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Artifact of the Week - State Fair

The Kansas State Fair has humble beginnings. The story starts in 1873, barely a year after the founding of the city, with the creation of the Reno County Agricultural Society. That year the Agricultural Society held a small fair from September 23-24. It was a humble affair held in a small livery stable behind the one and only bank on the corner of Sherman and Main in Hutchinson. They made $90 (equal to about $1,906 today).

The next year no event was held, despite the Agricultural Society planning for one. A failed tax levy and a horde of ravenous grasshoppers put an end to their plans but only for the short term. In 1875, land was purchased to host the First Annual Reno County Fair southeast of where the Hutchinson Correctional Facility is now. There were twenty classes for entries and though most of the awards were certificates, there were a few cash prizes for best apples, best mule, and best stallion. A local paper wrote “The citizens of Reno County have reason to be proud of their first annual agricultural fair. It was in all respects a complete and to many a surprising, success. Attendance the second and third days was good, and more people of Reno County were assembled on this occasion than ever before in the history of the county!”

Expansion continued into 1876, with the state chipping in $200 in support and attendance rising further. Receipts totaled $334.51 (about $7,956.95 today) with “no unpaid bills.”

In 1878, the fairgrounds moved to new grounds north of Eastside Cemetery, where the fair remained until 1885 when it moved back to grounds on Southside Park. The return was prompted by the Vincent brothers, two prominent Hutchinson businessmen who took offence to the horseracing that took place after Charles McMurray donated a racetrack to the new fairgrounds. The brothers purchased the fairgrounds and offered them for fair use, but with the stipulation that horseracing not take place.

In 1884, the fair organization was re-organized into “The Arkansas Valley Fair Association.” The fair by this point had grown so popular that in 1885 Mayor Campbell proclaimed that that all businesses in Hutchinson should close so employees could go. Over 1,000 admission fees were collected that year, and two standout contests took place. Nettie Price took special premiums with a quilt made from old wedding dresses which women in her family had worn since 1851, and Arie Underwood and Marie Baughman took the premiums for the prettiest babies. Sadly, we could not find any pictures of these exceptionally pretty kiddos.

During that time new buildings were added every year, new street car tracks were laid out to the grounds, a half-mile race track was built, and the entire property was fenced in. Attendance continued to grow as did the amount of money being drawn in. Prize money and premiums continued to go up and exhibitors and attendees were sought throughout Kansas, to the point that railways offered discounted rates to bring people to the fair. The fair was becoming a state-wide affair, but had not yet become the official Kansas State Fair.

In 1900, the Arkansas Valley Fair Association became the Central Kansas Fair Association. The reorganized fair association quickly began searching for financial support to move the fairgrounds yet again as it was bursting out of the seams at Southside Park. Fifty-three local businessmen indicated their support and land was acquired between Main and Poplar, from Eleventh to Seventeenth Avenue. The cost was split with the Hutchinson Park Association. The latter agreed to construct buildings on the new site in exchange for a share of the money the fair brought in. Improvements began in earnest, a new racetrack was constructed and the Riverside Park Auditorium was moved to the fairgrounds.

This brings us to why this fair was not yet the official Kansas State Fair. Since 1882 the Mid-Kansas Fair in Topeka had considered itself the official Kansas State Fair, but there was not yet any legislation making that official. In 1903, legislative battles began. A bill to create the Kansas State Fair Association was brought before the state legislature. The bill was written by Hutchinson’s own Houston Whiteside and J.U. Brown. At the same time the Mid-Kansas Fair Association brought forward a bill to put the state fair in Topeka. Both of these bills were killed. Topeka mistakenly thought the battle was over that year, allowing J.U. Brown to slip in a bill with the help of Representative Kinkel and Senator Vincent which allowed the Central Kansas Fair to police its grounds, which legalized the premiums given by the association. This was the same standing given to other state fairs, making the passing of this bill a large prestige victory for Hutchinson. This made it all but official that the fair in Hutchinson was the official Kansas State Fair. The rivalry continued to 1913, which we will return to in a moment.

President Taft visited the Central Kansas Fair in Hutchinson for Kansas’ semi-centennial of state-hood. That event was the largest fair ever held in Kansas with paid admissions topping $183,000. In 1912, 112 acres of land north of the 17th were acquired for expansion of the fairgrounds, making it the area where the fair currently is. Additionally, a Santa Fe track was laid onto the grounds to bring attractions directly to the grounds.

Now for the magic moment. In 1913, the Commercial Club and the Central Kansas Fair Association put forward a bond issue of $50,000 to purchase the fairgrounds outright. This land was then part of a deal proposed by local furniture dealer and legislator J.P.O. Graber. He put forth a bill proposing that if the State Board of Agriculture would take control of the fair and the fair was located on the grounds in Hutchinson, then the land would be given to the state to be used as a fairground in perpetuity, with the stipulation that if they were not used for that then ownership would revert back to the county. It took the intervention of local business magnate and state senator Emerson Carey and the exploitation of the split in the Republican party resulting from Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull-Moose Party to pass the bill in the House and Senate - but in 1913 the Kansas State Fair was officially located here in Hutchinson.

To quote from the Kansas State Fair’s website “Long forgotten is the fellow who said with apparent astonishment of that small First Annual Reno County Agricultural Fair back in 1875, ‘It was in all respects a complete, and to many, a surprising success.’ No one is surprised anymore.”

More can be learned about the history of the State Fair and its buildings by visiting the State Fair’s website and the Kansas State Historical Society’s website, links to both are below. Additionally, the Reno County Museum’s gift shop sells copies of Pat Mitchell’s postcard book “The Fair City” which is chock full of cool images and information. If you are interested in learning more about Emerson Carey and his contributions to Hutchinson, the museum also has “Kansas Tycoon Emerson Carey” co-authored by Curator Lynn Ledeboer and Strataca’s Mine Specialist Myron Marcotte!

“History of the Fair.” Kansas State Fair, n.d. https://www.kansasstatefair.com/p/about/history-of-the-fair.

“Kansas State Fair.” Kansas Historical Society, n.d. https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-state-fair/16680.

Laird, Linda; Mitchell, Pat. “The Infancy of the Kansas State Fair,” Legacy: The Journal of the Reno County Historical Society, no. 3 (1990): 19-22.

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