How It Began
Long before the State Fair began, Missouri livestock breeders received thousands of premiums and much recognition at national and international expositions. The state also ranked first in production of several important crops. In recognition of this leadership, the State Agricultural Society established an exposition in Boonville, Missouri in the 1850s – but the project folded after three years.
It took a group of dedicated livestock breeders to initiate action resulting in legislation to establish a state fair.
In 1897, N.H. Gentry of Sedalia offered a resolution at the fifth annual Missouri Swine Breeders Association meeting in Lexington, encouraging the general assembly to establish a Fair. Associations representing horse breeders and poultry producers followed with similar resolutions. On January 15, 1899, Rep. C.E. Clark of Mexico introduced a bill, upon recommendation from Governor Lon V. Stephens, creating a Missouri State Fair.
Immediately after passage of the bill, six central Missouri communities began lobbying to have the Fair located in their towns. The State Board of Agriculture announced that its members would choose a location after visiting Centralia, Chillicothe, Marshall, Mexico, Moberly, and Sedalia.
Sedalia was the first stop on the tour of prospective sites, and board members were met by a small group of local businessmen who worked quietly to secure the Fair. In Marshall, members received red carpet treatment, a $3-a-plate banquet and promises of $20,000 in contributions if the Fair were located there. The other cities gave similar treatment to the board members and promised to provide funds for construction of Fair facilities.
The return of the State Board of Agriculture members to Jefferson City to decide on the location of the State Fair resembled a big political rally. Members of each city had delegates ready to greet the board members as they departed the train. Followed by the Centralia city band and hundreds of supporters for the different cities, the board members went to a hall to cast their votes.
The voting continued until well past midnight, and after ten ballots, Sedalia received the majority vote with the highest bid (150 acres). The Van Riper family who originally set aside the land for the location of the State Capitol donated the site.
The decision to locate the Fair in Sedalia caused much grumbling among defeated delegates and even some charges of “political fixing.” Political arguments soon became the least of the worries of the board established to administer the Fair. Appropriations of revenue in the amounts of $15,000 (set aside by the 40th General Assembly) and $50,000 (set aside by the 41st General Assembly) were to be used to erect buildings and establish the site.
The money was spent for temporary buildings, construction of a race track, driveways, and enclosing and improving the grounds. There were two cattle barns with capacity of 100 animals each, two more buildings of similar capacity used for exhibition purposes, 11 speed barns (one built in 1901 for $1,200 and ten built in 1902 for $12,000), a frame sheep and swine barn (built in 1902 for $12,000 and capable of housing 2,000 animals), the amphitheater and administration building.
The original frame administration building was later used for the Police Headquarters and Emergency Hospital. It was built in 1901 at the cost of $1,500. Homes for the custodian, florist, and secretary were built around 1900.
The first Fair administrators – fifteen directors, one from each congressional district – worried about Fair appropriations being tied up by the failure of state breweries to pay their sales taxes. When the beer makers paid their overdue bill for $191,250, Governor Dockery signed the appropriations bill, assuring the Fair $50,000 but allowing only five months to turn a prairie into fairgrounds.
First Fair Hampered by Drought, Contract Difficulties
Most of the agricultural fairs in the nation began as harvest festivals. Accordingly, Missouri’s first State Fair was scheduled for the second week in September, when farmers had a slack period between harvesting field crops and beginning winter farming activities.
The first Missouri State Fair was held September 9-13 in 1901. Mr. Norman J. Coleman of St. Louis was the first president of the Board of Directors, and J.R. Rippey was the first secretary. The board consisted of 15 members from the 15 Congressional Districts. The president and vice president received no salaries except for actual expenses.
The other officers, including an assistant secretary, were to receive compensation for their services (in the aggregate and not to exceed $2,000). A major feature of the first Fair was an exhibition of an automobile on the track performing “thrilling exhibitions and fancy track work.” In addition, there were harness and jockey horse races and auto and bicycle races held on the track. After all the premiums and expenses were paid, $500 was left in the treasury.
1901 was a drought year and farmers were disappointed with their field and garden production – but the drought was only one problem facing Fair planners in 1901. A look at front page stories in the Sedalia Democrat that year revealed much about the difficulties of that first Fair. The newspaper stories also captured some of the excitement and rhetoric of the big event.
Friday, August 9 – “The exhibition of livestock at the Missouri State Fair, to be held at Sedalia September 9-13, will be the finest aggregation of pure blood of all breeds ever seen in this state. Judging from the advice received from the breeders of Missouri and all of the adjoining states, there will be more cattle, horses, sheep and swine on exhibition than were ever shown at any State Fair in this country. A large number of Missouri breeders have made application for stalls and the capacity of the stock barns will be taxed to accommodate them.”
Despite last minute problems with water connections and rail lines to the fairgrounds, on September 6 the Missouri State Fair was ready for opening day. The Missouri Pacific and Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railways extended switches from their main lines to the grounds. They also provided facilities for freight and passengers.
The electric street car system in Sedalia was also extended into the grounds. The grounds boasted 11 speed horse barns, two cattle barns, an exhibition horse barn for 100 animals, two 68′x120′ buildings for exhibitions, sheep and swine barns with capacity for 1,000 animals, a custodian’s cottage, an administration building, a mile and half-mile race track and a grandstand with seating capacity for 3,000.
The president of the Fair gave a speech on opening day, and the Sedalia Democrat carried an excerpt … “Five months ago the grounds which you see decorated with magnificent buildings, with one of the finest mile tracks in the state, if not in the west, was a prairie, not a single improvement upon it. The directors determined that whatever buildings were erected should be first class of their kind, an ornament to the grounds and a credit to exhibit the products, not only of their farms, but of the factories as well – of the stockyards, of the orchards, the gardens, of the mineral wealth of the state; and the products which you have seen are only a faint exhibition of what they will be in the near future if this association is properly managed.”
During the remainder of the first Fair, the Sedalia Democrat’s news columns were devoted to describing the exhibits and offering long lists of winners in each class.
On the last day of the Fair they reported, “Secretary Rippey’s office was the center of attraction during the forenoon for winners. Premiums were paid in cash, and the throng of applicants for first monies resembled a run on a bank in bad repute.”
And some final words of rhetoric on that last day from the president of the association, directed at members of the state legislature … “The appropriation for the permanent improvement of the grounds was altogether inadequate. Where a quarter of a million dollars was needed, only fifty thousand were given, and this pittance so late that many feared even the track could not be completed in time for use this year. A drought, the like of which had never been seen in Missouri, fell like a blight upon the state, ruining the crops and depressing the minds of the people so that many felt little like attending a Fair.”
“When sufficient funds are provided to equip and advertise the State Fair, it will at once take rank as the best in the United States, the attendance will be numbered by the hundreds of thousands and its influence upon the progress and development of the state will be marked and lasting.
Changes in the State Fair Show Missouri’s Progress
When that first State Fair was staged in 1901, Missouri’s population was two-thirds rural. Today, the majority of the state’s residents live in urban areas. This reversal of lifestyles is reflected dramatically in changes in exhibits, departments and contests at the State Fair.
Just getting to the State Fair is a process that has changed drastically since 1901. In those early days, exhibitors loaded livestock into railroad “palace cars” for the exodus to Sedalia. Owners traveled in the passenger cars while grooms cared for the would-be champions. Exhibitors who lived closer often came to Sedalia in a wagon full of mom’s canning and baking entries, trailed by a prize animal.
Fairgoers stayed at local hotels, in private homes open to visitors during the shows, or in the famed “White City” – for a nominal fee, exhibitors could rent a white tent from the Fair administration and camp until time to take their exhibits and ribbons home. The overnight city that popped up during the Fair sprawled over 24 acres.
Today exhibitors sprawl over 100 acres in their self-contained units, equipped with air conditioning and television – a far cry from the tents of the former White City. Animals, too, still travel in style, in sleek trailers instead of railroad “palace cars.”
Popular contests of early Fair days including cracker eating, pie eating, sausage eating, nail driving and “guess how many kernels of corn a hog can eat in a day” contests. The 1927 State Fair catalog advertises a baby contest, a health contest, mining and forestry displays and a kennel show.
A variety of entertainment acts filled the grandstands in the first part of the century. Dance revues, 100-voice choirs and death-defying aviation acts of the twenties and thirties have been replaced today with tractor pulls, top name singers, and auto races. Where Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show and hawkers of patent medicine once held forth, country stars and demonstrators of vegetable slicers now draw crowds.
Youth Involvement in the Fair Strengthens State
The Missouri State Fair, and the numerous county fairs that precede it, have been called the proving ground for the state’s future agriculturists.
Winning prize money and ribbons is not the only thing that motivates thousands of Missouri youngsters to enter the State Fair each year. Indeed, the money paid in premiums usually doesn’t even cover the feed bill or an FFA or 4-H member’s transportation to the Fair.
Competition, a desire to learn and improve on new skills, and forming and strengthening friendships all motivate youth participation in the Fair. A look at prize winners in the junior divisions of earlier Fairs reveals the leading farmers and agriculturists of today.
Young people entered the first Fair in 1901 in the junior division. 4-H members began entering their exhibits in 1918, competing for a total of $355 in premiums. Their prospects included sewing, baking bread, canning, poultry, stock judging, mules and draft horses. Projects today are diversified, ranging from the traditional livestock exhibits to photography, beekeeping and consumer education.
Missouri FFA chapters began forming soon after the national group was organized in 1928. Chapter members exhibited in the junior division of the State Fair until their own division was formed in 1952. In 1959 the first FFA Children’s Barnyard opened and continues today as one of the most popular Fair attractions.
Future of the Missouri State Fair
The Missouri State Fair has survived storms, bad publicity, a depression and several recessions, changes in administration, budget cuts and a number of other challenges.
The annual event has often been a source of controversy between politicians and administrators. Critics have tried to effect a change in format, location and organization arguing that more successful Fairs are near urban population centers and in states where pari-mutuel racing is allowed.
For years legislators and some agriculture directors have urged the creation of a non-partisan board to administer the Fair. In 1996 the Missouri General Assembly passed legislation creating a Commission whose responsibility would be to oversee the operations of the Missouri State Fair. Commission members are appointed by the Governor and must be four from each political party with the Director of Agriculture serving as the ninth member of the board.
Today, the Missouri State Fair is in its second century of service to state residents and visitors alike. The challenges before the Fair have never been greater, nor have its opportunities to serve Missourians.
In addition to the activities of the eleven-day Missouri State Fair, the fairgrounds are utilized on a year-round basis to capture an even broader audience. On average, the Missouri State Fairgrounds are used for more than 350 days a year for various events, including camper rallies, livestock shows, organized athletic leagues and tournaments, craft shows and youth rallies.
Whether critics or strong supporters of the Fair, most Missourians agree that it takes the dedication and cooperation of hundreds of people to host an eleven-day event like the State Fair. They also agree that as long as agriculture remains a major industry in the state, the Fair will continue to be the premier showcase for it. The Missouri State Fair is the number one site for major competitions highlighting the best of the best in the great Show-Me State of Missouri.