#13 Edwards County Fairs – Part 1

It’s fair time in Edwards County, and this year’s fair will be very different as it faces the Covid 19 pandemic. Fairs have been held in Kansas since before it became a state in 1861.  Edwards County was established in 1874 and in 1878 the first Edwards County Fair Ground Association was formed.  Showing and racing horses and trotters was a main attraction of fairs back then.  Edwards County already had a reputation for having fine competitive horses. Even though plans were made to host a fair, it never materialized because 1878-1880 turned out to be drought years, and the farmers were struggling to survive.

In August 1885, representatives from the county tried again and formed the Edwards County Fair Association.  A major controversy flared up over where the fairground should be located, and lest you think politics were more civil in the past, I will quote J. W. Crawford’s editorial in the Kinsley Graphic, August 28, 1885.

“The farmers undertook not long since to organize a county fair association but the move was hardly on foot when the would-be dictator of the religion, politics, finance and social etiquette of the county, R.E. Edwards, stuck his miserly mug into it, and as a matter of course undertook to control it, and as usual tried to control it in the interest of the few and against the interests of the many.  A committee was appointed to select a site for a fair ground, and although the big medicine with the bald head was not on that committee, he at once undertook to control it….Some of the boys are talking “tar and feathers’. But other say ‘give him a rope and he will hang himself.’”

It seemed that Mr. Edwards wanted to locate the fair grounds a mile north of Kinsley.  Land south of Kinsley was offered, but a location on the southeast side of Kinsley by the Coon Creek bridge was finally chosen.  By fair time, October 19-24, 1885, a judges’ stand, floral hall, other buildings and a race track were ready.  School was cancelled and the first fair in Edwards County was underway.

The Larned Chronoscope reported that “The fairgrounds are beautifully located east of the city, and slope gently to the river’s bank.  The buildings are new, and though small, are very prettily designed, and the grounds are enclosed by a high tight board fence.”

Governor John Martin came and spoke at the 1885 fair.  The next year, Kansas U.S. Senator Preston B. Plumb spoke.  Trotting horse races were the main feature of these fairs with the Kinsley Mercury reporting, “…the track, one of the best, if not the very best in southwestern Kansas”.  The ladies also had equestrienne tournaments which “The judges after much scratching of heads and prayerful deliberation finally decided that Miss Scott was the best rider and entitled to the prize, a new saddle.”

The fairs offered competitive displays by local merchants, judging in horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, grain, vegetables and fruit.  The fall fair featured cabbages, squash, parsnips, cucumbers, apples and watermelon. Mr. E. M.  Stapleton exhibited a beet weighing 17 pounds and a whopping big pumpkin of 103 pounds.

The fair also had today’s familiar competitions in photography, painting, needlework of all kinds, flowers, canning and baking.   One unique display of taxidermy was described as representing “a duel scene between two warlike squirrels, with seconds, a surgeon and a reporter up a tree taking notes.” (My librarian finds that disturbing.)

As successful as these fairs seemed to be, the association was a corporations funded by selling shares, and they did not make enough money for investors to continue.  No fair was held in 1888 and the fairground land was sold in 1889.  An Edwards County Fair would not be held again until 1929.  In the intervening years, an “Old Settler’s Picnic” took on much of the role of a county fair.  (To be continued)