1923-32: ‘Roaring Twenties’ bring change to Kansas State Fair
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1923-32: ‘Roaring Twenties’ bring change to Kansas State Fair

1923-32: ‘Roaring Twenties’ bring change to Kansas

Prosperity reigned during the 1920s, both in dollars and in actual precipitation.

Many people had extra cash to spend on consumer goods, and there was no better place to spend it than at the Kansas State Fair. Here one could see the latest in ready-made clothing, the newest Victrola, or, more importantly, the automobile.

During the 1920s, the state fair was experiencing growing pains. But when the fair opened on Sept. 17, 1923, mostly it was experiencing mud.

More than 2 inches of rain fell in Hutchinson the day before the fair opened.

“Roads were a sea of mud and slippery,” The Hutchinson News reported. While it cut down on the attendance at the fair, it was good for the just-sown wheat, the late alfalfa and the pastures. But it wasn’t what Kansas State Fair promoters wanted for the first day. The automobile races had to be canceled and would be combined with the horse races.

The fair was such a big event in Hutchinson that everything closed downtown for one day, including the schools, so everyone could take in the fair on Sept. 18, 1923.

Kansas Editors Day was held on the Friday of the fair, and their visit to the fair included a tour of the new home of The Hutchinson News.

“The newest, most modern and most complete newspaper plant in Kansas,” the paper unabashedly reported.

The world news at the time sounded familiar: A revolution broke out in Jordan with a revolt of 3,000 Arabs, England’s Prince of Wales was visiting Canada, and wildfires left 2,400 homeless in Berkeley, Calif.

But the sun broke out through the clouds and big crowds came to the fair’s evening fireworks on Sept. 18.

Good crowd

Advertising specials included the new Victor Record books to be played on the Victrola.

By 1924, all roads were leading to Hutchinson for the Kansas State Fair, and many people had cars to travel them. The Ford Model T cost just $260.

“By steam and electric rails and gasoline highways, thousands are gathering for the Kansas State Fair,” The Hutchinson News reported.

Prosperity was reflected by the huge amount of farm crops and garden and orchard products on display, as well as by the big crowds. The fair was
growing, and manufacturers’ implements and machinery displays covered acres of the fair.

Sheep and goats were shown for the first time at the 1924 fair. Something else new was the “School for Children,” a precursor to Kansas’s largest outdoor classroom.

The highlight of the fair came during the night show “Tokyo,” which was billed as a pyrotechnical spectacle. It depicted, “in a realistic and vivid manner, the greatest holocaust of modern times - the destruction of Tokyo.”

A highlight for some fair participants was having their silhouette profiles cut out by William Gardner, an African-American who had graduated from Hutchinson High School in 1919.

“They always say they (the profiles) look like them,” Gardner had said.

A photographer, Gardner explained to The News he had gotten into the craft of cutting out profiles from paper: “My scissors are my camera,” he said. Following the fair he was planning to accept a $250-a-week offer to create silhouette profiles for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Big news for the opening of the 1925 fair was the completion of the cattle pavilion.

Nationally a meteorologist was warning of global freezing coming in 1926 and 1927.

“Better keep the fur coats and galoshes on hand” because the summer of 1926 and 1927 was predicted to be, well, the year without summer.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 23, 1925, 3 inches of rain and muddy roads held up the harness races. At the time, muddy roads were a real concern for the fair board because it affected the attendance numbers.

“The way the people are coming to the fair, despite the mud, shows the deep interest there is in the State Fair,” The News reported.
Gov. Ben Paulen arrived by train to attend the 1925 fair. His aide, Col. Mitchell, woke people on the sleeper train early on the morning of Sept. 23, singing “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” at the top of his voice.

The governor told the crowds at the fairgrounds, “The rain and mud for three days demonstrates that something has to be done to improve the grounds so that the crowds could enjoy the fair, even in rainy weather.”

But, he added,” It’s a typical Western spirit here. The rain has not dampened the enthusiasm or ardor of the people.”
Flooding was imminent across the Midwest by September 1926. The local Red Cross was asking for donations to help in eastern Kansas. The News reported that Charles Colladay was the first to throw money in the hat and donated $3 to help.

Despite the wet conditions, the Kansas State Fair officially opened on Sept. 18, 1926. Races were big at this fair, including automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, slow mules and pony races.

The former Industrial Arts Building was changed to the “Aggie” building and schoolchildren once again had a free day at the fair. Special days at the fair included the following: Sunday was Music Day; Monday was schoolchildren’s free day; Tuesday was horse-racing and derby day; Wednesday was Salina, Newton and Emporia day; and Thursday was Governor’s Day, plus Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City Day as well as Legislature Day.

Modern touch

By 1927 the world was modernizing, and so was the Kansas State Fair.

The fair was being called “a great gasoline and motorized power show.” Never before had there been such a machinery show in the history of Kansas.

Ready for a grand opening at the 1927 fair was the $100,000 Automobile Show Building, today’s Cottonwood Court.

It was also advertised as the “Public Institution of Practical Education” and “The greatest vacation for the entire family.”

According to The News, the practical education came with new theories in learning. Educators were realizing that people were learning more from what they saw and heard, than any other way. The Kansas State Fair was becoming an opportunity for schoolchildren to gain practical information far beyond what they could learn any other way.

The grounds now encompassed 110 acres, with great portions planted to trees, shrubs and flowers. Many cement floors were laid in the modern and semi-modern buildings. And the grounds now boasted sidewalks and paved roads.

This would be the first fair to host a 4-H boys’ and girls’ encampment. A new admissions office opened in the new office building. A post office was located in a corner of the building, and Hutchinson’s postmaster was the postmaster of State Fair City.

While all appeared wonderful on the fairgrounds, disaster was imminent in the sheep barn when the judge didn’t arrive. With sheep exhibitors from nine states and 617 head at the fair, they were up in the air about what to do.

Then the exhibitors learned the fair was planning to use the hog judge to judge the sheep and they rebelled. They formed a parade and headed by the veterans’ fife-and-drum corps and marched in protest to the fair board meeting, shouting, “We don’t want any hog man judging our sheep.”

The fair board begged and found A.M. Patterson, manager of the Kansas City Stockyard, to “come at once.” They were even going to fly him to Hutchinson.

“He’ll probably come on a train tonight,” said Prof. R.L. Throckmorton of the State Agricultural College. “I doubt if you could get him on an airplane.” Two days later the sheep were judged.

Gov. Paulen commented on the “great stretch of automobiles parked on the fairgrounds. Literally thousands of cars cover 100 acres of parking space.” He said that was evidence of the prosperity of Kansas.

During the 1927 fair, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan entertained a crowd in the grandstands with their bugle-and-drum corps. The Klan was holding a state convention in Hutchinson on Sept. 23, 1927, and its “imperial wizard,” Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans of Atlanta, Ga., addressed fairgoers.

Growing up
The fair was such a success that Sen. Ed Frizell, president of the state fair, said they should have built the cattle barn twice as big.

“It’s the same way with all the buildings,” Frizell said. “They are proving too small.”

By 1928, the growth of the fair had advanced faster than space had allowed. Fair board members were recommending more improvements. They planned to ask the next legislature for $254,000 for purchasing 40 acres of ground, for more exhibits and car parking, as well as a 4-H Club building for exhibits and encampment, and the completion of the grandstands and electrical lines.

With new attendance records, every foot of space on the grounds has been taken. By 1929, scores of people were spending the entire week at the fair, living in tents on the grounds. Close to 50,000 people attended the fair in 1929. Before the stock market crashed in October 1929, there was one car on the road for every five Americans. Gas stations and motels were springing up and more people were coming to the fair.

The fair had just experienced two of its most successful years, according to Tom Percy, a social science and history instructor at Hutchinson Community College, who authored “A History of the Kansas State Fair, 1863-2006.” Admission receipts in those two years averaged $89,547.48, while in the previous years - from 1913 to 1927 - revenues averaged only $40,838.10.

“With the help of the State’s appropriation of over $100,000 the Fair had completed the new grandstand and added 80 acres of land to bring their total area to 191 acres by the end of 1929,” Percy reported.

Just as the Great Depression hit and changed the face of the nation, the rains stopped, and by 1931 fairgoers were baking and sizzling under the abnormally high temperatures. But Frizell was ever the optimist.

“We’re not exaggerating,” he said. “This is the greatest fair ever.”

Farm income was also declining. The down-turning economy would affect the Kansas State Fair. The Fair Board voted in 1930 to reduce the admission fee for all automobiles at the gate from 50 cents to 25 cents, and allow free parking around the grounds. Tickets for the grandstand were reduced from $1 to 75 cents.

By the 1932 fair, outside gate tickets dropped from 50 cents to 35 cents for adults and from 25 cents to 15 cents for children.

After “goat gland doctor” John Brinkley’s license to practice medicine in Kansas was revoked, he became an independent candidate for governor.

He campaigned at the Kansas State Fair on Sept. 20, 1932. About 3,500 people heard him speak about reducing the price of motor cars to get more cars on the highway.

Also in 1932, the state fair was officially adopted by the Board of Agriculture and would be included in its annual budget.

As Kansas moved into the Great Depression, by 1932 more than 130,000 of the 622,000 employable Kansans found themselves out of work.

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