Adele L. Wilcoxen
County Extension Office
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 organization 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 to 1938. In 1937, Olathe moved its fair to the Nafziger Farm at 83rd and Mission in an attempt to increase attendance and northern county residents’ interest in agriculture. To “attract countywide interest and respect for the community,” organizers hired nationally known trick riders and horsemen. The effort failed to produce the desired results and Olathe did not sponsor a fair the following year. In 1939, the county fair, as we now know it, began to coalesce. The Spring Hill 4-H and Gardner Community fairs were combined and called the Johnson County Fair. In 1940, Gardner became the home for the Johnson County Free Fair. Gardner continues to this day to be the official host city for the Johnson County Fair.
Fairs experienced a second boom following World War II. Communities began to increasingly influence fairs, pushing to get rid of unsuitable entertainment and encourage youth education and participation. Extension agents began working with 4-H youth clubs in an effort to percolate university research-based farming information to doubting parents. By the 1950s, involvement of local 4-H youth and their parents were vital to the success of a county fair. As more 4-H clubs got involved, community participation increased as well.
Permanent fairgrounds and structures were increasingly funded using local tax dollars, but public support in Johnson County was difficult to obtain. Several levies had been defeated due to lack of support by northern residents. L. H. “Bing” Carter, fair general manager and a member of the Johnson County Fair Association, incorporated the help of Jan Meyers, president of the Johnson County League of Women Voters. By emphasizing the benefits of youth education in 4-H competitions, Meyers and the League agreed to Carter’s request for help, successfully campaigning for a mill levy, which was passed in the mid-1970s. Because of their efforts, the Johnson County Fair remains a strong and viable operation. Admission, to this day, is free.
Johnson County’s explosive population growth during the past decades has led it to becoming increasingly urban in nature. With this major cultural shift, the Johnson County Fair continues to change with the times. More than 100,000 visitors attend the fair, held annually the first week of August. While agriculture continues to be an important element with its 4-H livestock competitions, exhibits and auctions, 4-H is following societal trends. Although originally founded to supplement educational opportunities for rural youth, contemporary 4-H youth development focuses on helping young people build life skills that will help them interact as responsive citizens in a global society. This urban shift can be in seen in the increase of 4-H projects in computer technology, aerospace and rocketry, entomology, forestry and photography. This year, more than 7,000 exhibits will be on display in 41 departments.
To make this 21st century urban county fair work, it now takes the efforts of more than 300 volunteers. Carnival rides, live music and food stands continue to be a large attraction. This year, in an effort to address the tough economic times and ease the financial burden on young families, the Fair Board has worked hard to provide numerous avenues for free entertainment.
With its roots steeped in the rural past, the Johnson County Fair has evolved into an urban affair. Yet it remains a popular family excursion. Today, the sticky sweet smell of cotton candy wafting on the breeze transports fairgoers back to childhood. And though the exhibits and entertainment at the Johnson County Fair continue to change, guests can still experience the joyful symphony of sights, sounds, and smells that complete the celebration of agricultural heritage and the strong sense of community at the Johnson County Fair.