Bill Leslie was born with the fair in his blood, inherited from his father, who worked for both a circus and carnival.
Leslie’s passion for the Kansas State Fair was fueled for more than 25 years. First with the advertising firm Lane and Leslie and then with his own business, Catalyst, he held the advertising account for the 10-day statewide event. The job came naturally for him because it’s easy to promote something one is enthusiastic about.
During the 1980s, Leslie worked closely with Bob Gottschalk, general manager of the fair.
“Bob had a real commitment to the agrarian tradition of the fair,” said Leslie, “but he was committed to increasing the non-agricultural aspect of the fair, also.”
Leslie loved the grandstand entertainment. Back in the 1980s there were two shows a day, and both would sell out.
“I loved standing by the stage watching the people get so excited and enjoying themselves getting to see an entertainer live, who they might not see anywhere else,” Leslie said.
He recalled the “greats,” like comedians Bob Hope and Red Skelton. Skelton performed at the fair in 1978, 1986 and 1988. Leslie had a chance to spend time with Skelton and admired him.
“I never saw an entertainer work so hard for the audience as Red Skelton,” said Leslie. Unlike other celebrities who locked themselves away from the people before a show, Skelton would walk around the fair between performances, curious to see the sights and chat with anyone who passed by.
But, said Leslie, “The real heart of the fair remained the kids grooming 4-H cattle, the people bringing in their quilts, jams and jellies; you can’t have more ‘God Bless America’ than that.”
The ’80s, early ’90s International exhibits were being welcomed at the fair. According to Tom Percy, author of “A History of the Kansas State Fair, 1863-2006,” the fair built a new International Trade Building that opened in 1980. In 1983, fair board members, through legislative contacts, entered into negotiations with China’s Henan province and welcomed its exhibit in 1984.
A 26-member group, mostly Chinese government trade department employees, set up a display of hand-crafted jade carvings, art, jewelry, textiles, ceramics, silks, hand tools, baskets, fans, furs and pottery from the Tang Dynasty and porcelain from the Song Dynasty. Fairgoers could buy products whose prices ranged from a few dollars to $15,000. The delegation stayed in the Encampment B uilding and shared the kitchen with 4-H cooks.
At the 1986 fair, the board began promoting ethnic cultures from within Kansas, including Hispanic, Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern cultures.
By 1986, Gottschalk was looking at good news and bad news. First the good news: He was ecstatic with the way the 1986 fair was turning out, reporting to the board that concession sales were up 25 percent from the previous five years.
The bad news was that someone had stolen a goose from the poultry exhibit building. The animal had been lifted from its cage during judging activities and spirited away by an unknown person. A child had seen the thief take the goose and speed away in an automobile. It was unknown if the case had been solved.
The same year, the board commissioned a feasibility study to determine whether the grandstands should be turned into a pari-mutuel racing facility. However, two years later, in 1988, the Kansas Racing Commission denied pari-mutuel racing at the fairgrounds.
A Haven woman made history in 1986 when she was the first woman elected to the Kansas Board of Agriculture and the Kansas State Fair Board. Lois Schlickau also went on to become the first woman to serve as president of both boards. And then she was only the second person to serve two consecutive terms.
Schlickau felt a real responsibility to serve well.
“When a person of a particular gender is elected to something for the first time, you feel a responsibility to represent your gender as well as possible,” she said.
That meant staying on top of the issues, doing her homework and coming to every meeting prepared.
“The gentlemen were accepting and welcoming,” she said. “On the whole, we had a good rapport.”
Growing up in Reno County, as Leslie did, Schlickau has the fair in her blood. Her birthday is Sept. 18, and she always celebrates it at the fair.
One year she won the Governor’s Cookie Jar contest, and that was back before deep freezers. Everything had to be baked and prepared fresh, just before the fair. She went on the Hershey Cake Sweepstakes for her banana cake, which she has passed along to her granddaughter currently in 4-H.
Highlights of serving on the fair board included escorting Marilyn Quayle, wife of U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, around the fairgrounds, as well as hosting other celebrities when they came to perform.
“I remember the year Merle Haggard didn’t show up and Reba McEntire was the opening act. Bob Gottschalk asked if she would extend her show and she agreed. She put on a great show and went clear to the top,” Schlickau said.
McEntire returned to perform at the fair for two more years.
Serving on the entertainment committee on the fair gave Schlickau the opportunity to go to Las Vegas and meet the agents of the different performers.
“They would line up the acts we wanted,” Schlickau said. “We had a lot of input into what acts we got.”
Welcoming change For the first time ever, in 1987, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry hosted a Network Kansas Trade Show in the Encampment Building during the fair. It brought together economic development representatives, inventors, manufacturers and insurers under one roof for the first time. The idea was for them to begin doing business together.
In 1987, the largest quilt ever at the fair was on display in the Domestic Arts Building. Created by 87 members of the Prairie Quilters’ Guild, the massive display measured 17 feet by 17 feet and was a backdrop for the off-Broadway production of “The Quilter.”
The theory of the fair was to expose non-agricultural people to the fair - both young and old. In 1986, board members created an “Ag in the Classroom” exhibit in the Pride of Kansas Building. It taught children about crops and farm techniques. At the time, it was a visual display with little hands-on activities. But, according to Tom Percy, author of “A History of the Kansas State Fair, 1863-2006,” the approach changed in the 1990s: Class trips to the fair were common and the fair sent mailings to school districts to encourage visits. An elementary school teacher from Pratt, Sue DeWeese, took her students and relayed the experience to the board.
“Her unbridled enthusiasm jolted the board into action,” Percy said. “By 1991, the board proposed the Kansas State Fair Education Program.”
Focusing on the theme “Kansas’ Largest Classroom,” they hired a part-time coordinator. The program initiated contact with teachers and offered workshops before the fair.
Visitors to the fair would no longer just be viewing exhibits: Students would attend classes with a hands-on focus - for instance, discovering insects, developing reading skills, learning directions, and even managing money by purchasing lunch.
“Students could be active participants in the action of the fair,” Percy said. In 1991, 2,544 students participated and the program grew.
But the news at the fair wasn’t always that rosy. Attendance at the 1989 fair was down because of four days of rain. One food vendor told a reporter at The News, “My gross sales were less than $200 during those four days. That’s terrible.”
The next year, the sun was shining and Krehbiel’s Kountry Store was selling 500 German sausages a day.
By 1990, the board voted against allowing volunteers in the Planned Parenthood of Kansas booth to give out educational condoms to visitors.
Just as in other decades, world events, especially the Persian Gulf crisis, had their effects on the fair. Fairgoers had written fifty-one 3-foot by 5-foots cards to send to Kansas soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Change was always around the corner at the Kansas State Fair. By 1992, women were blazing a trail in what had been a “men’s club,” as Schlickau was no longer the lone woman on the fair board or the State Board of Agriculture: She was joined by Evelyn Harper, Hutchinson, and Anne Marie Worley, Atwood.
This story originally was published in the Hutchinson News on Sept. 1, 2013