1913-22: The beginning of the ‘real state fair’ in Kansas
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1913-22: The beginning of the ‘real state fair’ in Kansas

George Mueller loaded up two carloads of his finest chickens and headed east.

The year was 1913. Stifling temperatures had marked the past several months, with little relief coming from the sky. It was, in fact, one of the hottest and driest summers in many years and the Stafford County man probably struggled trying to take care for his poultry under the hot summer sun at his farm.

June and July had been miserable. August wasn’t any better. At Clay Center, the average maximum temperature in August was 107, which most likely was the worst of anywhere in the United States, except for a few points in the desert regions. For most of the state, rain didn’t come. By the time the drought began to ease in September, it was too late to save much of the corn and vegetables.

In fact, some forecasters said, it was the worst drought since settlement, with the exception of one year, 1874. However, inside the buildings on the Kansas State Fairgrounds, there was little indication of the drought. Mueller headed to Hutchinson to show his poultry at the first official Kansas State Fair, and he was the largest exhibitor that year. Mueller and other folks picked only their finest to showcase at the grand exhibit, which drew thousands from across the state to the little town on the prairie known as Hutchinson, population 16,300.

“This doesn’t look much like a droughty year in Kansas, does it?” remarked P.J. Crabtree, superintendent of the Agricultural Department, to a Hutchinson News reporter who was observing the scene. “What’s worrying is finding room for the display of everything.”

Auspicious opening

The 1913 Kansas State Fair kicked off with the same fanfare that it would for the next 99 years, with a headline
in The News reading “Kansas’ Real State Fair has an Auspicious Opening.”

“We may well be proud of Kansas and the showing she has made this year,” Kansas Gov. George H. Hodges announced to a large fair crowd at the fair’s grand opening ceremony on Sept. 15. “This is a great exhibition here, a splendid beginning for the new state fair. The fruits, farm products, grains, horses, cattle, swine and poultry, the best the state has, are being shown here and it is a splendid exhibition.”

That same year, Henry Ford started the assembly line and the Panama Canal was built. Charlie Chaplin began his film career and The New York World invented the crossword puzzle. But in an age where all news came by morning newspaper, for one week in September in Kansas, it was about Hutchinson and the state fair.

State and county fairs across the nation had been operating since as early as 1841, highlighting the grandest and the newest in technology. Food, both in production and enjoyment, had always been a centerpiece of state fairs, including Kansas’.

Yet the Kansas State Fair’s beginning was an ominous one. Sure, there was the lengthy battle with Topeka to claim the honor. Then planning had continued for months as the first official fair neared, but in July 1913 the state fair board had an emergency meeting at the grounds as a tragedy struck.

“What they saw could not have pleased them,” wrote Thomas Percy, author of “A History of the Kansas State Fair.” “The fair’s four cattle barns had been destroyed by a fire a day earlier.”

A Topeka newspaper wasted no time in citing that the fire was “pretty conclusive contributory evidence” that lawmakers had erred in awarding Hutchinson the fair, wrote Percy.

Despite the negative press from Topeka, fair officials had taken out insurance on the barns a few months before.

When the gates opened for the first state fair, the cattle barns had long been forgotten, Percy wrote.

“This is our fair, and it is a state fair worthwhile,” exclaimed Kansas Speaker of the House Major W.L Brown. “This exhibition of farm and field products and livestock is worth seeing. It shows what Kansas can do. That machinery display and demonstration is a school in itself. And the people seem to make good use of the fair, judging by the crowds.”

W.E. Brooks, a former mayor of Fort Scott and a prominent businessman, traveled seven days just to make it to Hutchinson with two bundles of his best corn, which was in sorry shape by the time he arrived.

“It is not in very good condition now,” the farmer lamented to a Hutchinson News reporter, but added that the acres he’d cut soon at his farm were “the best 50 acres of corn in the state, with the dry year hurting much of the annual crop.”

“It will make 45 bushels per acre, easy,” he said.

Like Brooks, residents came from across the state to attend the first fair. Some stayed with relatives or friends, such as Emma Studabaker, who traveled all the way from Topeka to stay with her daughter and son-in-law, the Hinshaws, and The News reporting the special guest in its society column.

Some still came by horse and buggy. A few drove into town in new cars: Hudsons, Fords and Chalmers autos were all sold in Hutchinson at the time.

Fairgoers also donned their Sunday best. The men might have browsed at the business owned by Hostutler A. Hipple, who sold society-brand clothes in the 100 block of North Main Street and advertised suits for $15 to $35, before venturing through the fair gates. Women wore fine hats, along with patent colt button-up boots with their long suits and dresses, typical of the clothing found at Rorabaugh-Wiley Dry Goods Co. and Pegues-Wright department store.

It had been a long battle. Nevertheless, the city of Hutchinson was finally celebrating its win in the Kansas Legislature - the state’s biggest festival was in its possession.

“For thirteen years, since 1900, a state-wide fair has been held in Hutchinson, each year a little bigger and better,” a Hutchinson News editor quipped on the front page of the paper on the first day of the fair - Sept. 15, 1913. “And now, when the state of Kansas owns and manages the fair, it is only appropriate that it should be the biggest and best yet, which it is.”

Old Mill and Gov. Capper
Those attending the first fair could only try to imagine its future.

The grounds had only a few permanent structures, many activities occurring under tents. Yet fair officials realized the first few years were critical, and that the fair had to represent all of Kansas if Hutchinson was to remain its home, Percy wrote.

When the fair opened for business in 1913, there were horse races, coined “the Kansas Derby.” There also were auto races and motorcycle races, although not everyone owned a car at that time.

While famous singers didn’t necessarily grace the grandstand like today, fairgoers could go see a variety of entertainment during a vaudeville-type performance at the grandstand.

Also, each year, the grounds changed as building continued.

During the 1913 fair, future Gov. Arthur Capper and his Capper publications gave a proposal to the fair board, requesting to build a pavilion that would cost $3,000. John Deere Co. also wanted to construct a building that would house its new equipment, at a cost of $20,000.

In the fall of 1914, the board of state fair managers adopted a motion to lease land for a carrousel and figure-eight amusement ride to John Keenen and JS Mahan, according to Percy’s book. Keenen owned several vaudeville theaters, but had branched out into amusement rides in the early 1900s. He constructed similar rides at other fairs in Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Shreveport, Minneapolis and Des Moines before approaching the Kansas State Fair - and all shared the name of “Old Mill” or some variation.

The board officially approved the use of the name “Ye Old Mill” in March of 1915, according to Percy. Designed by Keenen’s son John Jr., this particular old mill opened for the first time in 1915 and offered a boat ride through 1,000 feet of enclosed water channels. A large mill wheel moved the water and the boats down the darkened channel, although, when it first opened, it was more of a tunnel of love than the scary ride it is today.

In 1916, Capper’s building finally became a reality, a $2,500 pavilion with restrooms.

“An attractive new building of the pavilion type is to be erected at the State Fair grounds this summer. It is to be a comfort station and rest room and is a personal gift of Governor Arthur Capper, being erected by the governor’s concern, the Capper Publications,” The May 23, 1916, Hutchinson News proclaimed.

The structure was completed in time for the state fair that year, which the governor attended. He also toured the pavilion. He then gave a speech in a speaker’s tent to a crowd of fairgoers before heading to the Bisonte Hotel for lunch.

Two years later, he would become a Kansas senator.

Better babies
For the next decade, the fair continued to grow as an educational arena as well as a place to showcase the year’s bounty and the latest in farm machinery and other technology.

H.T. Hineman attended almost every year from the teens through the 1930s, showing his “fine jacks” (donkeys), according to The News.

“He is owner of the world champion jack, ‘Kansas Chief,’ ” The News reported on Sept. 22, 1920.

In 1921, The News listed him as having the champion jack, the champion jennet and champion mule.

However, the fair also served as a place of education.

During the 1916 fair, Herbert Quick of the federal farm loan board instructed farmers on “rural credits.”

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, it served to educate about the battle. Even Kingman aviator Clyde Cessna was there, showing off his French plane, typical in the war.

Women learned about childrearing.

For instance, a country doctor once matter-of-factly observed that if a woman in the late 1800s wanted to raise six children, she had better give birth to 10.

Before advances in science and medicine, American society accepted the probability that a family would lose at least one child, according to an article by Mary Holt for Kansas History magazine.

Nevertheless, as an era of progressive movement began, American leaders began to note such losses were unacceptable. Childhood death could be stopped through preventative medicine, health care accessibility, as well as public awareness and education, according to the magazine article.

Awareness in Kansas would start at the Kansas State Fair in 1914, the same year state officials estimated that a thousand Kansas toddlers died from summer diarrhea. A contest that had been occurring at other state fairs and country festivals would debut - the Better Baby Contest.

“The Kansas State Fair, which is responsible for raising the standard of farm life and for standardizing stock, grain and farm products in general, has taken up a new line of work,” according to an article in The News during the time.

“The Fair is improving a farm product that has been, in a way, sadly neglected - the farm baby. Incidentally, it is giving the town and city baby a helping hand and doing it all through what is known as the Better Babies Contest.”

“The babies are entered like any other exhibit at an agriculture fair, but with this difference, they are not on exhibition all the time. They are examined by judges, just as livestock, grain or applies are examined.”

Judges tested the babies by standards that had been set by specialists - including how much babies should weigh and measure for their age. The babies received a grade. Health officials hoped that those receiving lower grades would return the next year with improvement.

“No matter their rating, each participant at the Kansas State Fair received a large ‘diploma’ donated by the national magazine Woman’s Home

Companion, which saw this as one of its contributions to the national Better Baby movement,” according to the Kansas History article.

In 1915, after the prodding of Kansas Board of Health Secretary Samuel Crumbine - the same man who received national notoriety for his “Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk” and “Swat the Fly” campaigns, state officials created the Division of Child Hygiene.

The baby contest continued for several years, and in 1919 more than 160 babies were in the contest. But the program began to dwindle during the Great Depression and World War II, according to the article. Eventually the contests were replaced by child welfare conferences.

There were other fair contests involving children. 4-H had started across the state, and corn, canning and other clubs.

“I’m proud of our Bread club girls over the state, and there are hundreds of them,” said Prof. Otis Hall of the State Agricultural College, who was in charge of programs. “These girls will become the future wives and mothers of Kansas, and I want to tell you that a man looking for a wife should get acquainted with these fine cooks.”

This story originally ran in the Hutchinson News on Sept. 1, 2013.
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