The telegram came to his parents on the same day that Gov. Andy Schoeppel roamed the Kansas State Fairgrounds in 1943.
“The department extends sincerest sympathy,” Mr. and Mrs. A.L. McColm read as they learned that their son, Gilbert, a baker on a destroyer in Atlantic waters, had been killed in action.
McColm had enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and was on the USS Savannah. It had weathered many a battle, but, on the morning of Sept. 11, 1943, the Savannah was hit when a high-flying German plane released a radio-controlled bomb that damaged the ship, killing almost 200 of the crew, including 20-year-old McColm, who wouldn’t receive a proper burial for more than six years.
The long drought had ended, and the dust that once swirled inside deeply shut windows and under small cracks in the doors had stopped. The economy was better and the Depression was over, but as the 30-year-old Kansas State Fair opened its gates, America was deep in war and the impact was felt on the Hutchinson fairgrounds.
The Hutchinson News printed a list daily of Kansas military who were promoted, injured and, unfortunately, those who died for their country. And, as the 1943 state fair began, stories called for more to buy war bonds to help reach the state and county quota. Despite the plea from his mother, Marion Thompson, a 14-year-old Sterling farm boy sold his bicycle in exchange for war bonds.
The young lad had three uncles serving in World War II, including a fighter pilot flying a P-47 somewhere in England. Still, more like him were needed, the story said. Many counties had fallen short of quotas, and Reno County had not passed 50 percent and still needed to sell $2.2 million to fill the quota, The News reported.
There also were stories stressing the need for laborers.
“Ladies, this one has to be on you,” said Montague A. Clark, director of the Michigan War Manpower Commission, noting that Detroit arms plants needed 82,000 more workers by the time the new year arrived. Already there were an estimated 200,000 women working in the plants.
It was a drastic change as women - homemakers - were thrust into the workforce, their husbands across the oceans fighting. A story a year earlier stated that women couldn’t sit at home thinking nothing had changed.
“Total war is waged against all people and fought by all people,” the story said. “And no woman can expect to be an exception just because she has children.”
The fair, however, went on, despite the country being in the midst of war, illness and limited supplies on the home front.
“The Kansas State Fair, established just 30 years ago by an act of the state Legislature, in 1913, will open the 1943 exhibition Sunday, under the greatest handicaps of its 30 years’ history - handicaps of wartime gasoline and tire rationing, plus the added headaches of an infantile paralysis ban causing the suspension of the 4-H club encampment,” The News wrote.
Fair officials were confident that large crowds would attend.
“People can’t go anywhere else for a vacation this year, so they’ll come to the fair,” suggested Ed Frizell of Larned, the fair’s vice president.
Nevertheless, the war and other issues were having an effect in the war-torn Kansas State Fair.
The 4-H Encampment was indeed canceled, and the annual Children’s Day, where public schools closed down and allowed students to go to the fair, was, according to The News, “a big flop.”
Parents kept their children home that year because of polio fears. The town of Hutchinson itself had six deaths and 40 cases in all and, at the height of the epidemic. public schools in the city postponed classes to prevent the spread of the disease, according to the book “A History of the Kansas State Fair” by Thomas Percy.
The local newspaper directed criticism toward the fair.
The News, along with the Hutchinson Chamber of Commerce, “appeared non-cooperative about the 1943 fair,” wrote Percy.
The News was still angry about the lack of complimentary passes for the previous fair. “Feeling slighted, the owner of the newspaper, Jack Harris, refused to accept complimentary tickets for the 1943 state fair and requested the fair issue no complimentary passes to any of his employees,” Percy wrote.
Harris also published an article titled “Would call off fair,” by A.W. Knotts of Partridge, who supposedly wrote, “I see by the paper that they are going to have another Hitler State Fair.” However, the fair’s manager, Sam Mitchell, claimed there were no records of an A.W. Knotts existing and that the editorial board had written the letter, according to Percy’s book.
Percy wrote that the friction with the chamber was even murkier. Following a meeting after the 1943 fair, Chamber spokesman Howard Carey said he opposed having a 1944 fair, although, when pressed, his rationale was more “selfish than patriotic,” saying that the men should be working at his mines rather than attending the fair.
Still, wrote Percy, the local newspaper and the chamber could usually be counted on to aid the fair, although fair officials couldn’t count on the weather. The 1943 fair was unusually cool, and the horse races had to be canceled on the next-to-last day because of a rainstorm.
The gates felt the impact of the weather and the polio scare. Fewer people paid the 55-cent admission in 1943 and attendance must have been below the record set in 1941 of an estimated 275,000.
Luckily, as Americans headed into Cologne in September 1944, the fair that year had almost perfect weather. The first three days of the 1944 fair appeared as though they would shatter attendance records, according to The News, with 18,179 people going through Ye Old Mill for that period, including 9,867 alone on Monday of the fair. Total attendance, according to the fair board president’s estimates, exceeded 300,000, The News reported.
Still, there were issues on the home front: Headlines in The News reported that Congress was probing into the attack on Pearl Harbor. As fair festivities continued in Hutchinson, near Copeland a B-29 Super Fortress from Walker Army Air Force Base crashed into the farmhouse of O.H. Hatfield, resulting in the death of Hatfield and his 1-year-old grandson, as well as the plane’s 10 crew members. Hatfield’s wife and the baby’s mother - whose husband was a B-17 pilot who had completed 35 missions as a bomber over Germany - were taken to a Dodge City hospital for burns.
In March 1945, 62 German prisoners of war came from a POW camp at Fort Riley, working on farms throughout the day and returning to the fairgrounds in the evenings.
A near miss
Despite concerns of military occupancy overtaking the fairgrounds, the fair had never been canceled through the war.
Yet the possibility loomed in 1945.
On June 1, 1945, Colonel J. Monroe Johnson, director of the Office of Defense Transportation, issued a directive to cancel all state and regional fairs involving the use of intercity transportation. Fair Secretary Mitchell worked with others in the industry to have the ban set aside, according to Percy. Efforts to rescind the ban, however, failed and, on July 11, 1945, the board of state fair managers officially called off the 1945 Kansas State Fair, according to a story in The News that day.
“Not since 1901, when the old Central Kansas Fair Association was organized and the fairgrounds were located in the sector, which is now 13th to 17th on the east side of Main, has there been a break in the fair here,” a News reporter penned, also noting that fair officials planned an extravagant 1946 fair.
While Mitchell and others worked to cancel the carnival and fair acts, as well as the multitude of vendors who were preparing to bring their wares, developments overseas determined the fair’s fate.
Americans had captured Iwo Jima and Okinawa. And detonation of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that August brought the Japanese to the negotiations table.
With the announcement of the Japanese surrender on Aug. 14, fair officials began working to revive the 1945 fair.
Perhaps only entertainment would be offered, Mitchell had said, but soon he realized there was still time to assemble a normal fair, according to Percy.
According to Percy, the fair used 1944 premium schedules for contests except livestock. Mike Barnes, from Barnes and Carruthers, said he would honor his previous contract for the nightly grandstand features and a carnival company was found to fill the midway.
On Sept. 16, the 1945 Kansas State Fair opened for business.
“Who’d have thought one month ago we’d be doing this sort of thing today,” a booted cowboy exclaimed as he brushed a Hereford bull, within earshot of a News reporter.
Moreover, it seemed, it would be the best fair yet.
“Thousands of amusement seekers jammed the pike of the Kansas State Fairgrounds Saturday night,” a reporter wrote for The News’ Sunday edition, about the pre-fair crowd gathering. “The exhibitors who arrived late in the day took one look at the throngs and wondered if they were a day late.”
The cattle barns were full and the 4-H exhibit building was full, as well.
Fair President Perry H. Lambert walked through the livestock barns, toured the exhibit buildings, and decided Kansans had done a great job in getting the exhibits together in a month’s time, The News reported.
And it must have felt like the end of the war, as fairgoers packed the grandstand to watch the first automobile races since Pearl Harbor.
As the fair commenced, U.S. President Harry Truman said there would be no padding of armed forces.
“The Army’s plan calls for the return to their homes of more than 2 million soldiers between V-J Day and Christmas 1945,” the president’s statement said. “Between now and Christmas the discharge rate will steadily rise form the present daily figure of 15,200 to not less than 22,000 per day and by January 1946 to more than 25,000 per day.”
Still, about 110 Reno County soldiers never made it home.
The success of the 1945 fair marked a turn to better times, Percy wrote.
Secretary Mitchell proclaimed just before the 1946 fair that the public was ready for “its first real peacetime fair in five years, and we are confident the crowds will outnumber any exhibit we have ever had.”
He was right - not just for the fair, but all of Kansas.
Ushering in the 1947 fair, a News reporter wrote: “Kansas, riding the crest of one of its greatest crop year in history, Kansas, scouting blue skies on the economic horizon as worldwide demand for her products grows rather than lessens. Kansas, proud as a child with a new toy as she watches growth of new industry, new factories, new businesses. Kansas, with the great agricultural and economic potential of the Midwest. Kansas, land of bounty, today puts her best foot forward and welcomes the world to her state fair.”
No longer did fair bakers have to use syrup, with the sugar rationing lifted. Children returned in masses, with 52 school bands performing at the fair in 1947 and some 4,000 4-H’ers displaying their best.
And, The News reported, “The Hutchinson fire department still has that horrible dummy of a burned woman in their grandstand display, only this year they will put her to bed. The lesson is the terrible fate that awaits you if you smoke in bed.”
In 1949, the fair added a landing strip, largely used by the Kansas Flying Farmers organization. About 150 planes made use of the new strip that year. In 1950, the group brought in more than 200 flying farmers.
The 1948 fair had the biggest farm machinery show in the fair’s history, which covered 35 acres and included more than a thousand exhibits. The fair’s first airplane vendor - Cessna - also attended, showing off a shiny 170.
Other areas, however, disappeared as technology increased, along with better highways. The fair’s Automobile Building disappeared in the postwar era, and the increase in automobile ownership caused the railroad to quit bringing in patrons on excursion trains. Carnival companies also began transporting their equipment on trucks rather than railroads. The spur line south of the fairgrounds was eliminated.
Patriotism continued to bloom in the postwar era. By 1950, fairgoers could wander by the Crusade for Freedom booth and sign the freedom scroll. The Crusade for Freedom was an American propaganda campaign inaugurated by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and operated from 1950 to 1960 to raise public funds for Radio Free Europe, as well as serve to conceal the CIA’s funding of the program. It also was aimed to generate domestic support for American Cold War policies.
Attendance at the 1948 fair was an estimated 350,000, the same as 1947.
Rand had fans
One thing that never seemed to lack for many years was the midway.
At the start of the 1948 state fair, a News reporter chronicled the things fairgoers could see along the pike:
“Mabel is back again, knock Mabel out of bed, the sign says, and you can do it with a properly aimed baseball. ... Hell’s Belles, 12 Strange Girls, is one of the more fascinating teasers of the sideshows. Ella Webb, the girl in the iron lung, is billed as an educational and scientific exhibit, but she’s crowded next to Monkeyland. Promoters of the Eskimo Village, who have an Eskimo family, Eskimo dogs and paraphernalia of the north, report it really wasn’t necessary ... to go so far for his three Eskimo women. There are a number of Eskimos in the U.S., they say.”
However, fair officials seemed even more charged in this era to make the fairgrounds as “clean” as possible. Postwar Americans wanted a family-friendly exhibition. The fair enforced a no-gambling clause and began to tackle shows that were questionable in nature, according to Percy’s book.
In 1950, two “girlie shows” were asked to leave the fair, with the fair manager saying they had already been warned that their acts weren’t family entertainment, as they had an after show where customers were “nicked for an extra fare in promise of further so-called entertainment.”
Yet those shows had the highest receipts, Percy wrote. Still, the fair board demanded that “all shows on the grounds would have to be clean to the extent that anyone might bring their family in without danger of embarrassment.”
Some businesses, however, continued to operate under the radar. In fact, the fair’s burlesque-type entertainment continued, including infamous fan dancer Sally Rand in 1951.
“He sexcellency - Sally Rand,” an advertisement in The News proclaimed. “Last show starts at midnight each day.”
The show also included a “bevy of 16 scandilicious girls” for an hour of entertainment.
After the show, Sally would autograph souvenir booklets that cost 25 cents. Admission was $1, but kids with their parents were admitted free.
Stories about the famed dancer in later years say she wore a bodysuit, but gave the illusion she wasn’t wearing anything. Supposedly, her fan dances got her banned from ever returning to the Kansas State Fair. Rand, however, was nearly 50 years old when she appeared in Hutchinson.
Lois Schlickau, who has attended fairs for more than 65 years and was a former fair board member in the 1980s, said she went on a first date with a boy to see Sally Rand as a senior in high school.
“It was very risque,” Schlickau, of Haven, said, adding she probably didn’t tell her parents. “She was up there with these huge fans, but the fans were so huge, you really couldn’t see much.”
That year, the midway had many shows other than Rand, including a snake show, Eskimo exhibits and “freaks.”
In 1952, the Ice Vogues - 24 “glamour-icers” - performed at the grandstand. Carnival workers operated a triple-decker, 92-foot Ferris wheel known as the Sky Wheel.
Most entertainment acts happened without incident, at least not making the headlines of the daily newspapers. However, an act in 1950 turned fatal.
“We want to introduce a young man - while we can,” the state fair grandstand announcer said on the loudspeaker as 12,000 people awaited the day’s auto races, as reported in The News that year.
Pre-race entertainment was a parachutist named Denny Midland of Minnesota. He was making jumps at exhibitions across the country to pay for schooling. At the Kansas State Fair in 1950, his program was billed as a 1,000-foot fall with delayed chute opening and Midland expected to land on the racetrack.
“How far do you dare fall before letting that chute out?” asked the announcer.
“Well,” said Midland with a big grin, “if it doesn’t open at 200 feet, it will be too late.”
It would be too late. According to a story in The News from Sept. 20, 1950, Midland frantically tried to open his chute. It finally popped free when Midland was less than 200 feet in the air. It was starting to open, but was still just a ribbon, when Midland hit hard ground.
He fell into a cane field about 200 yards east of Plum Street, his crushed body imbedded face down and covered by the silk of the chute. Few in the stands were immediately aware anything had gone wrong. Many people thought it was a show stunt and that a dummy had been tossed from the plane.
However, ambulances were soon called, and eventually the announcer said Midland had died.
Then the auto races went on as planned.
The story originally was published in the Hutchinson News on Sept. 1, 2013.