Bicounty fair and rodeo roots run deep

By East Benton County Historical Society

Sixty-five years ago this month, the Benton County Fair and Rodeo came into its own.

Officially!

By tradition, the bicounty fair is said to have begun in the late 1940s with the ending of the annual Grape Festivals, which for decades highlighted the area’s rich agricultural history and practices. Spinning off from that was the county fair.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was called the Benton County Fair and Rodeo, with the apparent understanding that Franklin County was embedded in the enterprise, if not officially in name. Newspaper accounts would reference the bicounty fair.

It became so in 1954 when the August gathering of farmers and cowboys became officially known for the first time as the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo, a tradition that still stands nearly seven decades later.

The royalty court reigning over that first officially named bicounty fair was headed by Queen Mary Jean Mullineaux of West Richland who demonstrated excellent skills in horsemanship.

Her quartet of princesses were JoAnn Austin of Kennewick, Sandra Wade of Prosser, Teddy Anderson of Pasco, and Marlene Ross of Kennewick,

The 1954 Benton-Franklin County Fair began on Friday, Aug, 27, and concluded on Sunday night, Aug, 29.

In the tradition of fairs, the 1 ½-hour parade in downtown Kennewick on the second day of the fair and rodeo drew 15,000 parade enthusiasts to the mid-morning event, taking in the colorful highlights that included riders on horseback, bands, clowns, royalty and creative floats in the organizational, commercial and civic categories. Today’s parade is always on the Saturday before opening of the fair. This year it’s at 10 a.m. Aug. 17 in downtown Kennewick.

Introduced in the 1954 fair parade procession was the military’s new Nike guided missile anti-aircraft weapon. Col. Nathaniel Borden, commanding officer of Camp Hanford, promised and delivered the missile for display in the parade, along with marching troops. Anti-aircraft artillery guns were being replaced by the guided missiles as part of Camp Hanford’s ongoing role in protecting the Hanford nuclear site.

The Nike missile and marching troops weren’t Camp Hanford’s only contribution to the parade. Its U.S. 72nd Army Band took first place among marching groups in the parade.

The Tri-City Elks organization took the sweepstakes award in the 1954 parade. It was something of an electrical power tie for best float in the commercial division. Tied for first were both the Benton County Public Utility District, and the Franklin County Public Utility District.

Best float among adult groups was the entry from the Redeemer Lutheran Church, while the Rainbow Girls won in the youth category, and the Walla Walla Equestrians took the mounted groups honors.

While fairgoers were taking in the needlework and cooking entries, the pens of sheep, hogs, cattle, goats and other livestock entered by youth in 4-H, FFA, and other farm organizations, rodeo enthusiasts were taking in Benton and Franklin counties’ sixth annual Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned rodeo.

The three-night performance featured about 125 buckaroos going after some of the $8,000 grand purse. Calf roping, bareback, bronc and bull riding, and bulldogging brought out the roughest in a feisty group of wild, stomping, surly Brahma bulls, mustangs and steers. Some of these feared and respected critters at the 1954 rodeo came with names like Devil’s Dream, Pow Wow, Old Snake and Rubber Dolly. Among cowboys taking on the challenge were hall-of-famers Deb Copenhaver, a top rider, and Casey Tibbs, 1951 All-American Cowboy Champion.

If you wanted the best seats in the house, you paid $3.50 as an adult for the box and arena seating. Grandstand went for $2.50, and bleachers $2. Adult general admission was $1.50 and children under 12 years old got in for 65 cents. The rodeo was sponsored by the Benton County Mounted Posse.

Like all Benton-Franklin County Fair and Rodeo sessions through the years since, strong community support was expressed. Ads promoting the 1954 bicounty fair and rodeo were placed in the Columbia Basin News and the Tri-City Herald newspapers, by such diverse businesses as the National Bank of Commerce, with branches in Kennewick and Richland, Visgar and Hill Crest Drugs in Kennewick, Prudomme Hardware on Avenue C in Kennewick, Central Motors in Pasco, Doors Jewelry in Kennewick,  Benton County Abstract and Tile in Kennewick and Prosser, Links Tavern in Kennewick, Adobe Cafe in Kennewick, and many others.

The Inter-City Bus Co., like today’s Ben Franklin Transit System, provided bus service to the 1954 Benton-Franklin Fair and Rodeo, running at half-hour intervals 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Sunday, and 1 p.m. to midnight Saturday.

This year’s Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo kicks off Tuesday, Aug. 20 and ends Saturday, Aug. 24. Full schedule at bentonfranklinfair.com.

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