Long before the official Kansas State Fair opened in September 1913, Hutchinson had annual fairs, with horse racing the big draw.
That’s how Henry S. Thompson got involved. Fondly remembered as “Uncle Henry” by his great-great-niece, Karen Geist Davidson, she recalled how Uncle Henry and her great-grandfather George came to Kansas from Kentucky in the 1880s, bringing their prized racehorses. They first settled in Burrton, but eventually came to Sylvia, where they built a large ranch and operated the Sylvia Trotting and Racing Association.
But prior to that, the Reno County fair held its first fair in 1873. Fairs continued on and off in Reno County over the years, according to Kansas State Fair history.
From the start, there was much competition to have the state fair in one’s community.
“It moved around to the highest bidders,” said historian Tom Percy, author of “A History of the Kansas State Fair, 1863-2006.”
The Kansas State Agricultural Society’s official fair exhibitions flourished between 1863 and 1874 among several Kansas towns, including Topeka, Wichita, Salina and Hutchinson, according to Percy. The toughest competition was really between Topeka and Hutchinson.
“In 1875, the Kansas Board of Agriculture decided not to hold the fair, and instead began to emphasize the importance of county fairs and promoting the fair at international exhibitions. Then from 1875 until 1913, there was no state-sponsored fair, though a few fairs claimed the moniker of the ‘Kansas State Fair,’ ” said Percy. “What it boils down, from the 1880s through 1900s, a few associations claimed to be the state fair, but didn’t have official backing from the state.”
Battle lines drawn
The fair became a political issue as discussion of reviving the fair surfaced around the turn of the century. By 1900, the Hutchinson Fair Association renamed itself the Central Kansas Fair Association and moved the fair to the east side of Hutchinson’s Main Street between 11th and 17th avenues, according to the Kansas State Historical Society. Henry Thompson was one of the organizers working to get it started.
The name change, representing a region rather than just one city, gave the fair credibility as it vied with other fairs, including Topeka, for the official state fair title. Meanwhile, Hutchinson fair organizers began calling the fair here the “State Fair.”
In 1903, Topeka and Hutchinson residents both lobbied in support of separate bills that designated each as the host of the Kansas State Fair, according to the Kansas State Historical Society. Both bills failed, but another bill passed that year which legalized premiums given to winners at the Hutchinson fair.
Hutchinson officials called their event the Kansas State Fair as early as 1900. Topeka fair promoters, however, had labeled theirs the Kansas State Fair, organizing in 1880, according to the historical society.
A Sept. 29, 1904, issue of The Kansas Farmer critiqued the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, saying its strength was in the livestock exhibit, which was unusually good. But, back in 1904,” Hutchinson was deficient in hotel accommodations for the care of a large crowd.”
The hotels were good, but not spacious enough for the overwhelming influx of visitors. The town also lacked public transportation.
“Her street-car service is abominable and is composed of old horse-cars which have long since passed their usefulness. Being in the center of the great salt industry of the United States and being a progressive and well-to-do city, Hutchinson should not tolerate such a street-car system.”
But, on a more positive note, the Topeka-based publication wrote, “It seemed to be the policy of both the city authorities and the fair association to cater to the tastes of all comers, and the result was that in the city the wide-open policy was adopted on the fairgrounds ... a very large and attractive Pike (midway) was furnished for the entertainment for those who find amusement in that sort of thing.”
By 1910 the fair was moved to its current location, with the fair that year held in October because of construction delays, according to Kansas racing historian Bob Lawrence of Wichita, who has chronicled racing history in Kansas and at the state fair. In 1912, acreage at the present site expanded.
Eventually, Hutchinson would beat out Topeka, thanks to its strong representation in Topeka, including Henry Thompson, who served three years as state representative from the 76th District, as well as two terms as president of the State Board of Agriculture, and was instrumental in getting the fair located in Hutchinson.
Reno County citizens overwhelmingly supported a $50,000 bond issue to pay for the land and fair improvements, according to the historical society.
The community used the bond issue to lobby the Legislature to name Hutchinson the official location of the Kansas State Fair. Local furniture dealer and legislator J.P.O. Graber introduced a bill that if the state would give Hutchinson’s fair monetary support, the city would give the state the fairgrounds. J.N. Herr, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, pushed for the Hutchinson locations, saying, “Kansas institutions should be moving west.”
In the Senate, Emerson Carey made a convincing case on Hutchinson’s behalf.
“All over the southwest they talk of this as ‘our fair,’ ” Carey is quoted as saying in a December 1912 edition of The News during a meeting of city leaders on approaching the Kansas Legislature. “And it is our fair. The people come here by the thousands. I know we have 100,000 visitors here every fair week. We perhaps will not fully realize what the fair means to us until we may have lost it.”
Carey, Thompson and others secured the fair for Hutchinson. Topeka lost its bid, eventually renaming its fair the Kansas Free Fair.
But eastern Kansas politicians recall securing the fair in central Kansas differently. Milt Tabor, the editor of the Topeka Capitol, wrote in a 1950 editorial, “A bunch of Western Kansas politicians stole the fair for Hutchinson.”
He said the western politicians outvoted eastern Kansas members of the Legislature ” ‘by sheer force of numbers.’ If the western Kansas politicians outvoted the Topeka crowd, they must have had the support of eastern Kansas members who, for various reasons, wanted the state fair moved to Hutchinson. In an east-west vote on any question, the east has always had the numerical advantage.”
According to Tabor, “When the Legislature designated Hutchinson as the seat of the official exposition, all bowed out gracefully. Topeka refused to give up. As for that tale about ‘Western Kansas politicians’ outvoting the eastern Kansas crowd by sheer force of numbers, it won’t go out here. One suspects that what happened in 1913 was that the Topeka fair crowd was out-maneuvered and out-smarted.”
The issue was reapportionment. At that time, legislative districts didn’t rely strictly on population when drawing legislative districts - meaning less-populated areas could control more votes in the Statehouse. More than 50 years later, in 1965, The Hutchinson News would win a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service for its four-year campaign to bring about reapportionment of the Kansas Legislature. But back then, leading up to 1913, a high number of farm-based delegates was the reason for optimism. According to Percy, Carey pork-barreled and gained adherents for the state fair bill by linking it to the support of state institutions in other districts.
“Moreover, all documentation and historical accounts have pointed out the instrumental and underhanded manner in which the Speaker of the House, W.L. “Ironjaw” Brown of Kingman, pushed through the bill favoring Hutchinson as the site of the state fair,” wrote Percy.
But because Topeka wouldn’t relinquish its own fair, for a period the state had two big fairs every year through the 1950s.
Now, more than a century later, Henry S. Thompson’s descendants continue to be big supporters of the state fair. Thompson’s great-niece Emma Thompson Geist, born in 1913, has always celebrated her birthday at the Kansas State Fair. Emma will turn 100 on Sept 18 and plans to pick wildflowers to enter in this year’s fair.
“All our lives we have been part of the fair because our ties go back,” said Karen Geist Davidson. “We are always taking flowers, produce, and entering other exhibits.”
Davidson never met Uncle Henry; he died in 1940, the year she was born. But she recalled how he fought to have the fair in central Kansas, because he thought it needed to be for all the people, and a central location made that possible.
Story by Kathy Hanks, The Hutchinson News (September 2013)