It takes the efforts of hundreds of volunteers to make the Johnson County Fair work. With carnival rides, live music, food stands and livestock, the annual event continues to be a large attraction.
For the most part, it’s free, family-friendly fun.
It’s roots are steeped in the rural past. Though today, it’s evolved to a more urban affair, the smell of funnel cakes carried on the breeze reminds long-term fairgoers of simpler times.
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 Johnson County, farmers organized local branches of the Patrons of Husbandry, which was known simply as the Grange. 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. 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.
Johnson County saw a boom in community fairs after World War I.
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.
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.
In a typical year, more than 7,000 exhibits dot the Johnson County Fairgrounds during fair week.
Though the exhibits and entertainment at the Johnson County Fair continue to change, the celebration of agricultural heritage and the strong sense of community continue at the Johnson County Fair.
Adele L. Wilcoxen contributed to this story.