District fair tradition continues

Sunday, February 19, 2006

To area residents, it's simply "the fair."

It's the Southeast Missouri District Fair, the oldest continuous fair in existence in Missouri, and for more than a century it has delighted both young and old.

The fair will be 151 years old when it opens later this year.

The fair has proven so successful that the Missouri Association of Fairs and Festivals, which represents the major fairs in the state, held its annual meeting here during last year's fair.

Though the look of the fair has changed over the years, along with Cape Girardeau, it is still rooted in the tradition of the fall harvest -- the showing of the plumpest pumpkins, the best baked goods and the sturdiest steers.

The early example was set by the Berkshire Agricultural Society, which was formed in the best methods of seed selection, crop rotation, animal breeding and the use of fertilizer. The idea was soon copied by states, districts, counties and townships until, in the period following the Civil War, there existed more than 1,200 such societies.

The Missouri Legislature created the Southeast District Agricultural Society in 1855, appropriating $3,000 for the first fair here.

It was held in the woods in an area which is now South Frederick Street.

Popular attraction

Horse racing drew so many people that it soon became the featured attraction. Since there was no track, the horses simply sprinted across a field.

The Civil War subsequently brought a halt to the fair as federal troops took over the fairgrounds as an encampment and razed the buildings.

In 1870, the fair was revived on a 150-acre tract south of Gordonville Road and west of Kingshighway, where it remained almost to the turn of the century.

Premiums were offered for the best entries of fruits, vegetables, livestock and poultry, rugs, needlework, paintings, wine and whiskey, carriages and saddlery, shoes, agricultural implements, furniture and stoves.

The fair experienced a number of problems. It was practically taken over by sheep raisers and horse racing. Worst of all, it was inaccessible to pedestrians and there was no public transportation. The land was sold to the Blattner family when the fair association went bankrupt in 1897.

A new association was formed in 1900 and 40 acres of land, where Capaha Park is now located, was purchased for $2,000. At that time, the fairgrounds were located west of the Cape Girardeau city limits.

A grandstand was built along with a pavilion called Flora Hall for the display of flowers, crafts and baked goods. A pond was excavated and a sulky track built around it.

At the 1904 fair here, the most popular show was Nebraska Bill's Wild West and Trained Bronco Show featuring the marksmanship of Nebraska Bill and a quadruple amputee named William La Rue, a veteran of the Sioux uprising.

Other shows were in Oriental theater, an Eskimo village displaying items from Alaska, a Chinese palace with "Ping-Pong girls" and a plantation minstrel side show.

The Missourian reported on Oct. 12, 1904, that "a motley crowd of tellers, palmists, balloon peddlers and grafters are encamped around the fairground."

The Missourian reported the exploits of a "pacing ostrich" at the 1909 fair. The ostrich pulled a sulky for half a mile. "Moving pictures of Dr. Cook's discovery of North Pole are exhibited in tent," the newspaper pointed out.

In 1913, parachute jumper Sky High Irving gave people an extra thrill when he landed in the pond at the fairgrounds.

In 1914, the fair association sold its interest in Capaha Park to the city, but continued to hold the annual event there until 1929 when the Depression forced the cancellation of the fair.

In 1939, a new fairgrounds was established on 47.5 acres of land at what is now known as Arena Park.

The Arena Building, a project of the WPA, was completed in January 1940 and the fair was revived in September of that year.

It was again canceled in 1942 and 1943 because of World War II.

In the early 1900s, price admission was 25 cents. Today, the price of admission is $1 for adults with free admission for children under 12 years of age.

Over the years, the fair association has grown to where it now has about 500 members and its annual budget is now more than $400,000.

But through all the years and all the changes, the fair still retains its excitement for young and old -- a rich fall tradition which has become as much a part of Cape Girardeau as the Mississippi River.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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