Fair nearly as storied as Ottawa itself
By LINDA BROWN, Herald Marketing Director | 7/16/2014
The year was 1866.
Recovery from the Civil War still was in its infancy, root beer had just been invented by Charles Hires and average farm labor rates were $15 a month without board.
It also was the year a group of Franklin County businessmen encouraged everyone to “bring the family, hired hands and neighbors to the first annual Franklin County Fair to be held in the grove of trees just east of the town site on September 20 and 21st.”
Although the location has changed from Second and Cherry streets to West 17th Street, many aspects of the oldest continually operating fair in Kansas and the oldest public event in Franklin County remain the same.
Fair foes: Rain, grasshoppers
A formal fair association was formed in 1867, determining the purpose of the fair was to “promote the advancement of agriculture, horticulture, mechanics and the domestic arts.”
Archives provided by the Franklin County Historical Society have some conflicting reports of precisely who served as leadership for the first fair association — officially named the Franklin County Union Agricultural Society — but a few names repeated consistently include the “movers and shakers” in the community’s early years — James Hanway, W.L. Harrison, Asa Harris, Nelson Merchant, Samuel Holiday and Thompson Jones.
Attendance at the first fair wasn’t large because of “continued rains for a week,” but the organizers and attendees were pleased with the “good display in all departments of livestock, implements, home tools and crafts.”
It seems the weather has always played a starring role in fair history. The event was canceled in drought-weary 1874 when “a cloud of grasshoppers appeared over Osage County and began to descend; it wasn’t long before every green thing was eaten and all growing crops completely destroyed.”
The fair was called off again in 1951 when the Marais des Cygnes flooded the town, including the 60 acres adjoining Forest Park, the area the fair had called home since 1869.
Today, fair exhibitors, attendees, officials and vendors alike all appeal to Mother Nature for decent fair weather. However, the true fans of the Franklin County Fair come in droves regardless of temperature and precipitation.
In 1881, one newspaper reporter predicted an early end to that year’s fair because of “one continuous cloud of dust rolling over the people from morning until night.”
As one would expect in Kansas, the weather cleared up before the next dawn and the fair continued on without a hitch.
In the beginning, judging fair entries consisted of naming such items “the best of” and a $1 premium was paid. Only “members” were allowed to exhibit. Membership was $1 annually or $10 for a lifetime.
Some years, it was difficult for the association to meet the financial obligation the “premium” system presented. Admittance was 25 cents at the gate for non-members, but a member’s entire family was admitted at no charge. Gate receipts in 1879 totaled $1,971.
In 1869, the association purchased 60 acres adjoining Forest Park, establishing the first official fairgrounds in the county. The association paid $215, all the money it had at the time. The City of Ottawa kicked in $600 for the purchase and paid an additional $400 to have the grounds fenced, thereby making it a public-owned property.
After the 1951 flood, the grounds at Forest Park were abandoned in 1954 for a “presumably drier location” on West 17th Street, where the fairgrounds remain.
One of the most popular fair attractions in the early days of the fair at Forest Park was horse races. In fact, it was such a crowd-magnet local businesses closed during race hours because it was thought every able-bodied citizen would be in attendance at the oval dirt track watching the trotters, pacers and running horses.
At the beginning of the motor car age in 1916, there were 833 cars in Franklin County. That’s when horse races disappeared and car races came to the forefront.
A fair promoter in 1904 promised a great number of amusing and awe-inspiring sights on the midway including a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, cane and doll racks, but the greatest attraction that year was the “showing of one of those new moving pictures, shown from the back of a wagon.”