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A difficult decade tests the fair

The Kansas State Fairgrounds was nearly empty.

But reality hadn’t set in for fair board member Brad Rayl, who walked the streets of the fairgrounds with then-Gov. Bill Graves. It was Governor’s Day, but the midway was much quieter than normal, despite the sunny morning.

Rayl had appeared at the fair early, as always, and hadn’t viewed a television. There were no smartphones to check the news. He had heard the reports - one, then two planes hitting the World Trade Center. But just how bad it really was took him seeing it with his own eyes.

“I remember it as if it were yesterday,” Rayl said, noting that the busy morning had made him oblivious to the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

When he and Graves went inside the Channel 12 booth for an interview, they both saw firsthand the disaster and reality set in.

“We kind of looked at each other, and our hearts just sank,” Rayl said. “You could see the planes going in, and you could see the towers coming down. And within a couple of minutes’ time, we saw the whole thing.”

“I’ll never forget how I felt,” he said.

Fair heyday

When the fair turned 80 in 1993, it was entering a revival of sorts and attendance would hit all-time highs for much of the decade.

However, the 1993 fair was marked with a tragedy before it ever began. Carnival worker Billy D. Godwin, 33, plunged to his death on the eve of the fair, somehow falling off the back of the fair’s grandstand. Family and friends said it couldn’t have been suicide, although no one knows why he was at that location during the night, according to a story in The News.

The fair, however, quickly recovered, with country legend Garth Brooks selling out the grandstand, helping kick off the fair’s startup.

That same year, former New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Rosey Grier sat at a fair booth with Sen. Bob Dole, promoting prostate examinations. Free prostate exams were also offered at his booth, with nearly 400 men getting tests done by midafternoon on the first Saturday of the fair. Dole had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and Grier was raising awareness that prostate cancer was more prevalent in black men.

By 1995, the great weather and good fair acts helped augment attendance to record levels, with more than 361,600 people passing through the gates, making it the highest official state fair attendance recorded.

Dole again was at the fair, this time hopeful of securing the Republican nomination for the presidency. Kansans flocked to see him during his visit.

Other good years were ahead, but not quite like 1995. In 1997, the fair was overshadowed by the death and funeral of Princess Diana, as well as the death of Mother Teresa.

Attendance remained above 350,000 from 1997 through 2000.

Renovations start

Bill Graves grew up with the fair.

His parents operated the Salina-based Graves Truck Line and had a freight terminal in Hutchinson. They would all pile into the car, his dad stopping by the terminal to check it out; then they would spend a day at the fair.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was there the first 50 years of my life in Kansas,” Graves, who now is president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Trucking Association, said in August.

He attended first as secretary of state, then for eight years as governor, typically going twice during the 10-day event. Like governors since 1913, he would make an appearance for Governor’s Day. He also came again with his wife and young daughter, Katie, spending the day as almost a normal fairgoer, wearing blue jeans, buying his daughter rides on the merry-go-round and train, and eating cotton candy or stopping at the South Hutchinson United Methodist Church booth for homemade chicken and noodles.

In 1998, he walked the grounds with Rayl, realizing that the fair, nearing age 90, was in need of a facelift.

Rayl told Graves that day about the fair board’s vision, which included turning the old Automobile Building into an indoor concession. Rayl said the board also suggested demolishing the grandstand racetrack and wrapping the grandstand around a smaller stage or arena or maybe building a new indoor auditorium. The board also talked about developing a village around Lake Talbott and moving the livestock buildings to the southern part of the grounds.

Of course, not all those things came to fruition, but in 2001, the Legislature approved what would be a $29 million master plan, which included the indoor concessions, renamed Cottonwood Court, as well as the 92,000-square-foot Prairie Pavilion, a new beef barn.

Other buildings, including the old Oz Building, sheep and swine barn and the Administration Building, underwent renovation. The Pride of Kansas Building was also overhauled and air conditioning was added. The fair also built a permanent admissions gate on Plum Street, where a majority of fairgoers enter.

The fair also would revamp the grandstand.

A few years after the governor and Rayl’s walk through the aging grounds, three fair patrons filed a lawsuit against the fair in 2001, calling for vertical dispersion of the grandstand and to make the fair compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The fair addressed many of the ADA issues in the master plan. In addition, in 2005 a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the fair’s $2.65 million ADA plan, which didn’t include wheelchair accessibility to all levels of the grandstand, was satisfactory.

Grandstand renovations included removing a few rows at the front of the grandstand and making a wheelchair section across the front of the stage area, allowing for 120 spectators using wheelchairs and a guest for each.

In 1999, the fair considered tearing down Ye Old Mill ride, which was nearly 85 years old. That idea was met by resistance from fairgoers. A donation box hung on the outside of the building, fans hoping to keep the nostalgic ride, and the fair eventually decided to listen to pleas and repair the worn-down water mill attraction.

Millennial dip

Despite a vision for future fairs that included boosting attendance and shiny new buildings, when the millennial year fair took place, the Kansas economy was tanking.

Drought persisted. Crops were poor. Ranchers were selling off livestock.

Just days after the federal government declared 68 Kansas counties drought disasters, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman told a crowd of farmers at the fair that year that help was on the way. Kansas farmers were to get more than $350 million in support payments that September alone, and by the end of the year, an estimated $1.2 billion was expected in aid.

In 1999, the government provided $1.1 billion in payments to help the ailing Kansas farm country.

“Just imagine where agriculture would be without these payments,” Glickman said. “We may have our differences on farm policy issues, but those numbers are significant. Without it there would be an economic catastrophe in this state and country.”

While the economy continued downward, other calamities would influence the fair. During the 2000 fair, Amish couple Freddie and Treva Yoder were killed when their buggy collided with a van. The Yoders were heading south on Obee Road at around 10 p.m. after attending the fair, according to a story in The News. They drove their horse and buggy onto K-96 and were struck by a car carrying four members of a Wichita family.

Then, in 2002, as drought continued to persist and two seasons of failed crops kept many a farmer’s combine in the shed, the fair board fired Fair Manager Bill Ogg.

Ogg said in November 2002 that he believed material from a demolished horse barn on the fairgrounds was “going to be bulldozed into splinters and hauled to the landfill.”

Rather than let the material go to waste, Ogg said he took several sliding horse barn gates to his home and allowed a friend to remove old lumber from the horse barn, demolished in mid-October.

Only later did Ogg discover that a Murdock subcontractor had planned to salvage the wood for use at his ranch.

Nation mourns

It started as any normal state fair day.

Gov. Bill Graves had flown to Wichita the day before, meeting with Japanese delegates. He had risen early that Tuesday morning, preparing to head to the fair by plane from Wichita for Governor’s Day, then fly back to Topeka.

“I went down and got some coffee and was stunned at the site of a plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said. “At first, there was a lot of curiosity. How odd it was that a plane would somehow accidentally fly into the World Trade Center.”

Moments later, however, another plane hit, and Graves knew something was terribly wrong.

“It was apparent to everyone that horrific, tragic events were unfolding,” he said.

He began communicating with the Kansas Highway Patrol and others about the situation. Soon, another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane went down in an open field in Pennsylvania.

“Like everyone in the country, we didn’t have a sense of what was going on or how limited these events were,” Graves said. “We had more questions than answers. And, in the midst of all this, we were deciding on whether or not to continue to the fair and what about the status of the fair that day, the rest of the week.”

An hour to the northwest in Hutchinson, then-Assistant Fair Manager Denny Stoecklein and Fair Manager Bill Ogg were meeting with the Kansas Highway Patrol, but for different reasons. A ticket scandal was occurring at one of the ticket booths involving at least two or three employees, and officers were about to begin surveillance in an effort to gain proof of their actions.

One trooper’s phone went off with news of what was happening. Then it went off again during the meeting, in reference to the second plane, Stoecklein said. The sting operation continued as a couple of KHP agents spent the day in the back of a horse trailer, monitoring the gate in question, while others with the KHP, along with fair officials such as Stoecklein, met about whether the fair should continue.

Events hit home

The 2001 fair, however, seemed doom from the start.

In Hutchinson, issue after issue, it seemed, was causing people to stay away from the city as the fair neared, said current Fair Manager Denny Stoecklein.

In January, gas explosions rocked Hutchinson, killing two and damaging several buildings. That summer, a hepatitis A outbreak struck Reno County, with more than 70 cases confirmed.

As the fair started, officials received a tip that some employees were stealing from the fair, and the Kansas Highway Patrol launched the undercover investigation.

A gate attendant would take tickets sold by the employees and give them back to the sellers instead of dropping them into a ticket bucket, Stoecklein said. When the ticket was sold again, Stoecklein said, the money was pocketed.

It was thought the thefts had been going on for several years, he said.

As fair officials started to launch their investigation, a terrorist attack on the East Coast was beginning. Meetings soon centered on securing the fair, as well as discussion on whether to continue the annual event.

Canceling the fair, Graves said, was not an option.

Therefore, on a seemingly quiet day, Graves and Rayl walked the grounds, handing out ribbons to winners, including the baker and designer of the Governor’s Cookie Jar.

Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer had called Rayl’s phone, telling him to tell Graves that the government had shut down air service and he needed to get back to Topeka if he could.

″ ‘I can’t do anything back there,’ ” Rayl said Graves told him. ” ‘I’m staying here.’ ”

“I think I simply concluded the best course was to try to maintain as much normalcy as possible - to try to show people some calm, thoughtful leadership,” Graves said, adding that there was still activity, as the barns were full of livestock and those who had traveled early that morning to attend the fair stayed the entire day.

Graves said Sherrer drove to Garden City, where several commercial airliners were forced to land. The local airport didn’t have the proper equipment or stairs big enough to reach the large jets’ doors, but the fire department brought long ladders to evacuate the people.

Graves said that when he finally left that evening, he had clearance to fly back to Topeka on one of the only planes, besides military, to take to the U.S. skies.

Fair attendance dropped to a several-decade low of 282,535 in 2001 while residents stayed home to watch the horror as the events of Sept. 11 continued to unfold, their eyes fixed to the television, Stoecklein said.

During a national day of prayer three days later, attendance fell by 42 percent, according to a story in The News.

Grandstand act Blessid Union of Souls, which was to perform Sept. 11, had to cancel, Stoecklein said. The country music group Lonestar, which happened to be driving through the region, was a last-minute replacement for country singer Lee Ann Womack, who couldn’t fly into Kansas because of the air travel restrictions.

One of the most moving experiences for Stoecklein occurred at the Styx concert, he said. The band members, although on a break, were insistent on coming together for the fair concert, despite the fact none of them could catch a plane.

“They said they weren’t missing this show,” Stoecklein said. “When they got here they said they needed an American flag and they needed a pole.”

When the group came back for an encore, they walked onto the stage, but sang nothing. They stood at the front of the stage, arm in arm, holding the flag high.

“The place just erupted,” Stoecklein said. “It was just amazing.”

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

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