In January of 1873 - when the prairie town of Hutchinson was barely one year old - a group of businessmen met and organized the Reno County Agricultural Society. On September 23-24 that year, the society hosted a fair which was held in a small wooden livery stable behind the town's only bank on the northwest corner of Sherman and Main.
Encouraged by the success of this first event, plans began for a bigger fair the following year, with the society proposing a tax levy to support the event. Voters were less than enthusiastic with the idea. Whether because of this public disapproval, or because of the devastating visitation of hordes of hungry grasshoppers that summer, the fair of 1874 was never held.
Undaunted, the Agricultural Society found acreage southeast of where the state reformatory would later be located, paid cash for the grounds, and on September 28, 29 and 30 of 1875, presented the First Annual Reno County Fair. It featured 20 classes for entries, with most awards in the form of certificates, and a few $5 cash prizes.
This infant local fair, only one of many held throughout Kansas, was destined to become the present Kansas State Fair.
In 1878 new grounds were purchased just north of Eastside Cemetery (for $50 an acre), and fairs were held there through the early 1880's.
Reorganized and renamed The Arkansas Valley Fair Association, the fair was moved back to its previous grounds for the 1885 event.
These grounds southeast of the present Hutchinson Correctional Facility grew to impressive size during the late 1880's and 1890's. New buildings were added nearly every year. A fence surrounded the property and the half-mile racetrack was praised as one of the finest in the state. Special streetcar tracks for the new horse and mule-drawn vehicles of the Rapid Transit Company were extended 5-1/2 miles out into the area.
The name Central Kansas Fair Association was taken in 1900. The group turned a collective eye toward a large, mostly undeveloped, park which stretched along the east side of Main Street to Poplar, from 11th Avenue north to 17th Avenue.
The Central Kansas Fair was recognized by an act of the state legislature in 1903. Most importantly, this gave the fair association the license to legitimately call their event "The Kansas State Fair", which they promptly did with undisguised pride. Hutchinson businessmen were jubilant.
The semi-centennial of Kansas' admission to the union was cause for celebration at the fair of 1911. President William Taft spoke in front of a packed grandstand on September 26. The nine day fair became the largest semi-centennial celebration held in Kansas as well as the largest fair ever held in Hutchinson. Paid admissions topped 183,000, and a profit of $11,689.49 was counted for a fair which had again grown too large for its grounds.
In early 1912, 112 acres of land north of 17th Avenue and east of Main Street were purchased for expansion. A Santa Fe switch track was laid from the southeast to bring rides and shows directly into the grounds.
The question of $50,000 in bonds to pay for this new land was put to a vote in April, 1913, and the value of the yearly event was not lost on Reno Countians who voiced approval by a margin of over four to one.
Local furniture dealer and legislator J.P.O. Graber introduced a bill in Topeka offering that if the state would grant Hutchinson's fair monetary support, the city would give the state the fairgrounds. The populace of eastern Kansas was openly skeptical. J.N. Herr, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, pushed for the Hutchinson location saying that "Kansas institutions should be moved west - the farther west the better." While in the Senate, Emerson Carey and a close friend, Jouett Shouse, made a convincing case on Hutchinson's behalf. The Hutchinson bill passed and Governor Hodges signed the document.
The first "Official" Kansas State Fair was held September 13-20, 1913. The September 13, 1913, Hutchinson News carried the bold headline: "Kansas' Real State Fair Has An Auspicious Opening."
The Old Mill was completed in time for the opening day of the 1915 fair. One thousand feet of water-filled channels featured boats which promised to transport passengers through "gloomy caves of gleesome gladness".
The House of Capper, one of several around the state, appeared on the fairgrounds about 1913. It offered a place to rest in rocking chairs stationed on the shaded veranda, a cool drink of water for thirsty visitors and, possibly most importantly, rest room facilities. After serving as the Professional Arts Building for many years, the Kansas Fairgrounds Foundation raised funds in 2007 to restore the building and once again provide fairgoers a place to rest, relax, and enjoy the Fair.
Governor Alf M. Landon and Senator Arthur Capper visited the fair on September 17, 1935, to dedicate the new $100,000 4-H Encampment Building. Delegates from 4-H clubs all over the state came for their first encampment in the new building, which was heralded as the finest in the United States. The Encampment Building is still used extensively today for the Fair and throughout the year for a variety of non-fair activities.
The fair was greatly influenced by World War II. There were booths at which fair goers could buy war bonds and stamps. "Scrap Day" was declared during the 1942 fair and over 32 tons of metal to aid the war effort were collected by offering free adult admission for 100 pounds and free child's admission for 50 pounds.
The familiar Lake Talbott, once a neglected sandpit known mostly to area fishermen, was developed into a landscaped garden spot in 1931 and named in honor of Joe Talbott, Hutchinson pioneer businessman and unselfish supporter of the fair for 50 years.
Every year a fair "bigger and better than ever" is anticipated, and delivered. The exhibits become more interesting and far ranging, the crowds larger and more enthusiastic, the entertainment more varied and star-studded.
Long forgotten is the fellow who said with apparent astonishment of that small First Annual Reno County Agricultural Fair back in 1875, "It was in all respects a complete, and to many, a surprising success." No one is surprised anymore.