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Territorial Festivals
U.S. Territorial Festivals and Celebrations, 1846-1912

Spanish festivals continued in the city. General Stephen Watts Kearny participated in a religious fiesta in Tomé, which was probably typical of the area. The church was packed for the ceremony, which included singing, instrumental music, candles and the firing of muskets into the rafters. Outside, there was a Spanish folk drama in the square. At night the locals indulged in hours of fireworks, bonfires on rooftops, and more firing of guns.

Kearny was uncomfortable at the Spanish celebration, but not newcomer Melchior Werner. In 1873 he participated in the feast of Corpus Christi by building an altar in front of his hotel. There the religious procession paused for a brief service.

The biggest celebration Albuquerque had ever staged took place April 22, 1880, when the railroad officially arrived. People jammed the streets and sat on rooftops to watch a parade, led by the Ninth Cavalry Band from Santa Fe. Merchant Franz Huning, who had been instrumental in making sure the railroad came to Albuquerque, followed in his carriage, along with the carriages of other speakers and prominent citizens. Then came school children, horsemen with decorated bridles and saddles, and finally citizens in their Sunday best.

Standing on two flatcars pulled in as an impromptu stage, speakers delivered flowery oratory in both Spanish and English, and the band played on. Then everyone climbed aboard a ten-car excursion train for a free trip to Bernalillo, where they were treated to tables of food and drink. When they returned, barrels of wine awaited them at the plaza. The band played again, and fireworks filled the sky.

With more Americans came July Fourth celebrations. In 1882 “Professor” Park Van Tassel filled a rubberized balloon at the Albuquerque Gas Works. It took two days to fill, and residents had to do without lighting in their homes. The Professor launched from a vacant lot on Second Street. He reached 14,207 feet before landing in a cornfield near Old Town.

Another festive occasion was Arbor Day in 1885, when Mayor Henry Jaffa and a band led a procession of 150 citizens bearing saplings from the Armijo House to Robinson Park. In subsequent weeks school children carried water to the trees. Robinson Park also had a bandstand that provided the setting for concerts on Sunday evenings in the summer.

Territorial Fair
As early as 1878 city boosters were talking about raising money to hold a Territorial Fair, but the town then lacked any attractions for fair-goers. That changed with the arrival of the railroad.

In 1881 a handful of the city’s prominent businessmen organized the first fair. They were Ambrosio Armijo, W.C. Hazeldine, Franz Huning, M. S. Otero, José L. Perea, and Elias Stover. Their organization was the New Mexico Agricultural, Mineral and Industrial Exposition and Driving Park Association. Its purpose was to hold territorial fairs in Albuquerque every October.

Politicians and businessmen in Santa Fe objected, arguing that their city should be the site of the fair. Albuquerque organizers placated them with a few printing contracts and continued with their plans.

They bought 20 acres near Rio Grande and built a racetrack and grandstand, under which was the longest bar in the Territory. Nearby stood a booth of the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union.) Tents housed such exhibits as fruit, grain, vegetables, saddles, furniture, flowers, textiles, Indian crafts, tobacco products, minerals, general merchandise and taxidermy. The racetrack offered sulky, horse, burro, mule and foot races at the same time the Albuquerque Browns played baseball in the space inside the track. Sometimes major league players played in exhibition games. Wagering was heavy on both races and baseball.

The theme of the first fair was “Civilization of the Nineteenth Century and Civilization of Prehistoric Times.” The founders intended to promote Albuquerque and New Mexico, and they advocated the display of local goods.

The first Territorial Fair opened October 31 during a driving rain, and the downpour continued all three days. They had to cancel most of the horse races, foot races and band concerts. Fair officials extended the event another three days, expecting the weather to clear. It kept raining, but attendance was surprisingly good. Receipts fell short, and boosters had to raise another $1,000 to cover expenses, but they were satisfied with the event. The next year fair organizers moved the date to Sept. 18, hoping for better weather, and succeeded.

The fair from its beginnings relied on activities and special events to attract crowds. The second year, special events included a circus and a four-mile foot race by Zuni runners. Other events included horse and harness racing, bicycle and burro racing, cakewalk dancing contests, and Indian dances. Albuquerque's first baseball team, the Albuquerque Browns, played ball inside the running track.

Each year special attractions were more elaborate. In 1899 Little Egypt, a well known exotic dancer, performed “The Famous Dance of the Pyramids.” (Girlie shows weren’t banned at the fair until 1961.) There was even a re-enactment of the Battle of Manila. By 1901 the Denver News proclaimed the fair “the great industrial exposition and festival of the Southwest.”

In 1903 promoter D.K.B. Sellers organized a mock battle between Navajos and a troop of U.S. cavalry. The “performance” was called off when Sellers learned the Navajos had removed the blanks from their guns and replaced it with live ammunition. (The event was only a few decades removed from the Indian Wars and the tragic Navajo Long Walk.)

Airships became part of the show too. In 1907 Joseph Blondin flew his balloon, filled with coal gas, 18 miles north as irate farmers fired on the craft eight times. He flew again in 1909, this time tethered.

In 1911, Charles F. Walsh’s Curtiss biplane lifted off from the infield track of the fairgrounds and flew south to the Barelas Bridge, then east to the railroad tracks, and northwest across Robinson Park. He landed again on the fair track. It was the first airplane flight in New Mexico. In 1912 there was a race between an airplane and a bicycle. After the pilot tangled his plane in a barbed wire fence, the bicyclist was declared the winner.

An important political development took place in 1908, when the Territorial Fair and the Irrigation Congress joined to host the 16th annual National Irrigation Congress and Interstate Industrial Exposition. One visitor was publisher William Randolph Hearst, who brought along an entourage to see if New Mexico was ready for statehood. He publicized the visit through his newspapers. The Congress was the nation’s most prominent water organization and was then pushing for federal funding of water projects. Because it was a national event, Albuquerque went all out, and got a lot of publicity.

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