There were plenty of reasons to feel optimistic in the 1950s.
Post-World War II economic prosperity was in full swing. The Korean War ended in July 1953, bringing a time of peace.
The stability of America’s government was relatively secure; Sen. Joe McCarthy was in the throes of his witch hunt as his subcommittee continued to investigate communist threats to the U.S.
Meanwhile, in Hutchinson, the Kansas State Fair was the huge, pumping heart of America and all she stood for.
Mike Wamsley was a kid living the good life on Green Street and enjoying some exhilarating freedom when the Kansas State Fair was in town.
There was so much to see and do. From the smells of onions frying with the burgers to diesel generators that brought electricity to the midway, the carnies speaking double-talk to the taste of pineapple ice cream and sticky, freshly made saltwater taffy, it’s all part of the collective memories Wamsley has of his childhood.
Parts of the carnival would arrive by train, then parade, animals and all, from the train tracks at Third and Poplar, down Poplar Street to the 20th Avenue entrance to the fairgrounds.
Back then, sometimes he had money to go to the fair, but other times he and his buddies sneaked in.
It was the side show on the midway’s west side that drew him back again and again. There was Joe the dog-faced boy and Eeka the Geek, who would eat live snakes and mice.
Wamsley recalled Ella Webb, who was touted as a polio victim in an iron lung. The polio scare had been growing, with 57,628 cases reported in the U.S. in 1952. However, by 1953 Dr. Jonas Salk was trying the polio vaccine on himself and his family and there was hope they could find an end to the disease.
“Come see the girl in the iron lung,” shouted the barker at the side show. “She’s alive; you can talk to her.” Then across the midway, over the public address system, there was loud, labored breathing that was supposed to be Ella Webb’s.
At the door of the tent, collecting everyone’s money, was a woman dressed in a dingy, dirty nurse’s uniform. Wamsley, attracted by the breathing, saw Ella Webb. Later he walked behind the tent.
“There was Ella puffing away on a cigarette,” Wamsley said.
While areas of the fair were set aside for the wholesome things that made Kansas special, there was a seedy side with Club Lido and Club Harlem, which had Las Vegas-style show girls.
Then there was the time Wamsley got into Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch on the fairgrounds.
“I was 13 and excited to see naked women with nothing but fans,” Wamsley said. That was until he saw the show. He left disappointed. The fans covered everything. And Rand just looked like an old woman to Wamsley.
“But the all-time best attraction was the Wall of Death,” Wamsley said. That was a side show where a man on a motorcycle - usually an old Indian motorcycle - started at the bottom of what looked like a giant barrel, with the audience up above on the outside, looking down over the side.
The rider would go really fast and begin climbing the wall on the motorcycle until he got to the top. People would hold out dollar bills and he would grab them.
There were the old stand-bys, such as Ye Old Mill and the fortune teller Wamsley came to see every year. The Kansas State Fair was his playground, he said, reminiscing recently. He recalled beautifully landscaped grounds and grandstand shows that resembled “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with dogs and ponies, acrobats and musical acts.
While he wasn’t on the fairgrounds during the incident, Wamsley recalls hearing about the tragedy of the flying farmer in 1953.
Flying farmers had their official day at the fair on Sept. 23, using the field north of the grandstand near 27th Avenue and Plum Street, as the landing strip. William C. Ubben, 41, of Marion, was checking the engine prior to takeoff in a two-sitter yellow Piper J-3 Cub. There were tears in the canvas of the wings and he was using duct tape to fix them, but he ran out of tape and told people helping him that he would fly to the Hutchinson Airport, just a few miles away, and finish fixing the wing there. Two men watched as Ubben took off, and saw the canvas tearing even more. He got to 250 feet and was trying to return to Earth when he crashed just northeast of the wall that surrounded the grandstand of the race track. Spectators in the grandstand were watching a big car race when the plane crashed, causing an explosion of fire and smoke.
“Only the metal structure of the plane, bits of flesh, cloth and wood were left,” The Hutchinson News-Herald reported. “Even Ubben’s shoes were burned off him.”
People wonder why Wamsley keeps going back year after year, and he begins noting everything he loves about the fair, from the poultry building to the Civitans’ triple cheeseburger.
While it was anti-climatic when the five-day fair always ended, Wamlsey and his friends still raced over to the fairgrounds after school. They would bring a rake. And in the unpaved midway they would find lots of loose change.
“I found $5,” he said. “For us, that was a lot of money.”
Fair growth With more than 110,000 visitors pushing through the gates on Sept. 20, 1954, the fair was being touted as the largest crowd ever gathered in one place. Keep in mind they figured their gate numbers differently back then.
With that many people, there were bound to be some mishaps. Back in the 1950s it took 125 state troopers and 39 officers to cover the fair. There was more than traffic to direct. For instance, there was the 4-year-old who was bitten by a monkey at the Jungle Land Show. The child’s finger injury was bandaged up and he was released from St. Elizabeth Hospital. Another young child bumped her head riding a boat and was taken in a state patrol car to Grace Hospital for stitches.
In 1954, the quality of the wheat show was the best they had in seven years, according to Alvin Lowe, agronomist with the Garden City branch of the Experiment Station.
In the 1950s, the fair was responsible for the “the greatest parade of bands in history.” More than 3,000 students from across Kansas marched in dazzling uniforms and carried fancy banners. But the members of one school band showed their spunk by marching in plain white shirts and dented instruments. They were the students of Udall. Uniforms were the least of their worries, as most of their town had been destroyed in a deadly tornado on May 25, 1955.
After all the years of racing - from horses to harness racing to autos - tragedy struck the fairgrounds on Sept. 19.1956, when the first race driver ever was killed. While a crowd of 7,000 people watched in horror, Don Hutchinson, 24, of Kansas City, died when his car crashed through a fence after a collision. Hutchinson was pinned beneath the car.
As the years progressed, The Hutchinson News-Herald reported drought and low commodity prices, the next as well as rain and impassable roads, but still every year the fair was better than the one before.
Hutchinson’s population was also growing. To meet the spiritual needs of Catholics, Bishop Mark K. Carroll, of the Diocese of Wichita, created a new parish, the Church of the Holy Cross, on June 14, 1957. Father Vincent Brown, the newly appointed pastor, celebrated his first Mass in the 4-H Building at the fairgrounds on June 23, 1957.
By the 1960 fair, a reporter noted that a traditional sign that the fair had a real crowd was evidenced by the sitting area north of the Administration Building.
“All Sunday afternoon the benches were full. So was the lawn, with people eating picnic lunches and littering the grass. But you couldn’t notice it. There were too many people crowded together taking it easy.”
While the fair was in full swing, there was Cold War tension as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev spoke at the United Nations in New York City. Meanwhile, Kansas Gov. George Docking toured the fair and went down into a brick civil defense model of an atomic fallout shelter. He mopped his brow and remarked, “It might be better to die of radiation sickness then to spend a couple weeks in here.”
Eye on the future What J. Lee Ward loved about the Kansas State Fair was that it was where he saw his firsts, including his first tractor as a boy.
“Never did I dream it would replace the horse so completely,” he said in a letter to The Hutchinson News-Herald in 1961.
Many years later as a young man he tasted his first soft ice milk as it came from an automatic freezer. Then, as a middle-aged man he saw Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch.
“The fair has always been a push for progress, a peek into the future,” he said. “Unusual things you see at the fair this year will be commonplace within 25 years.”
And so it happened, the 1961 fair didn’t just open: It blasted off with new technology. For many Kansans it was their first tri-color TV network at the fair. It was also the first time most fairgoers had an opportunity to appear on television.
Frank Blair, one the original anchors of the morning news show “The Today Show,” was filmed live during two days of the fair. Sleepy-eyed Hutchinson residents who wanted to be in the background had to be at the fairgrounds by 4 a.m. Blair, a famous newscaster by 1961, had lived in Hutchinson briefly during World War II, when he was a flight instructor at the Hutchinson Naval Air Station in 1943.
While wheat and livestock had been among the main attractions at the first fair back in 1913, they still remained the mainstay of the fair. But by the early 1960s exhibits included atomic energy and the handling of radioactive matters. Even an atomic reactor was on display, a far cry from the first tractors J. Lee Ward saw as a boy.
Written by Kathy Hanks. This story was originally published in the Hutchinson News on Sept. 1, 2013.