Greg Payton took in his first Kansas State Fair when he was six months old.
He wasn’t the infant child of carnival workers. His Hutchinson parents just loved the fair and he’s certain they brought him each year from the time of his birth in 1951.
By the 1960s, the fairgrounds, just blocks from his home, became his playground.
“Every kid in Hutchinson knew where the holes in the fences were,” said Payton, who today is owner of Payton Optical. He and his buddies entered behind Skaets Steak Shop on North Main Street. The fences were never mended, and to this day he wonders if they just left them for easy access to the kids bold enough to sneak inside the gates.
Payton was part of the “seething throngs,” as The Hutchinson News described the crowds who were privy to the latest technology as the state fair moved into the future. They came in anticipation of seeing the current trends and big-name talents at the grandstand shows.
While it might have been a peaceful time to be a young boy in Hutchinson, the front page of The Hutchinson News revealed national turmoil. Juxtaposed with the state fair’s opening in 1963 was a tragedy in Birmingham, Ala.: Four young black girls had been killed in a Sunday morning bomb blast at 16th Street Baptist Church. The date was Sept.15, 1963.
The tragedy, which worsened already-volatile racial tensions, was worlds away from Hutchinson. Locally, the record book for attendance at the fair was rewritten that same day.
“Never before in the 102-year history book have so many sons and daughters of the Sunflower State gathered together on one-quarter section of its soil as Sunday,” The News reported. Many were coming 300 miles for the day. Others were renting rooms in private homes because the motels were filled. Many began that Sunday attending the “the church of no neckties,” for the causal ecumenical service for those away from their home churches on Sunday. This was the first time the service was held in the arena at the west end of the fairgrounds, in the new Kansas Farmer Arena co-sponsored by the Fair Board.
“It was much nicer than the service in the grandstand that was interfered with by carnival music, acrobats and beer trucks in full view,” The News reported.
Growing the fair
For some fairgoers, like young Greg Payton, the fair meant amusement. The carnival’s freak show had an allure for the young and Payton recalls seeing the fat, bearded lady and the “fattest man in the world,” who just lay on a bed with people taking care of him.
“There was tent after tent of odd people,” he said.
In 1966, Hoyt Shuemaker was billed the “armless and legless wonder, at the fair’s only freak show,” The News reported. He had been born with a combination of misshapen limbs attached to a normal torso. After the “man with two faces” finished, Shuemaker performed. He explained to the audience that he was born this way but could do almost anything. Then, with his short, fingerless arms he knotted string and hammered a nail into a board. He believed that freak shows served a purpose.
“I think people go away thankful for the way they are. They also find people can do almost anything. Because of the advances in medicine, freaks are a vanishing lot,” Shuemaker said at the time. “I don’t mind being called a freak. They can call me anything they want as long as they don’t stop looking at me. That’s when I’ll start to worry.”
While Payton was drawn to the carnival side shows as a kid, he felt empathy for the performers.
“What bothered me the most was Popeye; his eyes would bulge out,” said Payton, a local optician. “He had Graves’ disease, but they didn’t know it at the time.”
Payton knew that being part of the carnival freak show was the only way that man could make a living.
As he grew older, Payton began giving the stuffed animals he won in the arcade to girls instead of his mother.
“We did boy stuff,” said Payton, who recalled watching 1930s striptease in the hand-cranked view machines in the arcade. And he and his friends also snuck into Club Lido, another carnival show complete with a striptease act.
But the fair was much more than the carnival, and Payton recalled that there was a real country theme to the event back in the 1960s. He would put on his cowboy boots to walk the grounds.
The fair also was one big parade of marching bands, as well as livestock shows galore, The News reported. By 1964 there were more and more people from out of town and many who were picnicking from the trunks of their cars in the fair’s parking lot.
The Planetarium in a Poultry Building was attracting capacity crowds by 1964. The precursor to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, it was Patty Carey’s invention and dream. It told the story of the stars and other heavenly bodies every hour, on the hour.
While every fair seemed to be soaring toward the future, the annual event’s mission remained grounded to its foundation, according to Tom Percy in “A History of the Kansas State Fair, 1863-2006.” Its goal was to promote the best that Kansas had to offer in agriculture and industry, with a focus on youth and family.
But as the fair grew in popularity, so did the use of the grandstand. By 1963 the fair board was becoming enthralled with the idea of bringing in big-name stars, according to Percy. At the time, the fair board was still booking acts through the Chicago-based Barnes-Carruthers Agency. For a set fee they would provide the same show, featuring musical numbers with singers and dancers, as well as the occasional comedy skit. The acts varied from year to year, but few fairgoers went to more than one grandstand show a year, according to Percy.
Minnie Pearl, of Grand Ole Opry fame, performed for two nights during the country music show at the 1966 fair. While in Hutchinson, she met with Mrs. John Shea, someone with whom she had been corresponding for five years. The two shared a mutual friend: In private, Pearl was Mrs. Harry Cannon.
“I get letters from lonesome men and they have to be pretty lonesome to write me,” she quipped.
Also in 1966, singer/performer Joan Castle took time before her performance to go on a trail ride near Alden. Although she fell off the horse and hurt her tailbone, she still went on stage that night to perform. However, the Queen of Ragtime Piano was in such pain that she began crying.
The state fair board began exploring ways to reformat the grandstand programs and began actively pursuing a number of talent agencies for big-name stars.
“In this sense they were not immune from the fascination with television, movie and recording stars that began in the 1950s and has continued up to the present,” Percy said. But they were limited, because most talent wouldn’t sign contracts with the clause “will be paid only if funds are available,” which by law had to be included in state contracts, according to Percy.
In keeping with the theme of moving forward, in 1965 a modern new stage, complete with a hydraulic lift to raise and lower the performance area, was installed in front of the grandstand. Moreover, in the wake of accidents at the race track leaving several people severely injured, a new concrete retaining wall around the perimeter of the track was planned. Construction began by 1965 on a reinforced retaining wall.
“Through most of the 1960s, the fair board continued to contract at least four of the nights of the grandstand with Barnes-Carruthers,” Percy said. “Acquiring nationally recognized talent proved expensive. Cost for the grandstand entertainment skyrocketed. In 1968 the Board spent $35,000 on grandstand entertainment and added $25,000 to this amount the following year when the state fair went to nine days.”
Meeting the future
The Kansas State Fair has always been the place to meet and greet politicians, whether it be on Governor’s Day or during an election year. In the 1960s, The Hutchinson News hosted a straw-poll election for national and state elections. Ironically, in 1966 Democrat Robert Docking - son of a prior Kansas governor, the late George Docking - won the poll over incumbent Gov. William H. Avery. Docking’s victory came on Governor’s Day as Avery made his way around the fairgrounds.
Also, by the 1960s, a according to Percy, the fair moved toward a more year-round use of the grounds. In 1965 they hired a planning consultant to help improve the success of the fair. He suggested transforming the Capper Building, which was a bandstand, into a civic center pavilion that would be used year-round for community gatherings. While no action was taken immediately on that idea, they allowed the public to use the grounds year-round. The results were disastrous because of vandalism. The fair changed its policy, keeping only one entrance open for the time being, and vandalism dropped.
By the late 1960s, the fair had gone to its nine-day format. The exhibits and crowds were growing, and improvements were needed (to the tune of $197,000) for a new administration building as well as paving from Poplar to Plum streets on 20th Avenue. It was recommended that the fair utilize more Kansas State Industrial Reformatory Inmates for the beautification of the fairgrounds during off-seasons.
Despite the growing traffic and security issues, it was just a rumor that the fair board was planning to hire the Pinkerton detective agency to keep the peace. The board still planned to depend on the Kansas Highway Patrol and local law enforcement.
By 1971, the world’s No. 1 motorcycle stuntman, Evel Knievel, delighted about 17,000 people in the grandstands when he set an all-time record with a perfect motorcycle jump. Knievel cleared 10 Kenworth diesel tractor-trailers.
“He put on quite a show,” The News reported. “By the seventh pass, Knievel’s cycle went from a growl to a roar, and at the peak of the crescendo, Knievel went up and up, airborne on a land vehicle for a flight longer than the Wright brothers’ first plane.”
Guess who was there to see Knievel’s jump? Greg Payton - now a college student by then - was still returning, year after year, to the fair. (Payton doesn’t believe he has missed a year since that first visit back when he was six months old.)
He said he still goes for the nostalgic appeal. Perhaps it brings back the memories of early fall days and the wonders of youth. Maybe the fair reminds him of that sense of security he felt as a kid, knowing he was safe in his community back in the days when the carnival arrived in town on the train and the cast and crew paraded down Main Street to the fairgrounds. Back when the whole town turned out to greet the fair.