Wapsie Experience (8/10/17)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, August 9, 2017
This will be part two of a one hundred year look at the West Liberty Fair, later known as the Muscatine County Fair. Last time we examined the years 1916-42.

This time we will go through 28 fairs, 25 of them in the month of August and three in the month of July from 1943 to 1985. The third and last part of this series will come in September and will cover 1987 to the present, or the last thirty years.

1943, August 23-26

A front page Index headline for July 29 featured the following: "Horse Show At The Fair." Also the rumor "that the Fair was off because of the soldiers and prisoners quartered here."

Regular readers will recall that in a 2016 column, I mentioned that Italian prisoners of war, brought in by train for detasseling, were bunked under the amphitheater grandstand. No need to worry folks; higher up on the front page with the use of a very large font it read "ALL UNTRUE, THE FAIR WILL BE HELD AUGUST 23-26, 1943"

The horse show featured five classes: three-gaited open, ladies three-gaited, five-gaited open, and fine harness Pleasure classes as well as a show of Shetland ponies. (Personally, I don't know a three gaited from five-gaited. How about you?)

This year audiences were thrilled by "The Great Rousse" said to be the world's finest illusionist.

Wednesday was the biggest day of the fair; "some 16,000 people or more which is a throng anywhere." This attendance set a record. The only exception was the 1919 crowd which was apparently the all-time record.

1944, August 21-24

With the successful D-DAY invasion of France only eleven weeks earlier, fair-goers were optimistic about the war's final end. The August 24th paper announced" "Crowds Enjoy the Great Fair" "From near the 9:30 mark in the morning for several hours the jammed procession of cars clear past the business district was never broken."

An unofficial checkup placed the afternoon crowd at 20,000 people with many more thousands coming in during the evening." The West Liberty Fair is still THE fair. Everett Richards was Fair President, assisted by Jay Duncan as secretary.

1945, August 20-23

Vaudeville type acts returned to dominate the entertainment. The ROMIG ROONEY TROUPE consisted of six family members in four different acts. There was a comedy act with four horses, a dog act and mule act for the kids.

Another act was described as follows" "he ascends to the top of the grandstand, walking up on a rope, and from there makes a slide of one hundred and fifty feet with nothing to support him.”

There was a horse pulling contest on Tuesday (whatever that involved escapes me ). That year 1,600 more seats were installed. Just five days before the opening of this fair, the Index proclaimed in a huge headline; "THE WAR ENDS, World At Peace"

Wednesday, August 22, 1945 was a historic day as it was "the biggest day ever... a conservative estimate places the attendance as between 25,000 and 30,000 people day and night and that's a lot of people." The fact that the huge crowd at times barely moved because of the jam seemed to make no difference and all had a whale of a time!"

1946, August 19-22

A number of buildings on the grounds received a fresh coat of paint. A new act, "Minnie Rooney and the Playmates" actually performed in the buff! However, they were eight canines of mixed breeds so no one took offense. The Index reviewer stated: "they keep the audience convulsed with laughter; they do somersaults, waltzes and hind and front leg walking."

There was a huge fireworks display the last night. A firm from Chicago, said to be the largest producers of fireworks in the world, was in charge. The very same company produced the fireworks at the New York's World's Fair in 1939 and they were now in West Liberty, igniting a mammoth American flag shaped display was the signal for the grand finale of the show.

1947, August 18-21

The biggest news this year was the Fair was going to build new box seats, 170 of them, for the 1948 fair. The seats were sold for five years occupancy while they lasted, the cost was $50.

W. G. Eichenauer, Fred Steen, Fedale McIntosh, G. William Smith and Everett Phelps were in charge of sales. A new community slogan was announced: WEST LIBERTY; A CENTER OF CULTURE AND AGRICULTURE. Dr. W. B. Jayne's entry was picked out of 107 entries.

There was increasing media coverage this year as radio station KWPC broadcast daily and the Muscatine Journal sent out many wire photos.

Something new for the kids was launched; “A new outdoor waterfowl pool has been constructed and there will be 26 kinds of geese and 30 kinds of ducks." (Wonder when that disappeared?) Also good news for the pigs as the hog wash platform was doubled in size!

No less than seventy-eight loads of cinders were put all over the grounds. Old crank case oil was also used to cut down dust thanks to Cline Implement Co. and Brooke Oil Co. (70 years later two Rotarians, descendants of Clare Brooke and Hubert Cline, were still helping out at the fair by selling turkey tenderloins!)

The weather this year seemed to mirror 2017; "although the temperature was at 100 or better each day, and humanity took an awful beating; everyone came back for more each day and all enjoyed themselves."

On Monday 4,000 saw the Society Horse Show, on Wednesday afternoon 10,000 came and by the evening the grandstands were packed with 16,000 souls.

1948, August 23-26

Wayne Grunder and his men constructed the new box seats which were ready. There were band concerts presented by groups from Wilton and Columbus Junction. There was dancing each night sponsored by the American Legion.

The main act was Ethel and Arden billed as "the Silver Cyclones" who were said to be America's fastest roller skating act. They had been clocked at 60 miles per hour while spinning on an 8 foot by 8 foot mat.

1951, August 20-23

For the first time ever Dewey Jontz and his Sheep Dog act appeared, never to return. What happened? Local resident, Hub Elder and his horse riding class presented a show.

Hess Rides of Davenport offered the young ones the Kiddie Auto Ride, the Kiddie Train and a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. Thrill Day starred Joie Chitwood and his Dare Devils in the afternoon and evening with 8,000 patrons present.

One of the speeding thrill cars went partially out of control and struck the fence south of the grandstand. In the surge of people, many moving back from the fence when a crash seemed evident. Mrs. Arnold Mullink Sr. was knocked to the ground and suffered a fractured hip.

As an added feature on Thursday, the Illinois City Drill Team put on two performances: "Astride beautiful horses and wearing bright gold and blue uniforms they produced a sight which will long be remembered,” read the Index.

1952, August 18-21

One highlight (highlight?) of this fair was the famous CURTISS CANDY SIX PONY HITCH. Harness racing continued to be popular in the 1950s as it had been before the turn of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the SWENSON THRILLCADE featured a man riding on the hood of his car through a flaming plank wall!

1955, August 22-25

The biggest act this year was WARD BEAM and his INTERNATIONAL AUTO DARE DEVIL RIDERS. Another act of note was Betty and Benny Fox who were Sky Dancers. Fresh from Chicago, they performed their DANCE Of DEATH stunt on the 40th floor of the Morrison Hotel in the south Loop, five hundred ten feet in the air on a perch only 18 inches in diameter.

1957, August 19-23

From the Index front page: "Extraordinary Attractions are Contracted for the 1957 West Liberty Fair.”

Tuesday's headliner was Preston Foster, Cap'n John of TV’s "Waterfront" series. Wednesday’s act was from the television show "Sagebrush.” Then there was a western stage show with Tex Ritter (1905-1974). He was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. How many remember him singing the theme song from "High Noon" that won the Oscar for the Best Song of the Year in 1953?

Also in the cast was Smiley Burnette (1911-67) the comic sidekick of Gene Autry in several Western musicals, his stage name was "Frog Millhouse." He appeared in 40 singing cowboy movies (I missed them all). Recall also that Tex Ritter was the father of John Ritter, star of the television show "Three's Company."

1958, August 17-20

This was the 96th Fair with Ken Jehle as Fair Secretary. Tickets to the amphitheater only cost $3.

Readers should note the beginning of the appearances of nationally known entertainment acts with backgrounds in television, including the Grand Old Opry, gospel, country and western scene.

The Red Foley Ozark Jubilee Show took the stage; it starred Foley along with "Flash" Whistler and Smokey Smith and his band. On Saturday night Ted Weems and his orchestra entertained and showcased The Four Preps.

I will be giving you bits of information about these big name entertainers of the day who came to West Liberty. Red Foley (1910-68) made a major contribution to the growth of country music after World War II. In 1951, his hit song, "Peace in the Valley" was among the first million selling records in gospel music. Red sold over 25 million records. The very last song he ever sang was in his last performance, it was "Peace in the Valley" at a Fort Wayne, Indiana concert. He died in his sleep that night.

Smokey Smith (1922-2014) was so named because he puffed on a cigar all the time. He was an Iowan, a recording artist and a ballroom singer. He was a very early inductee of the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A book, "The Legendary Life of Iowa's Mr. Country Music" has been written about him. Wanda Jackson, another West Liberty Fair entertainer, described him as “kind of a Santa Claus figure with a cigar."

Ted Weems (1901-63) was a noted band leader and musician known for two hits: "Heartaches" and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now."

1959, August 17-21

Headliners were the Duke of Paducah and the Jimmy Dickens Show. There was also a rollercade stage show.

Some additions to the grounds this year: some thousand feet of water pipe was laid as replacements and new extensions to the boys 4-H dormitory. Also a new stock wash rack was added. Some 900 feet of 6 and 8 inch pipe was laid to better drain the center portion of the grounds in case of heavy rain.

This year there was a relentless heat wave with high 90's temperatures.Also, a very high number of animals were being shown: 167 Baby Beeves, 45 Beef Heifers, 65 Dairy Heifers, 148 Pigs and 62 Market Lambs.

1962, August 18-22

This was the Centennial Fair. Fair Queen candidates were: Faye Phelps, Ann Hinkhouse, Betty Lou Barclay, Mary Ballou, Suzanne Townsley and Ann Wathan. And the winner was FAYE PHELPS and her escort, one Jim Petersen. She won a $200 U.S. Savings bond, a lot of money in those days.

There was a lively Old Fiddler's contest one evening. (Are there enough fiddlers around to do that today?)

Another night a Centennial Hoedown with music by Leo Greco (1921-2011) and

the Pioneers took place. The Pioneers appeared frequently in ballrooms in a 10-state area in the Midwest. For 37 years Leo Greco was a fixture on WMT radio in Cedar Rapids on Sunday morning. Did you ever give him pop can tabs for Camp Courageous?

1963, August 17-21

This year who will ever forget CHAI and SOMANY, Chinese acrobats who did a head dive through a wall of daggers!

Big-time acts included Karry "King" Cole, a comedian and Ernest Tubbs and his Texas Troubadours.  The Harmonicats replaced Johnny Puleo and the Hanover Gang who were injured in an accident in Chicago a few days before. Myron Floren of the Lawrence Welk Show and a master accordion player headlined Muscatine Day.

A local girl, Judy Rockwell teamed up with Mr. Floren in a crowd pleasing duet. Judy won the talent show competition and won a trip to New York City and $100 in cash.

1964, August 15-19

The Browning family, which included the parents, eight children, a Hammond organ, three marimbas, 35 other musical instruments and a 10-piece band were crowd favorites.

1965, August 14-18

The Red Foley Show was back.The Teen Show highlighted: Al Huntzinger and the Untouchables (a member of the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), The Cressmen, and Jeff Petrue and the Countdowns.

1966, August 13-17

A rising star appeared for the first time, Kitty Wells (1919-2012) of the Grand Old Opry. She was a Decca recording artist and "The Queen of Country Music." For ten consecutive years she was the top female recording artist. Her big hit tune was "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." Her show played to an overflow crowd (Somehow I missed that one)!

Appearing with her was Johnny Wright and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. I should mention that Johnny (1914-2011) was Kitty's husband. He and Kitty played live shows through 2007. His hit tune was "Walkin Talkin Cryin Barely Beatin Broken Heart.” He passed 33 days before their 74th wedding anniversary. Joining them was Bill Phillips, who recorded "TV Blues Are Setting In.” As if that wasn't enough "country,” Ric recording star Ruby Wright sang Sunday night.

United States Senator Jack Miller was an honored guest at the Fair.

1967, August 12-16

Grand Old Opry performer Minnie Pearl (1912-96) drew an overflow crowd on Sunday night. Performing with her was Pee Wee King's Country Western Au Go Go. This fair had ideal weather. The tractor pull this year had 50 entries (How does that compare to this year’s?).

1968  August 10-14

This year the fair was billed as "Iowa's Little State Fair.” Stage performers included the Duke of Paducah, Western Caravan with Gary Van, Jean Valli and Justin Tuff.

The Fair Queen was my beautiful cousin, Julie Ruess Penno. Schools opened on Sept. 3. The Rotary Club of West Liberty had their first chicken barbecue. This October will be the 50th anniversary of an endeavor that has benefited the whole community.

1969, August 9-13

The triumphal return of Kitty Wells, her husband and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. At this point Kitty had been on a radio show for 43 years.

1971, August 14-18

Another beautiful cousin, Merry Sue Ruess is Fair Queen. The five day event was named "The Frosty DeForest Fair" as he had been Secretary from 1960-71. Music in the grandstand included Leroy Van Dyke in his Country and Western Show and the return of the ever-popular Harmonicats.

1972, August 11-16

A sixth day was added to the fair. The Stan Gunn Show and The Prophets entertained fairgoers. As if that wasn't enough "country" one could attend performances that year of the Dottie West Country Western Show with Dottie and Rex Allen and "Red" Sorne.

1973, August 10-15

Stan Gunn returned to the fair along with his brothers Elmo and Leon. The Blackwood Singers, hosts of a syndicated Gospel singers television show performed too.

There were extensive motorcycle races with no less than 90 top motorcycle professionals racing. Competitors came from 8 states to compete in 15 different races. Many of the bikes were worth as much as $4,000. There were two rodeo events that year.

1974, August 9-14

Grandpa Jones (1913-98), star of the television show "Hee Haw" came to the fair. He played the guitar, the banjo, yodeled and sang mostly old-time ballads. Festus "the stubble-faced rascal" played by Ken Curtiss of the television Western "Gunsmoke” performed.

Iowa Governor Robert Ray was Honorary Grand Marshal of this year's Fair Parade. It was reported that 90 nationally known cowboys took part in our rodeo.

1975, August 8-13

"Bobby and Cissy To Appear,” Bobby Burgess and Cissy King dancers on the Lawrence Welk Show came to West Liberty. He was an original Mouseketeer in Walt Disney's Micky Mouse Club. Tom Brooke recalled that they were guests at the Brooke-family owned motel on Intestate-80. Appearing that year was a Gospel group The Challengers.

Greyhound dog races were held and a welcomed return of harness races was enjoyed.

1977, July 27-31

Yes, in JULY!

Billy "Crash” Craddock gave a four-star performance. He had enjoyed a string of country hits including: "Ruby Baby" and "Knock Three Times" "Flash" Cadillac and the Continental Kids came too. A reviewer from Rolling Stone praised him as follows: "the best rock and roll stage set I've ever seen." Kind of a Sha Na Na imitator.

This was a very big year as Conway Twitty (1933-93) and his band, the Twitty Birds came to town also. The song, "Hello Darlin" brought him a gold record. A side note, I had a brief encounter with Conway at the Danceland Ballroom in Cedar Rapids where he was appearing. As I climbed the stairs to the second floor of this happening place, he and his outstanding pompadour hairdo was coming down the stairs. History does not record what was said on this occasion.

Enter Crystal Gayle, the Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1975 who had been on Hee Haw. She had 9 records on the charts including the hit: "I Cried the Blue Right Out of My Eyes." She was the sister of Loretta Lynn. Crystal was the youngest of 10 children in a poor coal-mining family in West Virginia. Later she became famous for "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue."

1981, July 22-27

No less than fifteen candidates for Fair Queen. The Joie Chitwood Dare Devils again. (I'm tired of them, how about you dear reader?)

This had to be a peak year for the West Liberty Fair in landing top talent as on three different evenings one could go south on Calhoun Street, turn right, park the car and hear Emmeylou Harris, next night, Marty Robbins, and finally Jerry Reed (I was in Chicago, so I missed all this talent).

That year I also missed the Fair Parade on Sunday and the much talked about appearance of the Buffalo Gap, South Dakota "Marching Bisonettes.” The group marched under the able direction of Col. Phinias T. Wesoundawful. The previous year they had been forced to march after the horses, this year they were placed ahead of them.

1982, July 21-25

Three big stars again: Eddie Rabbitt, Louise Mandrell and Boxcar Willie.

1984, August 8-12

Nineteen girls vying for Fair Queen. Kendra Howard, local girl, was the winner. Headliners were Mel Tillis, a country music super star along with Jaime Fricke, female vocalist of the year.

1985, August 7-11

A VERY SPECIAL YEAR! Ann Greazel of Atalissa was the Fair Queen.

Quoting the Index: "thanks to nearly perfect weather and record breaking attendance figures, the 133rd Fair is likely to finish up in the black, something which hasn't happened in many years."

Fair Secretary Ruthetta Smith reported "the Statler Brothers Show on Saturday night broke single day attendance records that were set back in the 1970's by the appearance of country western singer, Loretta Lynn."

Attendance for the two Statler performances topped 5,600 nearly filling the amphitheater, box seats and a 1,000 chairs were set up on the track for each performance.

Were the Statler Brother's two performances the high water mark for West Liberty fair talent and attendance? Come back in September as we trace the last 30 years from 1988-2017.
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