ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JULIE ANDERSON
As it prepares for its 70th appearance next month, the Marion County Fair can celebrate a memorable past.
In the early years of the fair, which was first held, Oct. 27, 1931, the focus was on education and recreation, much like today. But some aspects of the fair were quite different.
“When the fair began, it was here on the streets, somewhat like the Arts and Crafts Fair,” said Harold Jost, longtime Hillsboro resident and retired city clerk. “They had the various exhibits in some of the stores or places of business.”
The animals on exhibit were housed in two fair barns located on Ash Street on the parking lot south of First Mennonite Church. Home economics displays were exhibited in a building north of the lot. Tents also were erected to hold exhibits and commercial displays.
“When you had to put up tents for the livestock and stuff like that, it was kind of hectic,” said Lester Griffith, Marion, who was involved with the fair for 18 years as the county extension agent, beginning when he moved to Marion County in 1960. “We didn’t have any facilities to speak of at all.”
The tight quarters had some positive qualities.
“There was a lot of activity, a lot of visiting going on because it was so condensed,” Jost said.
He said the fair had a lot more activity during the day than it does is now.
For the entertainment, a raised platform was erected at the intersection of Grand and Main.
Jost recalls such acts as a man with a trained dog, someone riding a unicycle and tight rope walking.
“It was always a big crowd-pleaser,” he said. “They would have a lot of people stand all of the way around on the street and the sidewalks. I think there was a lot more interest in the shows than there is now.”
Jost believes the change is the result of all of the entertainment found on television, which shows the best performances. People are more critical of what they see now.
He fondly remembers some of the early entertainers. The Wyoming Duo cracked their whips, spun ropes and coaxed their trained coyote to sing. The Skating Earles gave a fast, novelty roller skating act. The Four Rounders performed swing, dialect and comical novelty numbers.
A major part of the fair was agricultural exhibits.
“Of course we had a lot more exhibitors then than they have now,” Griffith said. “It was basically agriculture and straight home economics then.”
Griffith said the reason the fair had more exhibitors then was because more young people were enrolled in 4-H at that time.
“We had a lot more people living on the farm,” he said. “Since then, there’s not that many people living on farms so enrollment has gone down.”
Exhibits included horses, cattle, sheep, swine, poultry and farm products. Also featured were exhibits related to school, domestic science, fine arts and floriculture. Exhibitors included the 4-H Club, Women’s Farm Bureau Club and vocational agriculture and general farm shop work.
“It’s sad that when we started, dairy cattle was probably the biggest thing; now, we just have a few dairy herds in the county, so they don’t have very many dairy exhibits anymore,” Griffith said.
From 1959 to 1963, a major change took place for the fair when it moved to the fairgrounds along D Street.
“The big difference, which is just unbelievable, is the facilities,” Griffith said. “We more or less went from nothing to having real nice facilities out there. They’re still improving them, but there are some people who did a world of work to get the facilities started out there.”
Jost said the change of location was necessary because the fair outgrew the downtown and the downtown businesses were finding it harder to incorporate the fair.
“I think the businesses pretty much felt like they were cut off,” Jost said. “There wasn’t much business going on during that week.”
The first fair recorded in Marion County was held in February 1873 in Peabody. The second fair in 1878 did not generate a good response. Because the fairs became too difficult to finance, they were discontinued in 1895.
In the early summer of 1931, Leon and Irwin Harms organized a grand opening for their new creamery.
The brothers invited a professor from Kansas State to explain the latest milking methods and arranged for the first showing of Ayrshire dairy cattle at the same location.
The event was a big hit with the public. Soon after, Hillsboro-area businessmen and farmers came together to form the Marion County Fair Association. They sponsored that first fair in October in conjunction with the Marion County Poultry Association.
The fair was unique because it was not held on a fairgrounds and there was no pay-gate.
The first day of the fair in 1931 was “Band Day.” That was followed by “Judging Day,” “All Schools Day” and “Sales Day.”
The second year, the fair featured its first parade, which was held during “All Schools Day.”
In 1934, a public address system was acquired, and in 1936, the community built a wooden pavilion at the northeast corner of Ash and A streets.
One advantage of the earliest fairs was that almost everything was free.
“A person could go to the fair, have a good time and not spend a dime,” Jost said. “The Marion County Fair was considered one of the best county fairs in the state, and I think the fair board has kept that up.”
Griffith said an important aspect of the fair continues to be the appreciation it creates for the work done by youth and by older people, who enjoy meeting their friends and showing their handiwork.
“At one time, I wondered whether it would keep on going this many years, which has surprised me and pleased me both,” Griffith said. “When we went through the big change in agriculture and lost all of the farmers in one thing or another, you just didn’t know how long the fair would last. It seems to be going real good.”