State Fair: 100 years celebrating Kansans and Kansas

09/05/2013 10:30 AM

08/05/2014 8:50 PM

Every year since she was born in April 1922, Glenna Dellenbach of Abbyville said, she has attended the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.

And since 1961, she has been responsible for setting up the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union booth in the Grandstand Building. The WCTU is the only organization to have a booth since the Kansas State Fair was formed 100 years ago.

The fair, she said, is a place to take families, see the latest in quilts and grab a Pronto Pup.

“I really love the quilts and canning,” said Dellenbach, 90. “The fair shows what people can do.

“It is a good representation of Kansas activities.”

The 100th edition of the fair starts Friday in Hutchinson. Dellenbach will be there.

Fair’s origins

The Kansas tradition of fair-going started more than 150 years ago when newly settled pioneers organized fairs to promote their towns and show they were progressive and industrious. People would come from miles around to see the latest, the biggest, the fastest, the best life could offer.

From the early 1860s to 1913, the Kansas State Board of Agriculture awarded fair sponsorship through a bidding process. Cities interested in hosting the fair would offer enticements to encourage Kansans to see their towns.

Some would construct elaborate octagonal buildings especially for the fair. Cities with such buildings include Manhattan, Peabody, Blue Rapids, Belleville, Sylvan Grove, Goodland, Onaga and Colby.

By the late 1890s, Kansans were beginning to want a state fair in a central location. Three cities competed – Topeka, Wichita and Hutchinson.

The tug-of-war between the regions of the state continued for nearly 20 years. Politics and money became involved.

It helped that central Kansans had Hutchinson’s Emerson Carey – as in Carey Salt – as a state senator. He was persistent and for several years introduced a bill that would designate Hutchinson as the state fair location. Each year, the Legislature faithfully voted it down.

In 1913, the bill finally passed. At the time, W.Y. Morgan, editor of the Hutchinson News, wrote of the hopes and dreams Kansans had for their fair:

“It will be the meeting place of the people and the clearing house for progressive ideas in agriculture, livestock, manufacturing and every line in which advance is needed.”

It has been an annual ritual for Kansans ever since.

The experience

For many Kansans, the fair is a common experience of pig races and 4-H projects, butter sculptures, candied apples and saltwater taffy.

Without a doubt, the annual ritual is also about entertainment. It’s about seeing friends and neighbors in crowds of strangers.

It’s where young love is sometimes sparked on carnival rides.

“The midway always seemed a girlfriend-and-boyfriend thing to do,” said Cheryl Brand of Colwich, 53, who is a fourth-generation fair-goer and whose children now mark the fifth.

“My favorite things now to see are different from when I was younger. If I rode the Matterhorn once, I rode it a million times. I have always marveled at people’s talents. The fair gives you a chance to take pride in your state.”

The fair has changed through the years, said Denny Stoecklein, its general manager.

“It’s as relevant now as ever, maybe more so,” Stoecklein said. “Right now, there is a real interest in Americana and people are looking for the roots of how we got here – and what better way than to experience it at the fair?”

One of the challenges, he said, is making it new and interesting every year while maintaining tradition. High-tech gadgetry – including text-messaging contests – have taken the lead over milking and tractor-driving competitions.

On Thursday, Dellenbach will faithfully travel into Hutchinson and set up the WCTU booth across from the Dairy Bar on the lower level of the grandstand. To celebrate the WCTU’s 100 years at the fair, blinking Christmas lights will be added to the booth.

On Friday, WCTU members – including 120 members in Kansas who range in age from their late 60s to late 90s – will pass out complimentary ice water to fair-goers who visit the Grandstand Building.

And then, Dellenbach will take a little time during the run of the fair to observe at least two of her traditions:

Buy a funnel cake and share it with somebody.

Take a spin on Ye Old Mill – the oldest carnival ride in Kansas and only one of three like it in the nation.

“I still like to ride the Old Mill,” Dellenbach said. “My husband has been gone 10 years now and that always used to be our tradition. Before we left the fair, we’d always have to ride the Old Mill. That’s the standard.”

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