Wapsie Experience (7/13/17)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, July 12, 2017
I attended my first West Liberty Fair in 1966 as a first year Social Studies teacher in our school system. My mother's family, the Gatens of rural Springdale, often took the 12 mile trek south to the Fair beginning early in the 20th century.

My mother, Mary Eileen Gatens, and her sister, Marguerite, were avid fair-goers in the early 1930's; spending Fair week at the farm home of their first cousins, Cele, Dottie and Mary Jane Ruess, daughters of Albert and Marguerite Ruess

This month's column will be the first of a two-parter on the West Liberty Fair. My initial opinion would be that most county fairs peaked back somewhere in the 20th century in terms of interest and attendance. Hopefully research can answer that question.

Our story will start in 1916, the occasion of the 54th West Liberty Fair. The first agricultural fair was held in Springdale, Cedar County, in 1862 in the midst of the War Between the States.

1916, August 21-24

“Four big days and three nights." The festival featured three afternoons of racing, the silent kind, horse racing, and music with fireworks each night.(Fireworks were legal in Iowa until 1936 when a fireworks explosion burned down most of downtown Spencer, Iowa.)

Fair publicity noted that the Berle Sisters, famous diving nymphs and the Flying Lamys, acrobats, were among the featured acts.

In this historical period, our fair preceded the State Fair in Des Moines which ran from August 23-September 1 in this year.

A celebrity guest was Ruth Law, Queen of the Aviators. Eight different bands and orchestras entertained during the four days.

The Index had a post Fair review: The Flying Lamys, ground and aerial acrobats and mighty good ones; the Valentinos in a high trapeze act; Peter the Great, an educated ape which pleased and amazed everyone by his wonderful acts....and the Berle Sisters whose act was the big thing on the program and undoubtedly the best thing ever brought to West Liberty. Five sister and their mother. Did you realize that diving nymphs were so amazing?

1917, August 20-23

This year there was a car caravan used to publicize the event in an era with no Internet, television, or even radio. They traveled from Mount Vernon to Columbus Junction, Riverside to Walcott.

West Liberty, being the railroad hub that it was with both north-south and east-west tracks,and holding the event on dates in the week just before the State Fair, could promise vaudeville acts and exhibitors special fast freight service to Des Moines on the last night of our fair.

One could purchase a $2 Privilege Ticket that was good anytime, day or night,at the outside gate, the grandstands and quarter stretch race track. Children from 7-12 could buy tickets which cost a quarter.

Mr. Shipman, Fair Secretary, was proud to announce that "the Fair management will exert every effort to see that nothing of a questionable character is permitted on the grounds." All clean and wholesome. Given the way Wapsie voted in those days, it might have crossed the minds of some board members that a Democratic party booth under the grandstands should be on the non-permitted list!

This year again saw night shows which were begun for the first time in 1916.

A grandstand hit this year was Beni Zag Zag, a troupe of young Arabs. The paper did not provide details of what their act consisted of.

1918, August 19-23

Some bad news for fair going people, because of the war against the Huns in Europe, quoting the Index: "The old time lunch basket is coming back this year. There will be no restaurants on the grounds where the full old-fashioned meal can be obtained." (No Rotary Club turkey tenderloins cooked by Tom Brooke and Jim Conrey.)

There were many federal government restrictions on food stuffs. "It is possible that the mountains of buns and weiners will not be noticeable. As for drinking, there will be mighty little outside of plain water."

No beer tent, of course, as West Liberty would not sell its first legal beer anywhere in town until 1934 and the Fair itself much, much later. Due to wartime sugar restrictions, pop had been given a hard blow.

What kind of entertainment this time? According to the Index, “The free attractions this year will be the best ever brought to West Liberty." Really?

The Ishiwaka Brothers, a quartet of Japanese equilibrists (look up that word yourself); Ebenezer, the famous trained mule; the Flying Valentinos back for another year and the Four Roses, whirlwind dancers.

1919, August 18-21

"Big Bad Weather Only Hindrance"

The crowds noted a new cattle pavilion. The previous year a new swine pavilion greeted visitors. Fair goers were advised "the fireworks will surpass anything ever seen in this vicinity before."

It was a good fair, the first one after WWI had been won; "West Liberty Fair Breaks Another Record" The Index editor told the public that lots of money had been made as follows: "It is quite gratifying to know that as a result of this year's assembly, the treasury is several doors removed from the wolf.""The concession folks in far greater numbers this year than ever before, met the thousands with open arms and reaped a record in receipts."

One big disappointment was the non-arrival of Robinson's elephants. There was a railroad strike and the pachyderms were held up in Boston.

1920, August 23-26

Some very good news; John Robinson and his herd of trained elephants will reach West Liberty in time for the opening show.

This was a stellar year for the fair, and the Index headline proclaimed "Big Day Passes 20,000 Mark." Upwards of 30,000 single tickets were sold over the four days. And then this happened"for the first time in the history of the association, the demand for membership tickets proved greater than the supply."

It should be mentioned that a new horse barn was built for the ever popular trotters.

As for entertainment, "Hass Bros, bar gymnasts who have featured the Ringling circus for many years, opened with a remarkably good act....a series of very difficult and finely executed twists kept the crowd interested throughout the act and won many rounds of applause. The Eight Lunatic Chinks (apparently politically correct in that day) while not as high class nor as finished an act as the Hass, presented a bill which greatly pleased the youngsters."

An interesting clash between the West Liberty Fair Association and the United States Army was fought his year.

Here's the story: “The United States Army had been making a determined effort to secure the Robinson elephants on the date for which they are scheduled here, but the local association has decided that the big act cannot be surrendered...Major General Summerdale, in charge of the recruiting post at Louisville, Kentucky, sent a long telegram to local officials urging that the elephants be released for the Army for use in its recruiting circus at Louisville. West Liberty would not release and a special car was being sent to bring the elephants to West Liberty. Final score West Liberty 1, U.S. Army 0; a shutout!

1921, August 22-25

This year Index readers learned the Fair board purchased rain insurance as follows: "But should the weather interfere with attendance, the association would have to stand a heavy loss, and it is to guard against such a disaster that rain insurance is to be purchased." A wise choice as a post-Fair headline read "Fair Bucks Unfavorable Weather and Comes Through Smiling."

The usual talent was there for the grandstand crowd: "The Flying Valentinos in a new fine act; an act of dogs, ponies and a monkey which pleased everyone, especially the children; the Fisher Sisters, a favorite here, came with a new iron-jaw aerial act which was thrillingly spectacular (sounds like Regal football 90 years later) and which won favor with the crowd."

1922, August 21-24.

Several new acts dazzled West Libertarians; "The Ballet of Jewels, a big classy number in which eight dancers will put on one of the greatest exhibitions of the kind ever seen in the state. Kine, Morey and More offer a high pole and perch act. The Larole Troupe of six artists do a high wire turn which is different from all others, and the Paris Trio, a bunch of comedy acrobats."

1923, August 20-23

A new reserved seat section was constructed at the fairground grandstand.

Mention was made of a plan to desert our neighboring city of West Branch on Wednesday while all their citizens would come down for our fair. The West Branch Young Ladies Band was scheduled to present afternoon and evening concerts. The Wellman Boy's Band of 60 pieces was coming also.

A local boy, Wayne Probst, this year was Grand Champion at the State Fair, he showed a Herford in the Baby Beef class.

1924, August 18-21

In an age with no electronic media to rely on, the Fair Association spread the word as follows: seven crews of fair boosters will plaster the countryside with tidings of the great West Liberty Fair. Large placards with posters for posts, trees and fences."

Earlier in the year, a new sheep pavilion was built, a 24 x 80 foot structure with 24 pens.

Two new ideas were offered for the sixty-second fair; a Wednesday afternoon baseball game between the boys of Wilton and West Liberty to compete for the county championship. Secondly, an open air dance pavilion was put in operation Wednesday afternoon and each evening. "The famous Whizz Bangs will launch the music for Wednesday dancing." Good news for local guardians of morality.” The same care will be exercised this year as last and the dancing will be carefully chaperoned." Was West Liberty ready for flappers openly doing in broad daylight the "Charlestown" or the "Black Bottom"?

I smiled when I read that my cousin of long ago, Frank Moylan, who was listed as in charge of "speed" announced a mule race for this year. Was this a forerunner of indoor "Donkey Basketball" which came to town in a few decades?

I certainly give the Fair board high marks for innovation during these years. For the second year "the novelty automobile race that proved so interesting last year, will be run again this year, two in fact, Tuesday and Thursday evening following the close of the harness racing events. Only Fords may enter!" (The fine Wiele family weren't in business yet as they wouldn't have tolerated such discrimination.) How did the race work? "Cars must start from a dead engine and at each half mile they must be stopped and started from the crank."

1925, August 22-26

Another example of Index boosterism in support of the community: "West Liberty does not have the only fair in Iowa, but it is an established fact, backed by 63 years of success, that we do have the best of its kind in the world."

Two new developments this mid-year of the "Roaring Twenties"; three telephones were installed on the grounds for local and long distance calls.

For the first time the Fair operated on Sunday, the Lord's Day. Two thousand people assembled Sunday afternoon for a concert by Ziegler's band from Muscatine. The concession people had been asked to observe the day, and all of them did this....the refreshment stands were open, but there was no barking."

Another ball game with Wilton 8, West Liberty 6. And as this contest ended, the Muscatine band marched down the track announcing Muscatine Day at the Fair.

This year a contest was held asking people how many consecutive Fairs they had attended. Thomas Morgan Lodge said all 63 beginning in 1862. James Gatton and George Foster 61; Joe Heath, Maurice Whitacre and George Preston (a shirt tail relation of mine) answered 60.

Could anyone in town boast of such numbers today? Let me know.

1926, August 21-25

Something else new, a hog calling contest added to the program for the last day of the Fair. The winning prize? The largest smoked ham in captivity! How is a winner determined? The regular State Fair score card was followed:

(1) Volume Loudness or carrying capacity of voice, 30 points. Volume is necessary to reach the ears of the hog, especially if they are in the back eighty and the wind is blowing from the wrong direction. It also enables the neighbors to know one is home and attending to his work.

(2) Variety, 30 points. A varied appeal is always more effective than a monotonous, uninteresting call.

(3) Charmer, 20 points, one tries to appeal to the hog.

(4) Originality, 10 points. The hog always to distinguish its master’s call from those of his neighbors.

(5) Clearness or musical quality, 10 points. Happiness aids digestion and hogs enjoy music. A clear musical call will bring them in happy and light footed to eat with more enjoyment and profit.

(6) Appearance and facial expression of caller in action, 10 points. Facial expression and general appearance of callers are one of the surest ways of judging the extent of the effort.

Entertainment was varied this year: "The Lime Trio, with a decidedly good "rag doll" acrobat started the program and gave a fine turn. Then came the Bimbos, a Charlie Chaplin balancing acrobat; the DeKos, a trio of balancers, one of whom worked on stilts...The closing act was presented by Kikuta Japs (again, apparently politically correct), a company of six men and two ladies, who work fast in acrobatics and juggling... Two Roman chariot races were put on in the afternoon; one in which horses competed; the other a mule affair. And they both went over big."

1927, August 22-25

A handsome new entrance to the Fair greeted visitors.

Do any of my readers remember the parade of livestock at the Fair? Quoting the Index: “The big parade of livestock at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday evening is figured to eclipse all such features of previous years."

A plus for our fair was reported as follows: "The circus folks who stopped at the Fairgrounds Wednesday were greatly impressed by the beauty of the spot. The manager of the show said they had played on many fairgrounds but none other as fine or as well kept as this of West Liberty."

The three-year old Rotary Club staffed the rest tent at the fair; it was all free and the public was urged to make use of it. A chance for senior citizens especially to get out of the hot sunshine.

Wednesday was the big day in terms of attendance which touched 15,000. Tuesday and Thursday combined with 10,000.

Among the entertainment this year were the Clark Brothers and their horse and tumbling and juggling act at the track; the Aurora Troupe of cyclists; the Luna Company with their trick horse, and the Clarkonians in a marvelous trapeze act. All acts were then headed for the State Fair.

On May 18th preceding the fair, there was a big Index story that told of disaster: "Fairgrounds Hit By Fire" "Tramps Blamed for Costly Blaze; Insured Only Few Days Before Fire" The building had been constructed the previous summer at a cost of about $6,000 and had been insured for $3,000 a few days before the fire.

"The fire department, followed by hundreds of citizens was soon on the grounds, but no effort could avail against the flames which swept from end to end of the building. Fortunately the wind was from the east, carrying the flames away from the other buildings as well as the grove of trees at the east side of the barn....The scene of the fire, at the south end of the grounds, was too far removed from the mains for water to be used, and only chemicals could be brought into play."

Skipping a decade, let us head to 1939 and the 77th annual gathering.

1939, August 21-24

There were still harness races as the half-mile course was in great shape for three afternoons of racing with good purses.

Grandstand acts included the Zavatta troupe of circus riders; Chase and Lampe, unusual acrobats, and the GREAT WALLENDAS, a quartet of high wire artists. Yes, 78 years ago, the world famous Wallendas performed right here in West Liberty!

In the grove, three great orchestras for dancing, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening; Jimmie Chase, Stan Stanley, and Jack Austen.

The president of the Fair was "Pat" Steen and the Secretary, Ray Wuestenberg; two outstanding Rotarians I was privileged to know in my early days in the club. Master of Ceremonies for the evening shows, another Rotarian, Dr. Lester Royal.

1940, August 19-22

"Forget the War,

The Fair's Coming"

Donald Passmore, Atalissa, submitted the first fair entry, his Herford baby beef.

The Index offered several reasons why our fair is such a great success: "The well-shaded grounds really have a lot to do with the success of the Fair...plenty of beautiful shade trees, comfortable benches beneath them, pure drinking water... something only a few fairs have to offer."

An auto caravan visited Nichols, Conesville, Columbus Junction, Wilton, Muscatine, Lone Tree, Iowa City, West Branch and Tipton. The West Liberty school marching band in uniform was included in these excursions.

The newspaper reported that a man from Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, Canada dropped in at the fairgrounds the last week with his string of four race horses, looked our grounds over,and said he'd be back for the fair races. You could say West Liberty harness racing was slowly becoming an international event!

The Index for August 2nd boasted: West Liberty’s Greatest Fair" "Veteran ticket men say Wednesday was the best in point of attendance since the late 1920's"

The Power Elephants performed on the track. When was the last time you saw elephants at our fair?

1941, August 18-21

Come to the Fair, All Your Friends Will Be There!

The usual car caravan visited area communities all over the place. A new twist this time, the inclusion of local entertainers: Dwight Passmore on the guitar; Forrest Hinkhouse, batonist (have you ever known a male batonist?); Richard Wolters, trumpeter; Marilyn Wuestenberg, vocalist and dancer and Gene Benson, baritone.

The Muscatine County 4-H boys held a kittenball competition. There were the usual horse races, and Sandy Lyle juggling in a Scotch costume.

That's all for now folks. We have gone to fifteen West Liberty Fairs over a 26 year period from 1916-42. Next time, the past 75 years as we examine highlights and the headline entertainers bought in to maintain the good attendance.
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