While doing research about Isaac B. Werner and his community in the late 1800s, I discovered an article in the County Capital advertising the approaching date of the Hutchinson Fair, advising farmers that cash prizes would be awarded for the best examples of local produce. Also included among the activities scheduled for the fair was horse racing.
This year's Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, held on September 6-15 of 2013, celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the state fair. A century ago, the Hutchinson News carried a bold headline on September 13, 1913, which read Kansas Real State Fair Has An Auspicious Opening. The history of fairs in Hutchinson, as I realized while reading the newspaper story in the County Capital, is older than one hundred years, however. The 1913 headline recognized that history by including the word "Real" in its announcement. In fact, in 1903 the Kansas legislature had given the Central Kansas Fair held in Hutchinson the license to call their event "The Kansas State Fair." Apparently, other Kansas fairs may have contested the licensed title, with the official designation having been settled in 1913.
Agricultural fairs in America have existed from the early 1800s as places for farmers to learn new farming techniques, view equipment, and be entertained. While farm markets included some of the trappings of a fair, one of the first events identified as a model for future agricultural fairs was held in 1807 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Others followed that model and expanded on it, and as settlers moved westward, agricultural fairs expanded across the country.
The Kansas State Fair website identifies January of 1873 as the date when Hutchinson, then barely one year old, organized the Reno County Agricultural Society, and in September of that year the society hosted a fair in a small wooden livery stable. Hutchinson was not the only town to initiate an agricultural fair, nor was it the only county to form an Agricultural Society. Isaac Werner was the man who initiated the formation of the Stafford County Agricultural Society in his county. To read more about the history of the Kansas State Fair and how Hutchinson came to be the official site, visit http://www.kansasstatefair.com/.
The 1906 photograph taken at the Hutchinson fair shows not only horses being judged but also a horse race in the background. (Notice in the background the same building pictured above, suggesting that both images might have been taken in 1906.)
Horse races were a part of many agricultural fairs, but they also caused controversy. Because farmers came with their families to the fairs, objections were raised that the races brought drinking and gambling, activities that were inappropriate to family events.
New York state is credited with holding the first State Fair in September of 1841. Like Kansas, most fairs in other states originated from Agricultural Societies, and beginning in 1840, state legislators began providing funds to these societies, which led to larger and more regular fairs. Typically, fairs were held in early fall, after crops had been harvested.
For many farm families, the fairs provided an opportunity to experience social changes not directly associated with agriculture. For example, electric lights might have been on display, or early aviators might have performed for the crowds. A woman from California described seeing "sewing and washing machines, a printing press, and stereoscopic pictures for the first time at her local county fair." (http://rickwoten.com/AgFairs.html) Women had soon begun participating in the fairs with their cooking and sewing exhibits. Some attempts by women to join in fair activities created scandals. In 1854 at the Iowa State Fair, women competed in horse races, which some regarded as immodest, even immoral. By the 1860s, state legislatures and fair boards had restricted or banned women's equestrian events. However, women did participate in a ladies' saddle-horse contest (as distinguished from horse racing) at the 1874 Indian International Fair at Muskogee. To read more visit http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/F/FA025.html.
Of course, agricultural fairs in other countries pre-date those in America, and many of the practices were brought with the immigrants and adapted to their new homes. The Stafford County Agricultural Society envisioned exhibitions of their crops and livestock, and today the Stafford County Fair, as well as the neighboring Pratt County Fair, continue those traditions begun years past and adapted from other nations.
Fairs change with the times, but they remain a wonderful occasion for families to enjoy. Maybe I will see you at the Kansas State Fair in a few days. Look for me wandering through the exhibit of amazing quilts, or admiring the exotic chickens, or enjoying one of the visiting bands entertaining the crowds. I'll watch for you there!