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Fairs in Kansas

Cowley County Fair, Winfield, 1888County fairs, with images of cattle, crops, carnivals, and crowds, have long been a part of life in Kansas. In fact, the first fairs were held shortly after Kansas Territory was opened in 1854. They usually were sponsored by county agricultural and mechanical societies. Organizers believed fairs encouraged use of the latest farming methods, introduced improved breeds of livestock, and promoted local trade and manufacturers. Agricultural publications urged farmers and their families to go to fairs, "For improvement; to see, to question, and to reflect."

Nineteenth century fairs in Kansas, however, did more than promote the improvement of agriculture. They helped create a sense of community in a newly settled land. By the 1870s most counties sponsored an annual fair. Since county seats usually were centrally located for business, government, and transportation reasons, they were ideal sites for county fairs.

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."

Fairs consciously promoted Kansas as a prosperous place to live. 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 critic's claims that "Corn Won't Grow in Southwest Kansas."

A monument 40 feet in height was erected for General Ulysses S. Grant at the Peabody State Fair in 1885. The Marion County community grabbed the "state fair" title for one year when Topeka canceled its event. 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.

The publicity fairs encouraged was often welcomed. Sometimes even the nation paid attention. In 1879 the Woodson County fair board invited President Rutherford B. Hayes to the fair in Neosho Falls, and he accepted. His visit to Kansas was widely reported, and an illustrated article on the fair was published in Leslie's Weekly, a magazine with national circulation. The drawings in the magazine depicted extensive agricultural exhibits at the fair as well as an archway proclaiming "KANSAS—1856, Bleeding; 1860, Drouthy; 1879, Booming."

Cawker City Fair, 1889Not all fairs were successful. Secretaries of fair boards filed reports with the state secretary of agriculture, and each year several wrote that the harvest was too scant to hold a fair, that the fair had lost money, that the exhibits were poor, or that bad weather discouraged attendance. 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.

Pawnee County did not hold a fair the next year for the secretary reported "too hard times and crops too poor to hold a Fair. (President Hayes was not on exhibit this year.)" The secretary added, however, that the majority of farmers were more prosperous than they were the previous year.

Community contests brought citizens together in friendly competition. One of the most popular was cornhusking. The judges chose the best field in the area. Contestants lined 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.

Racing at Kansas Free Fair, 1914Horse racing also became an important aspect of Kansas fairs. The first Anderson County Fair featured horse races for trotters and pacers and was held in 1872 on a farm west of Garnett. Admission was 25 cents, but children under 10 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.

Merchants supported the fair with displays on the grounds and by closing one afternoon or day to allow employees to attend. Since fairs in the 19th century 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.

These county and state fairs set a legacy improving agriculture, helping create a sense of community, and encouraging settlement of the region. They also reflected major concerns of the people that attended. Fairs, in a sense, were celebrations of another year of progress. Because city and rural residents depended on the agricultural economy, fairs became important annual events whose traditions are still evident today.

View colorful fair posters in Kansas Memory.

Entry: Fairs in Kansas

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: April 2009

Date Modified: June 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.