Since 1858, when Chambers County was carved out of Liberty County and became its own entity, we have maintained a close kinship with our Liberty neighbors. One of our special bonds is found in our common love for agriculture, ranching and rodeo, all of which are highlighted at the Liberty County Trinity Valley Exposition whose top priority is youth and education.
Many of our Chambers County youth have competed at TVE over the years, including my youngest girls. My girls were allowed the privilege of joining the Liberty County 4-H Mounted Drill Team, beginning in 2002, because at the time Chambers County did not offer a mounted equine drill program. The drill team was under the direction of head drillmaster, Tommy Small who was assisted by drillmasters, Cheryl Taylor, and Debbie Cain, all from Hardin, TX. Rex Robertson and our own Tammie Wallace Turner also became drillmasters for the team. We spent many hours hauling horses to the TVE arena for practice and always looked forward to performing on the opening night of the TVE rodeo. My friend, Belinda Richard, and I made all the costumes for horses and riders (36 in one year at times) until my daughter, Kacie Hughes Flores, graduated out in 2010. What great memories were made, and friendships forged between our neighboring counties during these times, friendships that continue to this day.
The inception of this wonderful outreach to the youth of Liberty County and its surrounding counties was brought about by tragedy. On April 21, 1909 a raging fire swept through the business district of Liberty, Texas, striking a devastating blow to the town and its economy. The April 23rd Liberty Vindicator reported the damage was between $30,000 and $35,000. In today’s economy that would be equivalent to just over a million dollars. The fire began in the H. C. Wood building and systematically spread, both to the north and the south, determined to consume everything in its path.
As voracious as the fire’s appetite was for destruction it was no match for the resilient spirit of the good folks of Liberty, a spirit which is reflected in the very fiber of our American heritage. They fought the fire, surveyed the damage, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and decided to throw a party to encourage hearts and rebuild what was lost.
The 1910 fair included the coronation of the first fair queen, Miss Myrtle Green, a Grand Ball held at the Sam Houston School, a school children’s parade in which buggies and wagons were decorated. Throughout the 1910’s the Fair was held in October or November with the exception of the years 1918, 1919, and 1920 when it was cancelled due to the effects of World War I.
In 1914, the Baby Show, the forerunner of the Baby Parade started. Prizes were given for the fattest baby, the prettiest baby, and the brightest baby.
The Fair during the 1920s continued to expand and in 1930, the Fair Association members realized that a permanent larger area was needed to improve the quality of the Fair. A committee, consisting of E. W. Pickett, L. H. Hampton, and Dozier Partlow reviewed the possible locations. In June they recommended the purchase of a 40-acre site on the Swilley Tract which was approved. By October of that year, one building, an exhibit hall, and a fence enclosing the property greeted the opening-day fair goers. Congressman Martin Dies and Judge W. O. Huggins, President of the Gulf Coast Good Roads Association, opened the new Trinity River Bridge on Hwy 90 as the fair’s first event.
In 1931 a pavilion was constructed to house dances and major events. Chambers County’s first involvement occurred that same year when the Anahuac Chamber of Commerce gave a prize of $25.00 for the best Chambers County products exhibited by a Chambers County resident.
The first rodeo held in conjunction with the fair was in 1932. The Smith Bros. All Texas Rodeo “with 30 head of horses, ten wild ferocious steers, 16 real cowboys who rope and ride bucking horses and high jumping steers” entertained the crowds.
In 1939, livestock became the major attraction. J.M. Rich, Will Hamilton, Cecil Boyt, and George Gilbert organized the show of cattle which set a precedent for future fairs and expositions.
The major enhancement which ensured the fair’s continuity and changed its character, was the contribution of Elmer Boyt of Devers. He built the first rodeo arena and with his two sons, managed the forerunner of today’s rodeo.
Excerpt from Boyt family history book: “Realizing the need in Southeast Texas of a Rodeo plant that would attract performers of a high caliber and spectators from a wide area, E. W. Boyt and sons, Cecil and Pat, conceived the idea of building this $10,000 Arena on the Liberty County fair Grounds.”
“Located midway between Houston and Beaumont, this modern site for the best ropin’ and ridin’ to be found anywhere is already becoming one of the entertainment centers of the Gulf Coast country. It not only helps carry out the Boyt’s dream of better horseflesh and better livestock but provides huge grandstands and arena in which entertainments of many kinds may be held. Boyt’s Arena is a dream come true . . . with profit to none of the builders . . . with enjoyment to those who love the creak of saddle leather and the sight of a cowhand who can rope and ride. May you enjoy every visit to this fine arena!”
Every year in mid-October the familiar grounds of the Trinity Valley Exposition at Liberty become the center of activity for families throughout Liberty and Chambers counties. Vocational agriculture and 4-H students from across the area settle in with their livestock projects for the duration of the show. A select number of young ladies and their horses compete for the honor of becoming the next TVE Queen.
Hundreds return night after night for the rodeo competition and everything else that takes place in the covered Rodeo Arena. Thousands come in to join in the festivities, stroll the midway, and otherwise celebrate one of the true rites of fall for Liberty County.
But during the dark days of World War II, when the forces of Good and Evil set out in the epic contest of the previous century, the rites of autumn were suspended out of deference to the fighting men and the seriousness of the time. And after careful deliberations, the TVE fairgrounds temporarily became a prison camp for captured soldiers of the Third Reich. It is a very good story, and it has been told from time to time in various publications. It should be retold once more.
The Trinity Valley Exposition, or its predecessor the Liberty County Fair, has been cancelled a few times for national emergencies. The Liberty County Fair was cancelled from 1918 to 1920 due to the lingering effects of World War I.
In an effort to broaden the scope of the operation to include folks in Chambers County, the Trinity Valley Exposition was established on April 28, 1941. The first TVE went off just fine in the fall of 1941. The Boyt’s Ranch Rodeo was held on May 8, 1942, but by August of that year, the Exposition was cancelled. The fairgrounds remained silent over the next three years as well.
By Kevin Ladd
By the time the 1943 rice harvest season approached, local farmers found themselves in a genuine quandary. There simply weren’t enough young men to gather in the crops. Most of them were in the military, and this was proving to be a “bumper crop” of a year. Gordon Hart, the affable county agent, heard plenty about the problem wherever he went and decided he had to do something about it.
Liberty County at that time had 1,961 farms. Based on the amount of land and the number of farms, the average farm covered 127.1 acres.
The idea of using German war prisoners to harvest the crops was just catching on at that time, but Hart had to follow all of the government procedures in order to bring this about. Hart, accompanied by Mr. Pat Boyt and Mr. J. H. Sandlin, traveled to Huntsville on June 24, 1943 to meet with General L. F. Guerre, Director of Internal Security for the Eighth Service Command. Afterward, he met with the local Farm Labor Advisory Committee on a possible site. This committee met with the TVE board and hammered out an agreement approving the site as a camp for the POWs.
The Internal Security Division for the Eighth Service Command sent some of their people to Liberty to inspect the site. They signed off on the deal and found the site was satisfactory for handling 400 German prisoners and their guards. By October 4, the first contingent of 140 prisoners arrived in Liberty and was taken to the fairgrounds, where they immediately went to work readying the site as a prisoner-of-war camp. By October 12, when the POWs started to work in the rice fields, the Liberty camp housed 500 prisoners.
An interesting research paper by Jeannie Carmody, written 20 years ago when she attended Lee College, identified the typical German prisoner as about 20 years old, tall, husky and quite handsome. Most of the men, she said, were veterans of General Erwin Rommel’s highly-touted Afrika Korps. Some of them were his top men, but they fit in well with their keepers and earned the respect of their guards. Some of the local girls, it is said, thought the German men were quite handsome.
The man in the middle of the whole operation was County Agent Hart, who had to serve as the intermediary between the government and the local rice farmers. He had to get each contract signed, sealed and delivered. Each prisoner was paid the minimum per daily wage as set by the Beaumont War Manpower Commission. Carmody’s research suggests the men usually earned about 70 cents per day. Hart’s wife said her husband spent almost every day at the camp, making sure everything went smoothly, but she suspected he mainly liked to partake of the food prepared by the good German cooks.
The late Dr. Albert L. Delaney, Sr. of Liberty served as the camp physician and established some friendships that he maintained throughout his life.
Many of the end results of the German POW camp, however, were never widely published. The Farm Labor group left the TVE a balance of $3,745.15 in the bank. They also paid out some $3,700 in rent for the facility, an additional financial bonus. The Farm Labor Committee also added two new wells and two new pumps on the fairgrounds, and these remained for the benefit of the TVE after the war was over. All in all, 511 camps were established across the United States during World War II, and 120 of that number were in Texas. When you go out to the Trinity Valley Exposition the next time, try to imagine it with 500 German prisoners housed there.
After the war, in 1946, the citizens of Liberty and Chambers counties were ready to swing back into action to make the first TVE in four years the “biggest and best” ever.
The lumber used for the POW camp was used to repair the building, with roads and sidewalks covered with shell for the first time, bringing the Exposition grounds “out of the mud.”
New lights in the buildings and grounds were strung to brighten up the fairgrounds.
Vernon F. Poole, the secretary-manager of the TVE, said that on the first day of the fair, school children would be admitted free of charge and the rides and shows would only cost a nickel. There were 10 big shows and 10 big rides available that year. Rodeo tickets were $1.50. E.B. Buchanan of Buchanan Radio Service provided the public address system.
The first TVE Calf Scramble was held that year with 12 boys going after six calves. The queen was June Steusoff and the king was Harry Lloyd McGuire.
In 1947, the first auction of purebred livestock and quarter horses was held, along with auctions for the 4-H Club boys and the previous year’s calf scramble winners. The top price for the calf scramble champion was $1,245 paid by Price’s Liberty Cafe to the winner, Troy Abshire of Anahuac.
In 1948, Evelyn Holbrook was named queen with Nelson Waldrop being king.
Throughout the next 60 years, dignitaries and celebrities were included in the opening day parades and featured during the rodeo. In 1949, Houston oilman Glenn McCarthy led the opening day parade. Texas Attorney General and U.S. Senate nominee Price Daniel officially opened the TVE parade in 1952. Movie star and singing cowboy Monte Hale performed at the rodeo that same year.
In 1953, Bill Potter, popular KPRC-TV singing cowboy, star of the Milkdrop Moe TV Show, was the feature attraction of the Rodeo.
Making the opening day address in 1954 was State Representative Bill Daniel. TVE President Jim Sterling introduced other guests in the parade including U.S. Representative Jack Brooks, State Senator Mrs. Neville Colson, and Democratic nominee for State Representative Zeke Zbranek. Dempsie Henley narrated the different parade features as they passed by the grandstand. The special feature at the rodeo was the 30-man Pasadena Mounted Square Dance Troupe.
In 1955, the popular Houston Children’s TV personality Kitirik led the opening day parade. The first TVE Trail Ride was organized in 1956.
In 1958, television and movie star, Robert Culp, was part of the festivities and crowned the TVE Rodeo Queen. Also in 1958, a boxing match between Heavyweight Champion Contender Roy Harris of Cut-N-Shoot and Benny Rusk of Liberty was held and ended in a draw.
Justin Wilson, Cajun Entertainer, performed at the rodeo in 1969. The opening day parade in 1974 was lead by Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe. In 1980, the Boyt Rodeo Arena was replaced with a $1 million, 4,000-seat, covered arena, still in use today. Many more celebrities have participated in the TVE activities including the late Eyewitness News Marvin Zindler and Houston Astro J.R. Richard and many more will come in future years.
Over the past 112 years, many changes have occurred with the Liberty County Fair and the Trinity Valley Exposition. Starting with just an idea in September 1909 among several business leaders of Liberty County, this event has blossomed into the huge and successful exposition we have today.
Through the livestock auction, hundreds of area school children have been awarded college scholarships totaling over $1 million.
It takes a lot of work by scores of volunteers to prepare for the TVE. They work the entire year to plan and organize for the week-long fair and rodeo and they deserve a big “pat on the back.”
The fair and the TVE have always been about bringing the citizens of the Trinity Valley together, to show their livestock, display their handiwork, share prize recipes, ride carnival rides, play games, eat different kinds of food and just have fun. In addition, the fairgrounds are used throughout the year with different events held there.
Just remember, it all began 112 years ago with the first Liberty County Fair held on the courthouse grounds in October 1909. The plan was to make each year “bigger and better,” and when you attend the TVE Fair and Rodeo this year, you will see that this tradition has been continued and you will not be disappointed.
Enjoy the Trinity Valley Exposition and have fun.
Sources: The Liberty Vindicator – various years and compilations by Robert Schaadt and Chas. W. Fisher, Jr. courtesy of the Sam Houston Regional Library
It is hard to mention the sport of rodeo in Liberty, and not be reminded of the great professional rodeo career of Buck Eckols.
His name is prominent among those that follow rodeo history and he is indeed a Liberty legend.
Finishing in the top three calf ropers of Rodeo Association of America’s World Calf Roping Championship at least three times in the 1940’s, he earned the respect of his peers in many parts of the country.
Clifford Westermeier in his 1947 book Man, Beast, Dust - The Story of Rodeowrote the following:
“Buck is a roper of ability, a threat to anyone competing against him. He is--among the most attractive and handsome men in rodeo. He possesses regular masculine features associated with outdoor men; there is a certain subtle mischievous sparkle in his eyes, which is combined with a lively sense of humor; Buck is a perfect companion. From the Eckols Ranch he came to New York to the Madison Square Garden Show for the first time in 1941, where his talent for calf roping placed him among the leaders of the sport.”
After retreating from the national scene, Buck became very active in the Trinity Valley Exposition and served in many capacities over the years.
A 1947 TVE Program listed him on the Rodeo Committee, Rodeo and Baby Parade Committees, Quarter Horse Committee, and Chairman of the Calf Scramble and Cattle and Quarter Horse Auction Show.
He was a stockholder in the original TVE organization.