The sights and sounds of Kansas fairs have been a welcome escape during the hot summer months since the time of Kansas Territory in 1854.
County fairs conjure images of cattle, crops, carnivals, and crowds. The latest farming methods, new and improved breeds of livestock, and promotion of local trades and manufacturers headlined the events that were often sponsored by county agricultural and mechanical societies. Fairs often boasted the biggest, newest, and best products arranged in garish agricultural displays. Since the days of the Kansas territorial period in 1854 fairs have celebrated the bounty of the season.
A 40-foot monument was erected for General Ulysses S. Grant at the Peabody State Fair in 1885. The Marion County community grabbed the title for one year when Topeka canceled its fair. The obelisk was built of 40 bushels of yellow and red corn ears with pictures of the general on the sides and columns topped with pumpkins. Two train carloads of tables and utensils were brought in to feed the masses.
Horse racing became an important aspect of Kansas fairs. The first Anderson County Fair featured races for trotter and pacers and was held October 23, 1872, on a farm west of Garnett. Admission was 25 cents, but children under ten were admitted free.
The Bourbon County Fair planned a short race when it opened in 1865. But grasshoppers were "so thick on the track that they could have no races." Residents reported that the insects were from one to three inches deep on the track.
Nineteenth-century fairs in Kansas also helped create a sense of community in the newly settled land. By the 1870s most counties sponsored an annual fair. Since county seats were usually centrally located for business, government, and transportation reasons, they were ideal sites for county fairs.
Community contests brought citizens together in friendly competition. One of the most popular was cornhusking. The judges would choose the best field in the area. Contestants would line up on one side of their wagons. The sound of a gun started the wagons' slow progression down the row as the picker jerked corn from the stalk and tossed it into the wagon. Judges made sure that each stalk was picked clean of corn as they crowned the winner at the finish line.
Making a Favorable Impression
Fair posters lured attendance with such phrases as "Larger, better and more inviting than ever before"; "Patronize the County Fair, Exhibits Invited in All Classes"; "A Grand Opportunity for a Re-union of the Farmers, Stock Growers, Horticulturists"; or "Exhibits of Everything Worth Seeing in Ness County, Kansas." The Junction City Union in 1879 encouraged pride with an editorial statement, "As there will be many strangers here during the fair week we must sport our best clothes before them and do everything possible to make a favorable impression."
Merchants supported the fair with displays on the grounds and by closing one afternoon or day to allow employees to attend. Since 19th century fairs were held in September and October, schools also closed one day during the festivities. Railroads offered excursion rates to fairgoers and freight reductions to exhibitors for transporting produce and livestock to the fair. Local civic groups operated refreshment stands and occasionally prepared exhibits. Townships and granges sometimes prepared agricultural exhibits. The sewing society of a local church would enter its handiwork in the ladies department. Attendance figures often totaled several thousand a day indicating that fairs were an important part of local life.
Not only did fairs create a sense of community, they also reflected the uncertainties of settling the Plains. When times were hard, fairs were either canceled or hampered by poor exhibits. When times were good, exhibits were extensive, and local residents publicized the successful harvest. During the fair, if the growing season were productive, newspaper accounts extolled the abundance of crops raised in the county and promoted successful farming as an important aspect of county and state economies.
Fairs consciously promoted Kansas as a prosperous place to live. Fair posters often proclaimed that visitors would see "a grand agricultural display." Other efforts were more specific. Constructed entirely of locally grown corn, the arch at the entrance of the 1886 Finney County Fair refuted critics' claims that "Corn Won't Grow in Southwest Kansas."
Kansas fairs became so legendary that President Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to visit the Woodson County Fair in 1879. When Hayes accepted an invitation to visit Neosho Falls, the event drew national media attention. Leslie's Weekly published an account of the famous visitor with an illustrated article about the fair and its agricultural exhibits.
Not all fairs were successful. The secretary of the Pawnee County Fair Board described the difficulties of holding a fair in 1879 in spite of a well publicized visit by President Hayes:
"Times too hard to make our Fair a success. Would have been an entire failure, if it had not been for the kindness of our Governor St. John. Through him we owe our success in his bringing the President of the United States out to our little Fair. We had a good display of vegetables but brought in but few."
Entry: Fair Posters
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 1996
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.