commerce inaugurated a “dairy contest” for local farmers. The winner the first year was Mrs. H. Huntington, who was awarded a prize Jersey bull calf for her efforts.
The popularity of the dairy contest grew such that in 1938, the Dairy Farmer’s Cooperative Society of Galveston County expanded the program into a countywide Dairy Show, complete with barbecue and other festivities, according to fair historian Albert Ramirez. Held at the Arcadia rodeo grounds on Nov. 5, this event marked the genesis of today’s fair and rodeo and also established the Galveston County Calf Club as six young 4-H Club members were presented with a registered Jersey heifer to raise.
Over the years, events grew in variety and scope along with local interest and attendance. A carnival was added in 1946, and local high school bands performed. A barn dance was added in 1948, the coronation of the first “Dairy Queen” took place in 1952, and in 1954, a nine-piece string band from the Darrington State Prison performed.
The next several decades saw the introduction of additional entertainment, trail rides, rodeo activities, horse shows and other competitions for both young and old, with an emphasis on attracting the participation of students active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America groups.
In 1984, the event officially became known as the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo and moved to Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock, a 631-acre site previously known as Camp Wallace and given to the county by the federal government in 1973.
Today, about 50,000 people yearly enjoy the fair’s animal exhibitions, rodeo activities, live music concerts, midway rides, concessions and games. Special events include Cowboy Church and Fiesta Sunday, and other days honor senior citizens, county employees, kids and families.
Food — especially a wine bar dedicated to Texas wines and the daily cook-off competitions — are a highlight for many attendees, High Island resident Herschel Johnson said.
“I spent two years on the waiting list before a slot opened up that would allow me to even enter,” he said.
Johnson has signed up for his 11th year of participation.
For Justine and Robert Boysen and their four children, the fair and rodeo provide additional opportunities to support their love of rural life. Originally from Galveston Island, the Boysens moved a few years back to a farm in Santa Fe, where they today raise cattle, pigs, goats, lambs and chickens. As a plus, Justine Boysen reports the positive influence of 4-H and fair participation on her children.
“They are so much more responsible, and their confidence and leadership skills have really grown,” she said.
Others who have benefited from the fair’s programs include Texas City veterinarian Amber Thurmond, who began showing animals when she was in the seventh grade. With the help of one of the fair’s scholarships, Thurmond completed her education at Texas A&M University at College Station and returned to Galveston County to establish her own practice.
Texas City High School teacher Nikki Ashcraft also was a scholarship winner and today helps her own agriculture students with fair activities. As a Texas A&M graduate, Ashcroft still remembers how important the fair was to her own education.
“The scholarship I received from the fair made a big difference in my life, and specifically in my being able to attend my dream college,” she said.
The 78th annual Galveston County Fair & Rodeo will be April 8-16 at Jack Brooks Park, 5012 Jack Brooks Road, in Hitchcock. Visit www.galvestoncountyfair.com.