Volume 4, No. 7                Buffalo County Historical Society             August, 1981

 
EARLY FAIRS IN BUFFALO COUNTY

by Barbara Pemberton Riege
        The first agricultural exhibit in Buffalo County was held in Kearney in 1875.  According to Bassett's History of Buffalo County, this fair was organized by the Buffalo County Agricultural and Mechanical Society composed of members from throughout the county, who gave $1.00 each for membership to this organization.  The well-organized group had committees on general arrangements, grain, vegetables, and ways and means.  The fair was held on September 18th of that year in space provided in the downtown furniture store of Hemiup & Calkins.  Premiums were awarded in many categories: "wheat, oats, barley, rye, millet, flax, potatoes, beets, onions, cabbage, carrot, parsnip, beans (navy), turnip, squash, pumpkin, melon, broom corn, sorghum, cucumber, butter, best arrangement of flowers, bread hop yeast, bread salt rising."  The grasshopper plague had reduced the crops of the area and no corn was raised to be exhibited.  There was much surprise and pleasure at the bountiful displays provided, officials of the Union Pacific Railroad were present and impressed, and reportedly purchased the premium grain and vegetables for display in Omaha, representing the wealth of crops in this area despite the grasshopper damage.
 
Early Downtown Agricultural Exhibit, 1906.
         This society may have ceased to exist at this time, having very well succeeded in showing that this area had a wide variety of crops and sufficient bounty despite the hardship of the grasshopper times.

          Five years later the need to establish a fair to promote the area's agriculture and to provide a means of communication among all citizens of the county - farmers, stock- raisers and merchants alike - was recognized.  During the winter of 1880-81 the Buffalo County Agricultural Society was formed.  Officers were elected and membership was open to any individual willing to pay the $2.00 annual dues.

          Residents of the Shelton area were well represented at the meetings and they offered to provide grounds in Shelton for the fair, complete with an agricultural hall, stalls and pens for livestock, and a half-mile race track, plus $750.00 in cash.  The Shelton site was chosen for a three-year period, the buildings and race track constructed and exhibit categories and premium list readied for printing.

         The First Annual Fair of the Buffalo County Agricultural Society was held September 27, 28 and 29, 1881.  The premium list for this fair paints an almost unbelievable picture of the scope of exhibits that could be entered.  Most first premiums varied from $1.00 to $5.00 with a few at $10.00, and second premiums 50 to $3.00. Livestock exhibits consisted of classes for roadsters (buggy horses), draft horses, saddle horses, driving horses, walking horses, mules and asses, cattle, sheep and swine.  Other classes of exhibits were poultry, grains and seeds, fresh and canned fruit and vegetables, baked goods, needlework, plants and flowers.

          In addition, "diplomas" were given for the best displays of farm machinery, wagons and buggies, and household items such as stoves, refrigerators, churns, cherry stoners, lamps, power looms, carding machines and sewing machines; also, "best and largest display of agricultural furniture, to include such articles as usually found in a first-class furniture store."  In the Fine Arts and Textile classes seventy-five items were listed and a diploma awarded for the "best" of each.  These included steel and copperplate engravings, stereoscopic views, wood cuts, painting and sculpture, drawing and penmanship, wax, hair and feather work, and cotton,wool, silk and hemp textiles.  It was not required that these represent the handiwork of the exhibitors but could be the best of  their home possessions, whether homemade or manufactured.
 
Butler Fair, 1896.





          During the fair a local band played on the grounds and was the subject of a letter in the Western New Era of November 3, 1881, signed by "VERITAS" noting that the band had met mixed reviews by persons that "could not tell the difference between a grub hoe and demisemiquaver", and that band members had even had to pay their way onto the grounds.

          After receipts and expenditures were compiled, a $200.00 cash balance remained for the next year's fair.  The fair remained in Shelton for the years of 1882 and 1883, held in late September about a week after the state fair.  They were quite successful financially and promoted the area's resources.  At the annual meeting of the Agricultural Society in Gibbon in February of 1884, a heavy delegation of Kearney residents arrived by train and paid the required membership fee, thus establishing an overwhelming voting majority to have the location of the fair moved to Kearney.  Land was purchased northeast of Kearney (the site of the present fairgrounds), buildings were moved from the Shelton site, and a new one-half mile race track was built on the grounds.

         The Kearney site was well received as a more central location overall for the county fair.  The 4th Annual Buffalo County Fair was held September 30 through October 3, 1884, and reportedly 1600 single admissions were paid on one day, with an overall attendance at the races of more than 3,000 persons.  Each year the fair grew.  Races were the big calling card of the day, with agricultural and homemaking exhibits, along with other amusements, as highlights of these early day fairs.  In various years top billing was given to "The Fire Department Races" and "The Great Roman Hippodrome Races."

          By 1889 the county fair had grown to a four-day extravaganza.  Tuesday, September 17th, was entry day and the Kearney Daily Hub of that date reports that the grounds were a "scene of bustle and excitement that would be distracting to a person unaccustomed to such events.  Wagons containing exhibits are arriving every minute.  Horses, cattl eand sheep are apparently mixed up in a chaos of confusion, but readily separated and assigned to their respective stall by the courteous superintendents of the different departments.  Gangs of carpenters are scattered about the grounds, making and adding improvements, while the president and secretary  with a force of clerks are busy making entries."  Five days had been spent leveling the track with a new machine to accommodate the outstanding horses that would be racing in the trotting and running races.  There were also chariot and bicycle races. The grounds had 127 stalls for animals, five new windmills had been added and an enormous water tank attached to water the cattle.  Booths were provided for furnishing "victuals,  fluids, and varieties, comic and serious, to please old and young, cheerful or despondent."  Various attractions were a merry-go-round, a photograph wagon, an equestrian team that balanced from a trapeze, while circling track pulled by spirited horses at breakneck speeds, weddings on the grounds, baby show, displays of the latest in millinery, farm machinery, buggies and harness, canned fruits, vegetables, grain and livestock of every sort, including swine, sheep, chickens, geese and ducks, fine sewing, quilts and flowers. The grounds were full and overflowing for this fair, with farmers' wagons being parked outside the enclosure. Merchants closed their shops and schools were dismissed so all could enjoy the opportunity to see the fair.

         These were great show days, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was touring this country and abroad, the citizens of Kearney were contemplating building an opera house, the area was represented by industries, including the flour mill, brick making, Kearney Electric Company, and a cotton mill.  The local economy was booming and the population was expanding accordingly.
   
         In fact, it was the growth and expansion of Kearney that prompted the next major move of the fairgrounds.  Because 34th Street east of Avenue N and the area surrounding it was developing as the suburb of East Lawn, it was decided that the land had become prime ground for residential purposes and a site of less valuable land should be found for the fairgrounds.


          In June 1890 the Agricultural Society purchased eighty acres of land east of Kearney for a new fairgrounds.  Located in Section 5-8-15 (across the road from Stone School on the Coal Chute road), the new site was central in location to the railroads serving Kearney, and allowed greater accessibility to fair patrons arriving on special trains to attend the ever-growing Buffalo County Fair.  A one-mile race track was built and, according to some of the persons relating memories of the times, there were purportedly twelve barns, a large agricultural display area and ample room for parking.  Mortgages for improvements made about this time were in amounts of $1,600.00 and $134.40, possibly for a new grandstand and a band stand.  However, the fair at this location was of short duration, maybe only two or three years.  In the opinion of historian S. C. Bassett, "a one-mile race track was of itself enough to insure the financial ruin of a county agricultural society."

         The financial panic of 1893 plus three consecutive years of severe drought brought about the collapse of the Kearney boom and with it the end of the extravagant county fairs.  The Buffalo County Agricultural Society was dissolved because of financial problems and the new fairgrounds were sold.
 
Scene at the fair in Shelton, 1881.  courtesy Gibbon Heritage Center.





 
       Other agricultural exhibitions were undoubtedly held elsewhere in the county.  One that was successful for a few years in the late 1890's was held at Butler, a rural community northwest of Gibbon.  The Buckeye Valley Grange needed a meeting place and decided to have annual fairs at Butler to raise money for a hall.  Temporary buildings were built for display of agricultural products, fancy work and baking, and pens were built for livestock. Merchants offered prizes and the exhibits were large.  Concessions were on the grounds and a delight for the children was a horse-powered merry-go-round. No record is found as to how long the Butler fair continued, when it started or when it ended.  However, when enough money was raised for their Grange Hall, the temporary buildings were torn down and the hall constructed.

         In 1906 a display of Industrial School and Watson Ranch products was held in downtown Kearney in the Patterson-Wingard building (present Sears location), but no other details are known.

         In 1913 a new organization was formed known as the Buffalo County Mid West Fair Association; the fairgrounds were returned to their former location in northeast Kearney where a county fair has been held almost every year since.  The fair has long been an institution of great attraction for people seeking entertainment and variety in their daily life.  It has prospered or failed according to the changing times, needs and wants of the people.  Some aspects of the fair do not vary greatly from those early day exhibitions of livestock, grain and produce, flowers, needlework and baked goods.  There has been a variety of entertainment over the years and the county fair still offers fun, excitement and activity for the people of Buffalo County who take the time to attend.
SOURCES
Bassett, History  of Buffalo County, Vol. 1; Where the Buffalo Roamed; Premium List of the First Annual Fair, 1881; Western New Era, Nov.3, 1881, Aug. 25, 1883, Oct. 4, 1884, Sept. 12, 1885, Oct. 16, 1886, Aug.20, 1887; KearneyDaily Hub, Sept.17, 1889.
  Proofread 1-27-2004

 

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edited 3/10/2003