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Kansas State Fair provided solace from Dust Bowl

Times were tough on his parents' Inman-area farm.

Vic Willems, 85, recalls the little rain, the failed crops and the dust storms that would tumble across the landscape.

The 1930s were a time when hundreds of thousands of farms went out of business across the United States. Food lines were prevalent. Jobs were few.

Moreover, like most across the Kansas plains during the Great Depression, Willems' family had little money as the drought persisted. They lived off their big garden. They lived off hogs, as they were the cheapest to raise. Willems' clothes consisted of overalls and a hand-me-down suit that he would wear to church.

But the memory remains vivid of his parents, along with his younger sister, loading up in their 1934 Plymouth and heading to the Kansas State Fair. It was around the year 1936, and Willems was about 10 years old.

"My dad gave me a whole dollar bill to spend at the fair, and it lasted all day," he said, adding that his mother told him they had saved it so he could go to the fair by himself with his friends.

"I think I rode every ride that was available," he said. "At the time, it was probably one of the best days of my life."

Dust, Depression

The decade of the 1930s was a simpler era, yet it still brings awe and wonderment. When the state fair opened for its 20th year in 1933, the nation was deep into the Depression. Dust storms already were widespread and increasing, with 14 in 1932 and 38 by 1933.

Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany and newly elected U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just launched the New Deal, which included efforts to help the struggling farm economy.

In September, as the fair started, more than 6 million young pigs were slaughtered to stabilize prices and the government's wheat program was launched, which paid $135 million to farmers across the U.S. to adjust production and demand.

Farmers received roughly 28 cents a bushel, according to a story in The News.

Still, the fair opened with the same fanfare of past years. Nearly 300,000 people poured through the gates that year, with tickets costing 35 cents. Willems and his family came on a warm Monday, however. The one-room school he attended near Inman had excused children for the day to go to the state fair, and it was a day all schoolchildren got in free.

Most Kansans didn't have a lot of money, but a dollar did go a long way, Willems said. He was able to ride almost all the rides on the midway with his friends and maybe buy some candy, and still have a few pennies to spare.

"Pennies were worth something," he said.

There were diners and vendors around the grounds selling food, but back then, most people were more frugal.

Instead, many visitors used the fair's picnic grounds, which had a rest cottage, good drinking water and restrooms. Fairgoers would gather on the green grass and beneath shade trees, setting out blankets for picnics.

"We are glad to have people use the grounds for picnics," said S.A. Fields Jr., superintendent of the picnic grounds and mayor of the "tent city," which also was located at this spot, during an interview with The News in 1933. Those needing an inexpensive place to stay could pitch tents or rent tents and have a free camping space.

There also was a fireplace in the rest cottage where guests could sit around the fire at night.

Exhibits educated people about the times, offering information about state and federal agencies.

4-H projects also demonstrated the thriftiness of the time. A Harper County 4-H'er made a bedroom rug out of cast-off and worn-out silk hose, and another 4-H'er made a desk out of the wood of two old organs. In later years, exhibits demonstrated the changing farming practices.

In the late 1930s, Greeley County's 4-H group won first place in the crops booth with a demonstration on how to prevent blowing dirt and wind erosion by use of crop diversification in western Kansas. Meanwhile, a 1937 exhibit on grasshoppers took first prize for the McPherson 4-H Club, which illustrated the methods of grasshopper eradication and control.

Farmers hold on

Despite the times, the fair was still the fair - a showcase of the latest technology, of the year's production, and just a time of enjoyment.

For instance, in 1932 a Texas vendor unveiled the television at the Kansas State Fair, according to Thomas Percy's book "A History of the Kansas State Fair." And Willems said he recalled that after riding rides, he toured the exhibits, fascinated with the tractors and newfangled air tires.

"At that time, rubber tires had just first come out," Willems said. "Many of the farmers still had steel wheels."

In 1934, the aggregate value of farm machinery displayed was worth more than $1 million. However, not all farmers could necessarily afford rubber-wheeled tractors. The drought continued as the 1934 fair began. It was so bad, in fact, that it covered 75 percent of the country, with about 125 million acres of land losing topsoil rapidly.

Farm exhibits took a hit in those years, but farmers still were able to find some of their best for displaying.

With Kansas crops seeming to be a complete loss in 1934, a Kansas State University official in charge of the county farm exhibits told farmers to dig into the previous year's corn for their displays.

Stafford County, however, wrote back that they were insulted by such a notion, and that they would bring only their best of the current year. Even Stevens County, in the heart of the Dust Bowl, had a display from 50 farms that year, which included broomcorn, wheat and sweet potatoes.

"It's been hot and dry down our way, but this shows what we can do even in a year like this," remarked W.R. Hoskinson of Hugoton.

There might have been few crops, but farm programs were starting to lessen the financial burden that had been a weight over farmers' heads. Kansas Agriculture Secretary J.C. Mohler told fairgoers in 1934 that while "the Kansas corn crop may have been the smallest of all time, the wheat crop may have been the poorest for many years, thousands of head of livestock may have been slaughtered because of lack of feed and water, but the Kansas farmer has more money in his pocket than he has had for the past three years."

In all, farm income totaled $235 million to $240 million, thanks to New Deal programs.

Talking politics

Eventually, as the era progressed, the government launched Social Security programs and federal agents killed Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger, as well as Bonnie and Clyde. Amelia Earhart vanished and Prohibition was repealed across the nation, except in Kansas.

The fair, as it is today, was a campaign platform for the issues of the day.

"For the past 20 years, I have attended the state Legislature as a registered lobbyist," said Mrs. Mitchner, a Women's Christian Temperance Union member, during a meeting in Hutchinson at the 1933 state fair. "Yet the past session there were more wet bills introduced in the Legislature than any other time in all the years I have been there. ... If we take Prohibition out of our country, it will take 50 years of fighting to get it back. The wet forces plan to attack the youth of the land, educating them to drink so as to swell their revenue. Can there be anything more insidious, more diabolical, than forces which will prey on our youth?

"We women must get behind the Prohibition and fight."

For 14 years previous, the nation and leaders like Mitchner tried in vain to dry up the country. The Women's Christian Temperance Union had had a display at the fair's outset in 1913, their goal was "protection of the home."

Still, most Americans considered Prohibition a failure and the 18th Amendment was repealed. Kansas, however, maintained its statewide ban on alcohol until 1948. In that year, despite the efforts of the Temperance Union and others, voters rejected Prohibition by a vote of 422,294 to 358,485, according to the Kansas State Historical Society.

Others also saw the state fair as a political podium. Every Kansas governor of the day stopped by the fair at some point. Congressional leaders like Clifford Hope also made appearances. Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, in 1935, toured the fair during the start of his presidential campaign. He lobbied for better farm programs and decried what he considered wasteful spending by Roosevelt, saying it "tests our patriotism and courage almost as much as armed invasion and civil war."

That year, in Reno County as a whole, the number of work-relief cases had jumped from 885 in July to 937 in August, with work-relief costs rising form $15,022 to $19,255.

But work was on the way with Roosevelt's creation of the Works Progress Administration that year, which began in Reno County that September. About 20 men were needed for 18 weeks to work on a mile of Buhler Road, and 27 men were wanted for a project on the Nickerson High School grounds.

And, by the end of the decade, WPA workers were on the fairgrounds, too, building the Bison Arena, upgrading the fair's sewer, rebuilding the Old Mill ride with permanent fireproof concrete, and putting in a reinforced concrete stage and basement at the grandstand.

Newspapers, however, in 1936 didn't reveal that Landon had stopped at the fair to campaign with two months left until the election. Instead, stories showed he was in Iowa, where he touted the need for expanded crop insurance and agriculture freedom.

He told a newspaper that the past four years had produced only "makeshift subterfuge" on the part of the New Dealers.

Still, a Hutchinson News straw poll at the state fair showed Roosevelt leading the race for the presidency.

By November, Kansans couldn't forget the programs FDR had implemented, which were helping a wounded country. In 1937, Roosevelt was sworn into office again, saying, "I see one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. ... The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."


Despite the failed crops and blowing dust, along with the political climate, people came to the fair to forget their worries.

Some might have splurged on a ticket to watch Barnes and Carruthers' World on Parade, a grandstand act that featured a disappearing water ballet as well as vaudeville, musical comedy and circus performances including clowns, acrobats and a grand opera quartet.

"Kansas is spoiled by state fair night shows," a Hutchinson News reporter wrote during the era. "It expects them to combine the glittering marvels of circus with the glamour of the stage for a treat no other road show can approach."

As the climax, Jack Eddy's cannon boomed and a girl shot 40 feet through the air.

Born in Kansas City, Kan., 19-year-old Bobby Jeanne was the 4-foot-9, 83-pound human cartridge, shooting out of the Birchwood cannon. She admitted to a Hutchinson News reporter that she had missed Eddy's arms about half a dozen times.

"But it doesn't hurt, she said. "You learn to take the fall."

Besides political sideshows and grandstand circuses, the midway was filled with its own entertainment. An ad from the late 1930s advertised the carnival's three Ferris wheels, which sat side-by-side, along with magicians, midgets and "melodious melodies."

Among the acts was a 410-pound python and glorified girls, it read.

While such oddities have faded away in an era more sensitive to human abnormalities, folks could pay a little bit to stare at a bearded woman or a dancing little person.

Some spent money to see John Dillinger's father, John Sr., a former corn-belt farmer who was part of the sideshow act with the carnival in 1935, just a year after his son's death. He gave a lecture several times a day.

"Folks, crime doesn't pay," he told a crowd, then started his talk again as the people fresh from seeing Prof. Earl Chambers' Hollywood movie monkeys came to stare and listen.

"But his eyes have a distant glint as if he would rather be weighing out a pound of sugar or following a plow in an Indiana cornfield," the reporter wrote.

In 1937, Evelyn Frechette - John Dillinger's "gun moll" - also lectured as part of the sideshow act. "I loved him. Yes, there was plenty of excitement," she said, but added, "I'm getting awfully tired of the carnival, but at least I do earn an honest living."

There were some incidents among the carnival folk, including an altercation that made it to Reno County District Court in 1937. Prince Dennis, a 90-pound dwarf, was taken into custody after he hit a carnival barker who had been flirting with Dennis' midget wife, Ethel.

Ethel described her 4-foot-tall husband as "insanely jealous."

"I caught her flirting with this (barker), and I wanted her to know she's still my wife and not a gangster's moll," Prince Dennis said, adding that the barker was a two-timer, also dating Dillinger's Frechette.

Law enforcement Chief Louis D. White warned Dennis to calm down. "You're too darn short to be digging coal in Lansing, and that's just where you're going unless you behave."

The event was briefly disturbed as another sideshow performer came walking in smoking a cigar - 8-foot giant Paul Herold.

The giant said he'd look after both Mr. and Mrs. Dennis, and the carnival posted Prince Dennis' $500 bond. With one Dennis on either side, the giant marched out of the courtroom, and the judge, "wiping his brow, began working on the drunks of the day."

Better times

In 1938, the Kansas State Board of Health ordered that all vendors use paper plates, although the declaration was currently in the Reno County District Court.

Protected by a temporary injunction, a number of church groups and individuals were serving food from China dishes in violation of the health commissioner's ruling that "only paper plates should be used."

Whether it was eating off paper or China, visitors flocked to the 1938 fair, with hotels full and downtown streets lined with automobiles. More than 800 4-H'ers came for the annual Encampment at the new Encampment Building, which had been built earlier, in 1934, and then dedicated at the 1935 fair.

"The state club leader speaks with pride of the new building just completed and erected to the welfare of Kansas 4-H Club Boys and Girls," The News reported during the 1935 state fair. "Hot and cold water is on tap; there are showers for washing away the day's soil after excellency of work in fitting animals. ... Indirect lighting floods all rooms and an auditorium has been provided for programs and demonstrations."

Another story noted that when 4-H exhibitors arrived, they set up their own government in the building by electing officers for the week of the fair.

In addition, the 1935 story noted:

"This 4-H Club building, dedicated to the advancement of Kansas 4-H Club activities in Kansas, is the realization of a 10-year dream of the State Fair Board of Managers and M.H. Coe, the state club leader. It may be termed a 'shrine of achievement' where the boys and girls engaged in a program for the improvement of the standard of living on the farms and in the homes of rural Kansas may come with the competition of a year's work well done. They represent the home in canning, cooking ... baking, clothing and numerous other activities. They represent all phases of livestock and crop production, recreation and the fellowship of young America that goes with an ability to cooperate one with another."

4-H, after all, was a prominent part of the fair. Hutchinson resident Herrman Popp, who grew up on a farm near Haven, recalled showing hogs and sheep at the fair and staying in the new Encampment Building in the late 1930s, which he said didn't have air conditioning.

"You brought your own bed covers," he said. "They used to serve meals - they had a little cafeteria - but a lot of times we took our own food."

Yet fair headlines seemed to be downplayed as issues continued to develop across the nation and in Europe. On the home front, headlines reported the deadly New England hurricane, which struck on Sept. 21, 1938. It killed nearly 800 people and damaged more than 57,000 homes.

Other headlines rang news of the war in Europe and Hitler's rising power. One story during the 1938 fair said that Czechoslovakia had declared martial law as it considered war with the Reich.

"Across the waters and in the rest of the world, hearts are filled with hatred, schemes are being laid for the slaughter of men, bombs are bursting and guns are booming, and the shrieks of dying men, women and children are heard," said Gov. Walter Huxman during the 1938 fair. "Here in America, we are a free, peaceful, happy people. We enjoy this because of the form of government we have."

In 1939, school bands at the state fair played the Beer Barrel Polka and Philip Morris advertised the "finest 15-cent cigarette." Things seemed more prosperous, despite the looming possibility of war. In 1940, there were so many farm displays at the fair that exhibits were limited to 15 counties as the agriculture hall busted from the seams, and even among those, displays of produce were "stored under the table."

In 1940, fair attendance was down due to fear of fatal infantile paralysis, which was spreading across Kansas and the nation. Thousands of children didn't come on the free schoolchildren day, The News reported. Meanwhile, as the fair was starting, draft legislation was being formed that would require registration of about 16.5 million men, ages 21 through 35, for military service. Every day The News had a front-page column titled "The War Today."

Gov. Payne Ratner applauded America's preparedness as the war continued in Europe, but said he was against "shedding American blood on foreign soil."

The governor contrasted the picture of a prosperous, happy America, as exemplified by the state fair, with that of war-torn Europe under ruthless dictators.

Life, however, was about to change.

On the home front

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, which officially brought the United States into World War II. As sons and fathers went into battle, everyday life across the country was dramatically altered.

The government rationed food, gas and clothing. Communities conducted scrap-metal drives. To help build the armaments necessary to win the war, women found employment as welders and riveters in defense plants. Japanese Americans were sent to detention camps. Residents became dependent on newspapers and radios to tell them what was going on across the ocean.

Fewer railcars rolled into the fairgrounds when the 1942 season rolled around. There were some wartime cuts in exhibits, including livestock, farm machinery and other displays, but organizers promised that the entertainment would be bigger and better than ever.

"The state fairgrounds throbbed with life today with a continual clatter of hammers and concessions stands along the pike, aromas of fried chicken and hot dogs going up from open eating houses," a Hutchinson News reporter penned.

Yet the fair, however, couldn't keep out the worries of war completely. A headline from the opening Sunday declared, "War fair begins," and featured a large picture of a drum majorette marching arm-in-arm with a soldier and a sailor on the grounds.

Like most, the state fair was also in the middle of the war effort. On Tuesday of the fair in 1942, the fair had a scrap day on which iron sufficed for admission. Adults were asked to bring 50 pounds and children 25 pounds to the 21st and Main entrance.

Residents brought tons of iron. Mr. and Mrs. J.F. Wiley, of Nickerson, had more than 340 pounds of old iron in their car, mostly scrap picked up off the farm. One man - a World War I veteran from Greensburg - brought in 800 pounds on a trailer. He had received a piece of iron from some Germans back in 1918, and said he wanted to send back as much as he could now.

By end of the day, fairgoers had donated more than 32 tons of scrap metal for the war effort, according to the book "History of the Kansas State Fair," by Thomas Percy.

Hutchinson, too, was gathering scrap, with The News instrumental by spreading the word about the upcoming "Get in the Scrap" day, a collection campaign that would hit every city block. The News even had front-page cartoon illustrations about the need.

"Every ton of it is needed to get our war machines into battle," The News reported, adding that more than 90 million tons was needed.

For instance, it said:

* 175 kitchen sinks would produce steel for one medium tank.

* One old flatiron would produce steel for two helmets.

* One old set of golf clubs would produce steel for one machine gun.

* A single wash pail would produce steel for three bayonets.

* An old lawnmower would produce steel for six 3-inch shells.

"An abandoned bridge or discarded boiler will come in handy, but don't overlook the old flatiron, bed springs, furnace grates, children's toys, shovels, kitchen pots, plow shares, horseshoes and fence wire. All have their place at the fighting fronts."

Meanwhile, as Mrs. W.M. Detter of Hutchinson won the award for an outright ration recipe - a honey applesauce cake - buses left the Hutchinson bus station during the fair to take several men to Leavenworth to be part of three Reno County draft boards. Two officers from the aviation cadet selection board also were at the fair to recruit a "Salthawk Squadron" of men to have air training and perhaps go to battle together.

"Hutchinson recruits, in charge of the fairgrounds office, will recruit men for other parts of the Navy," The News wrote. "Men will be accepted for the Hutchinson Navy Air Base. A Navy doctor will be here Thursday and Friday to examine recruits and there will be a mass swearing-in ceremony at 7:45 Friday night in front of the grandstand."

The Hutchinson naval airbase was located on 2,500 acres of land near Yoder and there were also 3,900 acres leased for auxiliary landing fields.

Off-season, the fairgrounds had already become a military base of sorts. In December 1940, the National Guard was mobilized on the fairgrounds and the Encampment Building was used to house 378 Hutchinson and Reno County men. They named the temporary location Camp Fred L. Lemmon, after a popular National Guard captain from World War I days. The guardsmen were called the State Fair Soldiers.

In 1942, once the fair had ended, the Navy occupied the fairgrounds - largely in the Encampment Building and Bison Arena - until the nearby Naval Air Base was constructed.

However, despite the tension on the war front, the fair began promoting reasons why people should attend. Full-page advertisements in The News stated the fair would have plenty of fun. Advertisements also pointed out that "your government wants you to come, too, for it's the sort of relaxation from our wartime jobs that we all need," according to Percy's book.

While there was a shortage of some exhibits, fair manager Sam Mitchell stressed that the entertainment wouldn't be lacking. The grandstand shows featured large musical productions with patriotic songs. The Barnes and Carruthers night show "On to Victory" featured a cast of 150 stars of screen, radio, stage and circus, according to Percy's book.

Even Ye Old Mill stepped up in support of the war, according to Percy. One section of the ride displayed Uncle Sam roasting Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito in a huge frying pan, with realistic flames underneath.

There also were nightly fireworks displays.

Summing up the 1942 fair, a Hutchinson News headline proclaimed that "no red ink" was needed.

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

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