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Topeka fairs

Kansas Free Fair, 1914Topeka has a rich fair history with the fairgrounds located almost in the middle of the city at what is now the Kansas Expocentre. Some of the fair buildings remain.

The earliest record of the fair in Topeka is in 1871. In 1879 some of the buildings on the fairgrounds were used as temporary housing for Exodusters, the formerly enslaved people who had fled from the South.

In 1880 the Kansas State Fair Association was organized in Topeka with the stated purpose being holding a statewide fair in Topeka the next year. Fairs had been held in various parts of the state including a Shawnee County fair and one known as the Bismarck Exposition, held at Bismarck Grove near Lawrence.

The Topeka organization had a representative from each county and was committed to including the whole state. The fair organized by the group was held September 12-17, 1881. The program for the first state fair in Topeka included displays of horses, swine, poultry, farm and garden produce, manufactured products, dairy and household articles, dried fruits, vegetables, bouquets, and floral designs. Horse races were held each day as well as several foot races. More than 40 brass bands were scheduled to appear, a chorus of 200 women performed, and several baseball games were played. The Friday evening entertainment was a "sham battle" with 500 men from militia groups in various Kansas communities. Sham battles are similar to battles staged by Civil War reenactors today. Cheyenne and Arapaho tribesmen presented war dances and the Pottawatomie played a game of lacrosse. It is interesting to note the continued 19th century fascination with American Indian customs, even though many of the emigrant and plains tribes had been relocated to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) during the previous three to four decades.

Events of interest to women were held in the Fine Art Hall. Male and female amateur artists, including "Mrs. Prof. Canfield, of Lawrence" and "Mrs. Col. Holliday," displayed water colors and oil paintings, pen and ink drawings, lithographs, and sculpture. The reporter writing the story in the Topeka Daily Capital for September 14, 1881, described the respite provided by the Horticultural Hall:

Out from all this bedlamatic medley of sights and sounds into the cool and quiet of Horticultural Hall, the dust-begrimed and weary reporter experiences a most thoroughly delightful and refreshing sensation. Beautiful in its drapers and flag festoons, exquisite in its floral decorations and pampas plumes; rich in the fragrance coming commingled from five hundred varieties of product of orchard and vine; sylvan-like in its profusion of evergreens; pleasant in the quiet decorum and courteous bearing of those in charge, it is a very grateful place to go to, and if one has only his own inclinations to consult he will be slow indeed to go away.

The fair in Topeka continued as the Kansas State Fair for a number of years. The railroads serving the city offered excursion rates to passengers to encourage attendance at the fair. However, the Topeka fair experienced competition from the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, which received the endorsement of the state legislature as the official state fair in 1913. In 1915, the name was changed to the Kansas Free Fair.

As Topeka became more urban, the activities at the fair changed, though it always had some vestiges of its agricultural past. Companies viewed exhibiting at the fair as a way to publicize their products or to bring together associates for meetings. For example, in 1937, the Fleming-Wilson Mercantile Company, a distributor for I.G. A. products held its statewide convention in conjunction with the fair. Approximately 1500 grocers attended. The Exhibit Hall had a display of a modern I.G. A. store that was completely stocked and demonstrated "the latest and most efficient methods" of handling and pricing goods. Capper Publications, publisher of the Topeka Daily Capital and the Farmer's Mail and Breeze, sponsored a building and they billed it as "your home while the fair is open." It offered "drinking water, telephone, toilet and rest room." In 1954, the Beatrice Food Company displayed a "family album" made of 704 pounds of butter.

Government agencies and others offered services or displayed their latest equipment. Features of many of the fairs were "Better Baby" contests to judge the healthiest baby or baby clinics where doctors and nurses offered free examinations. Samuel Crumbine of the State Board of Health used fairs across Kansas to promote various public health campaigns such as "swat the fly" or "don't spit on the bricks." During World War II, units from Fort Riley camped at the fairgrounds and displayed tanks and artillery.

The 1957 fair featured an 1870s cow town with saloons, general stores, stagecoaches, jail, and dancing girls. The midway with its rides, tent shows, and food vendors was always a popular attraction. The name was changed to the Mid America Fair in 1958 and in 1977 it became the Sunflower State Fair.

The Shawnee County Fair continues to be held annually on the grounds although the grandstand was removed. The Kansas Expocentre opened in 1987 as a conference and event center. It retains the remodeled Agricultural Hall, Heritage Hall, Livestock Pavilion and Exposition Hall (now known as Maner Conference Center) from the earlier fairgrounds. The Capitol Plaza Hotel opened on the site in 1998.

Entry: Topeka fairs

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2004

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.