The mid-1970s to mid-1980s were dark years for the Mississippi Valley Fair.

As the 1973 event approached, managers were dealing with financial losses from the preceding three years and a $250,000 debt.

"Could be last year for Valley Fair," a headline in the Times-Democrat newspaper proclaimed, adding that the upcoming event would be a "last ditch stand."

"Why bump our heads on a stone wall if the public doesn't want it?" long-time fair secretary Chet Salter asked in an interview. "If the public doesn't (want to support the fair), we'll sell the property and pay our debts."

Today, things are much different for the second-largest fair in Iowa.

As the fair prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary with a six-day run beginning July 30, general manager Shawn Loter said that although challenges exist — weather and high prices for quality entertainment, to name two — the fair is financially healthy. So is attendance and exhibitor participation, both open-to-the-public and 4-H, which is the backbone of the fair.

The nonprofit organization that owns the grounds at 2815 W. Locust St., Davenport, has no debt and generates more money than it spends through a combination of year-round rentals, sponsorships, donations and the fair itself, although the fair brings in less than the other streams, Loter said.

The organization is self-sustaining and receives no government subsidies. Operations are overseen by a 19-member governing board. 

So how did the fair survive its down years and become what we know today? Here are some questions and answers about the fair touching on 100 years of milestones.

Q: When did the fair pay off its debt and reach a more even financial keel?

A: In 1989, under the leadership of Ed Eichelberger, the fair paid off its debt, which had reached $350,000.

Introduction of the Fun Card in 1985 — then just $7 — proved to be a godsend. Fair-goers liked the idea of buying a single ticket that would get them into the fair every day, including every grandstand show. (Today the card is $85.)

As director Roy Curtis said at the time, "They don't like to be nickeled and dimed."

Still, the 1980s were difficult. 

The farm economy was in collapse and Quad-City farm implement makers such as Deere, International Harvester, Case and Caterpillar were cutting back or closing.

The fair was getting a subsidy from Scott County, but when it sought $180,000 for 1986, up from $37,000 in 1971, supervisors balked. They froze funding and a plan was devised for eliminating the debt.

"The thing was getting way out of hand," then-supervisor Bill Fennelly said at the time.

The 1985 fair also saw 4.5 inches of rain, reducing attendance to a dismal 45,000.

But a corner of sorts had been turned, and in 1987 attendance was 150,000.

The 1989 fair, featuring an appearance by the Statler Brothers, brought 155,000 attendees.

Q: How has the fair changed over the years?

A: During the 1950s and into the 1960s, the fair had a decidedly agricultural bent. "Fairs were ignoring the urban citizens and, with a shrinking agricultural population, there just were not enough people to support the fair at a profitable level," according to a history compiled for the fair in 1994.


Will Musal, 13, of Le Claire, leads a black Angus calf back to his stall after washing it at the 2018 fair.

After a year of study, managers made a concerted effort to "urbanize" the fair, adding new classes of competition geared to urban people. The number of exhibits went from 5,000 in 1964 to 10,000 in 1968, according to the history.

"In 1964 we woke up," secretary Salter said.

The '60s also saw the addition of the International Folk Art Show, the International Decoy Contest and the International Wood Carvers' Congress.

And musical entertainment in the grandstand became more important.

Q: Who have been the fair's bigger grandstand acts?

Alan Jackson holds the record for drawing an estimated 31,200 people in 2008 — close to the entire population of Bettendorf in 2008.

Alan Jackson

Country music singer Alan Jackson tips his hat to the crowd on Aug. 2, 2014.

Brooks & Dunn drew 30,100 and 29,100 in 2006 and 2004, respectively, and they will be back this year on Wednesday, July 31.

But the big names come at a price.

When Willie Nelson appeared in 1983, he demanded a $50,000 guarantee and became — at the time — the highest paid performer ever to play in the Quad-Cities.

Former general manager Bob Fox said the most he paid for an act was the $337,000 he shelled out for Reba McEntire's performance in 2015.

Though the emphasis is on country performers, rock is represented too.

And over the years, there's been a little bit of everything: the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus (1959), Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans (1977), the Oak Ridge Boys (1990), Alabama, Pat Boone and Myron Floren (1982), and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1989).

Q: This year's fair is billed as the 100th anniversary, but the first fair was in 1920, not 1919. Can you explain that?

A: Planning for the first fair began in 1919, so that date is designated for the anniversary. But even if the counting began in 1920, the number would be off by now because no fairs were held during the World War II years of 1942, 1943 and 1944.

Q: How does the fair make money year-round?

A: The grounds and buildings are rented out for all kinds of uses, including bingo, storage, auto races, car shows, weddings, flea markets, gun shows, trade shows, parties and political events.

The fair also seeks grants, donations and sponsorships, and hundreds of volunteers donate their time to making the fair happen.

Q: Besides the 1970s and 1980s, were there other hard times?

A: The lament of it being a "make or break" year for the fair was uttered more than once over the years.

In 1939, the non-profit association running the fair was bankrupt and in receivership. In 1945, a for-profit entity outbid the association for the grounds and took title of the property with the idea of converting it into an amusement park.

That didn't happen, and the fair limped along by leasing the grounds for its annual event.

Eventually, a nonprofit entity got the grounds back.


Midway rides are always a hit. This ride is shown in 2018.

Q: Is the fair doing something special for its 100th anniversary?

A: Yes!

Skydiver teams and fireworks will be featured every night, and there will be an appearance by the Budweiser Clydesdales.

In exhibitor classes, there is a new Lego competition, a 100th anniversary decorated cake contest, a fair memorabilia division in the antiques department, a demonstration of bubble art and a celebrity goat milking contest.

Also new: a comedy pirate show, an Elvis impersonator and FMX freestyle jumpers.

Returning favorites are food vendors (of course), the midway and the Belgian horses.

Grandstand entertainment is Dan+Shay, July 30; Brooks & Dunn, July 31; Jake Owen, Aug. 1; Tesla, Aug. 2; Nickelback, Aug. 3 and Brad Paisley, Aug. 4.