Thursday, September 26, 2013

Forestry, Fish & Game at the Fair

Forestry, Fish & Game in Eisenhower Bldg
I previously shared Isaac Werner's affection for wild birds.  (Isaac & his "Pet" Game Birds, 8-8-2013)  Early settlers failed to recognize the need for conservation of game birds, and although laws were passed to protect against unlimited hunting of game and song birds in the late 1800s, it was too late for some.  I'm sure that if Isaac could have joined me for a stroll around the fairgrounds, he would have enjoyed the display in the Eisenhower Building pictured at left. 
However, this blog is not really about Isaac.  In about 1940, my father went to work at the Forestry, Fish & Game headquarters near Pratt, Kansas.  At that time, most people called it The Fish Hatchery, and many people still do.  My parents had married in 1934, and when they moved to Pratt about 1940 for my father's new job, my older brother was about three years old. 

Early photograph of the Fish Hatchery

Soon, they were able to move into one of the cottages on the Hatchery grounds, and it was a happy time for them, with other young couples living there.  When the men were at work, the wives finished their household chores and gathered for coffee breaks and card games, while their children played together. 
One of my father's responsibilities was driving a fish display truck to fairs and other public events.  The back of the truck was outfitted with tanks displaying fish found in Kansas rivers and lakes.  Naturally, when I saw the mobile fish tanks on display at the state fair I thought of my father and one particular trip he made with the fish display truck.
Mobile fish display at KS state fair 
In over forty years of marriage, my parents spent only four nights apart (excluding a couple of short hospital stays), but as the employee who drove the fish display truck, my father was required to travel to a destination where he remained overnight.  Apparently, my mother had raised quite a fuss about being left at home.
Here's the romantic part of my story--At the end of a long day watching over the fish display and answering visitors' question, my father returned to his hotel room, exhausted.  Those were the days of overnight delivery of letters, and he knew he had better write a letter to my mother or he would be in even worse trouble when he got home.  He had brought no stationery, and there was no complimentary writing paper in the hotel room.  All that he could find was a can of Dutch Maid scouring powder under the bathroom sink.  Carefully, he tore along the overlapping edges of the Dutch Maid label, and as he had hoped, the back of label was white.  He took out his pencil and wrote my mother a love letter, explaining how sorry he was that she couldn't come with him, telling her how much he missed and loved her, and asking "Corky" to take good care of his mother.  I don't know how he managed to find an envelope and get the letter mailed to my mother.  What I do know is that when Mother went to the nursing home over sixty years later, I found that love letter in the top drawer of my mother's bureau.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sheep Shearing at the Fair

Judging the sheep at the Ks St Fair 
Kansas is best known for several things--Cowboys and Indians, being the Sunflower State, Dorothy & the Wizard of Oz, "amber waves of grain."  However, most people do not associate sheep with Kansas.  That is unfortunate, for not only are sheep raised in Kansas today, they are also a part of Kansas history.
The sheep shearing demonstration

In the early years before there were fields under cultivation, great herds of sheep were driven across Kansas to markets in the east.  Increasing cultivation and the railroads ended that practice.  Few farmers in the area near where Isaac once lived raise sheep today, although I do know of at least one; however, sheep were being raised in this area in Isaac's time.  He mentions in his journal buying mutton from my great grandfather, Aaron Beck, a surprise to me since I had not known of sheep ever being raised by my family.  In the Blizzard of 1886 Isaac recorded in his journal that a neighbor named Blanch lost about 800 sheep and that Neelands Ranch lost a great many too, although he did not know the number.
There were sheep raised in Pratt County when I was young, for the Sheep Barn at the Pratt County Fair was a popular place to go when I was in 4-H.  Most of the kids that I knew raised cattle as their 4-H project, however.

Students watch the shearing 
A friend who was accompanying a school group that was visiting the fair mentioned that they were on their way to the Sheep Barn to watch the sheep shearing demonstration.  We decided to follow them there, and it may have been my first opportunity to actually watch a sheep being sheared, although I have seen the job done on television.  The children were mesmerized.  The task was finished surprisingly quickly, but the size of the pile of sheared wool from one sheep was an even bigger surprise. 

Nearly finished
After the shearing demonstration, the woman who had provided an interesting narrative during the shearing, filled with facts about sheep and wool, moved to a nearby spinning wheel for her own demonstration.  She showed the audience how the wool was spun into yarn, pausing often to answer questions from the interested audience.  Later, when we visited the Oz Gallery where antiques are judged, we saw an antique spinning wheel. 

Students learn about spinning wool 

You never know exactly what you might see when you go to the State Fair!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Day at the Fair

In 1888 times worsened for farmers like Isaac Werner, and he wrote in his journal that farmers needed to use their heads as well as their backs if they were to survive.  One of the ideas that came from using his head was the plan to form a Stafford County Agricultural Society, and he went to the county seat in St. John to speak with businessmen, as well as fellow farmers, promoting the idea.  Eventually he succeeded in getting enough men interested to form the Stafford County Agricultural Society, for which he was elected Secretary.  One of their plans was to have local gatherings at which prizes were awarded for the best produce and livestock.  Other communities were doing the same thing at about this time, and as my blog of last week, "Time for the Fair!" explained, the roots of the Kansas State Fair reach back to the first Agricultural Society fair held in Hutchinson.
Something to crow about
This week my husband and I went to the 100th Anniversary celebration of the Kansas State Fair, and the entire day I thought of Isaac and wondered if he would be surprised by the continued popularity of agricultural fairs.  I took my camera, and I will be posting a series of photo-filled blogs about the fair in coming weeks.  This week I invite you to come along with my husband and me to spend a day at the fair.

Shelves of farmers' best
One of our first stops was at the Pride of Kansas Building, and just inside the door was the butter carving, an elaborate statue entirely carved from butter of a mule looking at the tractor that was displacing him in pulling machinery.  The glass-walled, refrigerated display was popular with young and old fair goers.
A school group enjoys the carving
Boys and their toys!
No doubt Isaac would have enjoyed this pavilion in which the farm crops were displayed.  The produce had already been judged, so ribbons of purple, blue, red and white intermingled with the rich colors of orange pumpkins, red potatoes and apples, green beans and watermelon, golden corn and wheat, and rust-colored milo.  There were also brightly-colored farm grown flowers and honey from farm hives.
No state fair could be complete without all of the implements on display.  My husband paused for a photograph beside an old John Deere tractor, and I strolled with him through several implement displays.  Eventually, I left him alone to study the fascinating characteristics (to him!) of rows and rows of machinery, while I enjoyed the delightful qualities (to me!) of rows and rows of quilts.
Silver-haired sweethearts
Nearly every Kansan who went to the fair as a teenager remembers riding through the dark canals of the Old Mill with their sweetheart.  There were enough scary surprises during the ride to make a girl cuddle closer for protection, and the ride was long enough for even a shy boy to work up the courage to put his arm around his girlfriend.  The braver boys found opportunities to steal a kiss or two.  As the photograph shows, some of those Kansas sweethearts are still holding hands and remembering rides together through the Old Mill long ago.
A patch of shade for one

The fair is about meeting friends, old ones and new.  Comfortable shoes and cool clothing can only help so much on fair days when the temperatures reach triple digits, so finding a shaded bench to visit with friends, or a spot away from the crowds to check your e-mails or send a text are appreciated.  We arrived mid-morning with temperatures at 87 degrees and the sun climbing in a clear blue sky, but later in the day the clouds drifted in, and it was a pleasant afternoon, with a slight breeze.
Relaxing with friends  
Of course, we had to wander through the carnival rides and the games of chance--although we boarded no rides nor took any chances!  In my youth, I confess that a day at the state fair was all about carnival rides and food, unless I wanted to impress some boy with livestock at the fair by visiting his animal.  Now, I visit the amusement section of the fair grounds only to enjoy the bright colors and the excited laughter and screams of children and teenagers enjoying the rides I once loved. 
Watch my stuff, Dad!

As we strolled through the carnival rides we were amused by the sight of a father, sitting on a bench waiting for his children as they enjoyed the rides.  He was nearly hidden by a collection of stuffed animals, apparently entrusted to his care by his children.  We could just imagine their departing voices calling out as they rushed off to another ride, "Watch my stuff, Dad!"
No fair would be complete without the commercial vendors demonstrating their products, and I could not resist snapping a quick action shot of this man.  I didn't pause long enough to risk being caught in his sales pitch, but one lady looked like she might be a prospective customer.
Our day would not have been nearly as much fun if we had not arrived just in time to watch the last heat of the 4 o-clock pig races.  Young pigs, barely more than piglets, squirmed eagerly as the announcer warmed up the crowd with his clever pre-race introductions of the contestants.  Suddenly, they were off and racing--not for the roses but rather for a pile of pig feed just past the finish line.  Pigs can run faster than you might guess! 
As our day wound down, we found the perfect way to relax.  A six member New Orleans style jazz band, led by the jazz band instructor from Hutchinson Community College, was entertaining in the pavilion by Lake Talbott.  We lingered to tap our toes to several numbers played by this outstanding group of musicians, but I guess their audience was too weary from a day strolling the fair grounds to let the music tempt them into dancing.
As the sun sunk toward the western horizon, we followed it toward our car, sweaty and foot sore, having had a wonderful day at the fair.  On our way out, we encountered two young brothers, far luckier than we in their rolling sleeping quarters. 
Be sure to return to my blog in coming weeks to read and view more of the things we saw at the fair, for I have only shared a sampling of the fun we had.  Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.



Thursday, September 5, 2013

Time for the Fair!

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.

Fairgrounds, Circa 1900-1919

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  
Fairgrounds, 1906, Hutchinson, KS

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." (  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
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!