by Charles Hartley
First published in The Pioneer News on 29 Jun 2020
The first Bullitt County Fair took place in Shepherdsville 125 years ago in 1895, and it must have been successful for the City newspaper reported that "after paying for the buildings and fences, the Bullitt County Fair Association has a surplus of $400 left over from the receipts of the first fair."
We call it the first one, but there were likely others before it. One we know about for sure took place at the Paroquette Springs in 1839. We found information about it in The Franklin Farmer, published in Lexington KY, in 1839-40. You can read more about it, and the folks that took part on another page here.
We know that the first directors of the Fair Association in 1895 included Dr. Barnett and Wilson Summers for these two declined to be re-elected for the next year, and were replaced by Isaac Wooldridge and W. F. Smither.
In January 1925, the editor of The Pioneer News wrote about an old 1896 fair catalog he had received. Edith Blissett transcribed his article and we have it on another page.
Another prominent name associated with the Fair was Dr. David Milton Bates who was president of the Fair at his death in January 1897. You can read his obituary here.
The fair had become a big enough event by August 1897 that special trains were run from Louisville to take city folks to the county fair. A round trip ticket was only 54¢.
Early on, the Fair was quickly an opportunity for politicians to address large crowds. The paper reported in August 1899 that Owen Cochran spoke there in his efforts to represent Bullitt and Spencer counties in the General Assembly in Frankfort.
It was even the scene of unusual marriages, like the one in 1899 between the widow, Mrs. G. W. Clarke, age 57, and her youthful beau, P. T. Smith, age 22. According to a report printed in multiple papers around the country, they met for the first time at the fair, fell in love, and decided to marry in front of as many folks as possible. Despite the strenuous objections of her son, the marriage took place on the judge's stand.
The paper reported in August 1900 that the grounds had been rearranged, remodeled, and repainted; and that a large and handsome amphitheater had been erected. Many thousands of Louisville people were expected to attend the Fair which was located a half-mile from the old Paroquet Springs summer resort where medicinal water could be had for the asking.
Something new was added in 1902. Local horsemen had surveyed and constructed a half-mile trotting track near the fairgrounds. Races would be held there frequently during the summer. Leading this project were O. W. Pearl, Dr. S. W. Bates, J. F. Combs, W. T. Lee, and E. De Moville Jones.
That year saw Tom Cochrane with his black Angus, and G. W. Maraman with his short-horn cattle, capture almost all of the good prizes. The paper reported that the annual "Louisville Day" at the fair saw more visitors than ever before; and the event was capped with a big dance at Troutman's Hall.
While crowd estimates are sometimes suspect, the paper did report in 1903 that "it was estimated that 8,000 people were at the fair, about 3,000 of whom were from Louisville, while 4,000 came in vehicles, and not less than 1,000 came by rail from points south of Shepherdsville." Keep in mind that Bullitt County's whole population at that time was less than 10,000 folks.
In 1904, the paper reported that the track had been enlarged, and new stables had been added with fine accommodations for visiting horsemen.
Then in November 1907, the grandstand at the fairgrounds burned. It was reported that the floral grounds and refreshment stands were saved. It didn't take long to replace the destroyed structure. By August 1908, the paper was reporting that the new grandstand was a "model of convenience." The same paper wrote that "the display of farm products, livestock, and woman's work would do credit to the State Fair."
Local leadership for the fair continued. In 1912, Richard Wathen was president of the fair board, Dr. Ridgway was vice-president, Ora L. Roby was secretary, and J. F. Combs was treasurer.
That year, the City paper sent a photographer to the Bullitt County Fair, and you can view the microfilmed images on another page. In a picture of the Girls' Domestic Science Club were Fay Magruder, Margaret Combs, Aldine Barrell, Phyllis Bailey, Alice Pope, Mary K. Ball, Elmira Brooks and Katherine Melton. Officials of the Bullitt County Fair Association were pictured, including John Gaban, Dr. Ridgeway, President Richard Wathen, Judge Kirby, J. F. Collins, B. H. Crist, P. H. Quick, William Simmons, Wilson Summers, Ora L. Roby, and E. C. Tyler. Members of the Boys' Corn Club included Louis Harmon, Lloyd Weller, Howard Hardin, Norman Bridwell, and Theodore Combs, Kenneth Magruder, John Ash, Neal Brooks, and James Pope. And Katherine Melton was pictured as the winner of the prizes for best loaf of bread and best layer cake.
While a drought threatened the 1914 event, the fair association reported it still made money on the fair. On the last day, the fair directors met "under the famous red oak" and elected Robert Simmons president, John Gaban vice-president, James Lee Williams secretary, and H. H. Combs treasurer. Of particular note were the horse events which saw the Howerton Bros., McMurtry, Williams, Barger, Blankenship, Robards, and Cruise winning in the saddle and fancy harness contests; while Lemmline, Combs, Miller, and Cruise carried off the prizes in the speed event. That Cruise was Hardy Cruise, and we'll speak of him a bit more later.
Year by year, the fair seemed to get bigger and better. by 1921, the City paper reported, "The Bullitt County Fair, which refuses to recognize any superior except the State Fair, will throw open its gates for four days of entertainment." It continued, "the fairgrounds containing twenty acres of bluegrass, dotted with spreading oaks, are situated just north of Shepherdsville. ... A new grandstand has been built in front of the half-mile track, and many other improvements made."
The event continued through the 1920s. In 1928, the event had about a thousand exhibits of farm products, livestock, and poultry; and there were horse races each day. And that brings us back to Hardy Cruise.
The name Cruise has been associated with harness racing for three generations, and it all began on a farm off Chapeze Lane near Bardstown Junction. Here Hardy Cruise's love for fine standard-bred horses, especially one named Bruno Munson, resulted in repeated victories on the ovals at the Bullitt County fairgrounds. We wrote more about his family here.
The best horse he ever owned was Bruno Munson. Born in 1911, Bruno Munson raced until his death in 1925. During that time he started 134 races and won 114 of them. He never finished out of the money. When he died, Cruise buried him in the center of the oval track at the Bullitt County fairgrounds and placed a small gravestone to mark the spot. That stone was later moved to the home of the late Jimmy Cruise, Hardy's grandson, in Mt. Washington.
The last fair was held in 1929. Then in August 1930, a terrible drought forced the cancellation of the fair. Weeks of drought had dropped rivers and lakes so low as to endanger fish populations, and there was not even water available in Shepherdsville to supply the fair's needs.
With the Great Depression casting a pallor over everything, the fair was not resumed during the rest of that decade. Then the war years prevented its renewal until at last, in 1949, an effort was made to bring it back to life.
In the intervening years, the property had been sold to Gerald L. Everbach of Louisville, the equipment sold, and the grounds allowed to fall into disrepair. Fire had again destroyed the grandstand, and other structures were leaning ruins. Even the prominent "Bullitt County Fair" sign on the outer gate was damaged.
Then in 1948, John C. Wehrley, a State Fair superintendent, saw that broken sign. He consulted a Bardstown Junction farmer, Jack Herberman, and together they decided to see if the fair could be restored. Herberman enlisted the support of groups like the Woodmen of the World, the Lions, the VFW, and the American Legion. Soon the whole county was involved.
In January 1949, at a public meeting, an association was organized and officers elected, including Herberman as president, R. Lee McAfee of Mt. Washington as vice-president, Circuit Court Clerk Nancy Strange as secretary, and Leo Dawson as treasurer.
The fairs would continue into the 1950s, but as enthusiasm waned, so did the fair.
It would not be revived again until 1976 when a group of local citizens, led by the Shepherdsville Jaycees, organized the present Bullitt County Fair Board. Their first fair was held at the Roby School grounds; and then moved to its current location.
The original site near the northwest of the Blue Lick Road - Preston Highway intersection in Shepherdsville bares few traces of what it had once been. The last visible evidence of it that I can find is an outline of the oval track in a 1956 aerial photograph, shown here.
Even though the pandemic has prevented the county from celebrating the Bullitt County Fair this summer, it is good to remember that it has a long history, and has overcome adversity more than once to come back stronger than ever.
If you, the reader, have an interest in any particular part of our county history, and wish to contribute to this effort, use the form on our Contact Us page to send us your comments about this, or any Bullitt County History page. We welcome your comments and suggestions. If you feel that we have misspoken at any point, please feel free to point this out to us.