The Johnson County Fair wasn’t always in Gardner. McCamish, north of Edgerton hosted Kansas’ first county fair in 1858. It wasn’t until the Civil War ended that a fair would return to the county. Gardner held a fair in 1865, which included agriculture, industrial and domestic exhibits. Olathe had similar fairs from 1867 through the 1870s, thus beginning a competition between the two cities that ran through the 1930s.
Most fairs between 1855 and 1900 were privately funded by agriculture societies with the intention of promoting scientific livestock breeding. To pay their expenses, however, fair associations incorporated horse races, circuses, curiosity shows and any other form of entertainment sure to draw large crowds. Soon, the agriculture aspect took a back seat as the primary focus of these fairs.
In addition, the State Board of Agriculture saw fairs as an avenue for promoting the state’s rich resources for farming and industry. The board encouraged the creation of fairs as a way to attract settlers and immigrants to the state. County businesses responded by building fairgrounds with permanent buildings.
Cooperative organizations established by farmers in the 1880s began to play a large role in county fairs. In Johnson County, farmers organized local branches of the Patrons of Husbandry, which was known simply as the Grange. The Olathe Cooperative was formed in 1884 and boasted a membership of 1,026. The Johnson County Cooperative Fair Association appeared in the 1880s and 1890s, holding its fair repeatedly in Edgerton, with a focus on “clean” entertainment, eliminating gambling and seedy midway shows. Pony races, mule races, ladies bicycle races, tug-of-wars and baby contests were some of the more family friendly entertainment held during the years. Olathe again was the site for a fair in 1893. The Johnson County Fair Association sponsored Olathe’s fairs during the 1890s, having them after Edgerton’s fair.
Farm Bureaus and County Extension Services were established throughout the country in response to the 1917 Smith-Lever Act, which recognized the importance of farming and its contribution to the country during World War I. The Extension Service began to provide farmers with scientific information in an effort to help improve their operations and increase their stability. Extension also began supporting county fairs, promoting participation by local farmers, thus returning the fair’s emphasis back to an agricultural theme.
Johnson County saw a boom in community fairs after World War I. The Grange sponsored fairs in Spring Hill during 1917 and 1918. Olathe had fairs in 1919, 1920 and 1923, moving it to a different location with each new year. In order to attract residents in the northern reaches of the county, another fair association was formed. Its first fair, called the Farm, Home and School Festival, took place in Merriam in 1922. By 1927, the name had changed to the Johnson County Shawnee Mission Fair and was held through 1931 at the old Shawnee Mission Rural High School. In direct competition, Olathe continued to offer its summer fair as well.
During the 1930s, fairs popped up all across the county. Gardner continued to have a fair from 1931 to 1936 before moving it to Spring Hill in 1938. Overland Park sponsored a fair from 1934