Columnist: Susan Stafford

When I grew up in Kansas in the 1950s, the Kansas State Fair was one of the biggest events of the year. At least, that's what I and my sisters thought. Back then, the Fair was held in Topeka, our home town. (More on that subject in a moment.) Mom would drop us off at the Fair entrance with firm instructions on where we would all meet up.

Our first stop would be the root beer stand right inside the entrance, easily found because of the gigantic barrel that stood behind and above the stand. For us, there was nothing as satisfying as an ice cold root beer as we took in all the lights and colors and commotion. (Bruce Beach has a wonderful video on YouTube about the Fair in Topeka. He confided that the root beer stand was one of his favorite parts of the Fair.)

My sisters and I spent some time wandering through the exhibit halls. I especially liked browsing through the needlework entries. And of course the farm animals were magnets to city girls like me and my sisters - well, me anyway.

I remember walking past another set of "exhibits" that were advertised with large painted canvas banners. The banners featured weird creatures and scantily dressed ladies. Wild child that I was, even I knew I couldn't go see those exhibits!

But the real attraction for us of course were the rides. My top favorite was the Tilt-A-Whirl. Up to three people would sit in a cab vaguely resembling a cobra chair. The cab turned in a circle as it rotated around a circular path. The wooden floor the track was attached to would simultaneously tilt and dip. It was the most fun!

Years later, a traveling carnival set up in a grocery store parking lot near where I worked. The carnival had a Tilt-A-Whirl! I couldn't resist stopping on my way home to try it out.

The ride was just as good as I remembered. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I think the ride operator let it go on a lot longer than he normally would. I was thrilled, though I doubt the two teen-age girls riding with me appreciated the gesture - if their slightly green faces at the end of the ride were any indication.

Finally, at the end of the day, my sisters and I made our way back to the entrance. We were stuffed with fair food and clutching our prizes and souvenirs. Night had long since fallen and we were usually worn out by then. But we had had such a good time. 

I said above that I would get back to the comment I made about the Kansas State Fair being held in Topeka in the 1950s. Technically, it wasn't - and thereby hangs quite a tale.

The holding of a Kansas state fair began in about 1880. Hutchinson had been holding first a county fair and then a regional fair, and deeply desired hosting the Kansas State Fair. There was apparently a lot of wrangling back and forth, but then Hutchinson committed a lot of money to upgrade their fairgrounds. This impressed the legislature and by 1915, the State Fair was being held in Hutchinson.

Topeka continued holding its state fair, calling it the Kansas Free Fair. (Apologies to Hutchinson, but everyone I knew still called the Topeka fair the Kansas State Fair.) Then, in 1958, the fair changed its name to the Mid-America Fair.

To me, of course, it was still the Kansas State Fair.

But in the 1970s, attendance at the Topeka fair began to dwindle and upkeep began to fail. By 1974, the Topeka fairgrounds lease was terminated. Plans were made to build a Sunflower State Expo Center on the same site, which was joined by a high-class hotel in 1984. The fair we knew had long since faded away, though the Shawnee County Fair continued to be held in a reserved area and some of the old exhibit halls had been preserved for community use.

This is when my family and neighbors finally acknowledged the State Fair was being held in Hutchinson now.

But I do cherish those memories of those days (and nights) at the Fair in Topeka. What a magic time that was!

© 2020 "The Kansas State Fair in Topeka" by Susan Stafford