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100 Years of Homecomers: Changes and constants
Editors note: This is the second in a three-part series leading up to Tuesday's opening of Jackson Homecomers, which turns 100 this year.
Ruby Conrad never did get a crown.
They didn't give those out in 1935, but the diamond ring she received -- the one she still has -- is a symbol of her title as the first Jackson Homecomers queen.
"I didn't get a crown, because if I'd have got a crown I'd have had it," Conrad said. "I'd have it now."
Nineteen contestants lined the stage for the queen competition that August afternoon. A hat full of small capsules was sent down the line, and everybody grabbed one. A blank piece of paper was inside each, except for Conrad's, which had the winning "queen" written on it.
It was also luck that brought the 19-year-old, who went by Isabelle Johnson then, to the courthouse stage that day. She grew up on a farm in the small community of Gravel Hill, Mo., but the family's mailing address was in Burfordville. Her father didn't drive, so it was Isabelle who brought their Chevrolet into Pete Holmes' garage in Burfordville one afternoon. The original queen contest looked for nominees from business owners in the surrounding communities.
"I went in there to have something done to the car, and then the person come in there and asked him who he would recommend," Conrad said. "Of course, I had just been in there, so he put my name in."
Contemporary contests are run a bit differently. Winners are selected by a panel of judges, based on interview questions and on-stage modeling of casual and evening clothing, according to the entry form.
The Homecomers queen contest isn't the only thing that's changed since the first festival 100 years ago. The idea for a countywide "homecoming" celebration came from Edward Hays, an area lawyer and politician, according to Jackson Heritage Association archivist Cathi Stoverink.
A poster advertising the 1908 gathering declared it "the greatest event Southeast Missouri will witness." Gov. Joseph Folk topped the list of politicians who gave public addresses during the three-day September event. The festival kicked off at 8 a.m. the first day by the ringing of bells and whistles across Jackson, according to Stoverink's research. The courthouse bell will ring again to mark the opening of the 2008 centennial.
Homecomers has been moved back over the years to accommodate families. Festivities used to run throughout the day, but since the 1980s have been held primarily in the evening hours. It has also been pushed back earlier in the year from September to August to July.
"I can remember a couple of times when it coincided with the first week of school," said Jackson Mayor Barbara Lohr. "There was absolutely no way a parent could not take their kid to Homecomers. And then they had to get up the next day and go to school."
The local entertainment has also evolved over the past century. Gone are the days of Bosco the snake eater and Zona, Queen of Reptiles. The high-wire and trapeze acts are no more. But the carnival rides are still there, and the bands still play.
"They had a lot more rides and shows and things than what they do now," Conrad said.
Visitors to the 2008 Homecomers, which runs Tuesday to Saturday this week, can also purchase a variety of historic photographs and souvenirs at the Willer Building on West Main Street, commonly known as the building with a horse in the window. Stoverink's official program, featuring a 24-page history of Homecomers, the county and the courthouse, will also be on sale.
The centennial Homecomers is being dedicated to Marybeth Williams, former director of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. Williams, described as instrumental in preparing for the event, died from pneumonia in April.
The event itself has not been an absolute constant. World Wars I and II halted the festival for several years, and it was held off and on in the 1920s. Yet for all that time, some things remain the same.
"We still bring lawn chairs and sit over there on the courthouse square," said Lohr, who moved to Jackson 46 years ago. "And that was there the first time, and that part hasn't changed."
Most of the previous Homecomers queens have been located and invited to attend the centennial. Those in attendance will be recognized Saturday evening shortly before a rededication of the county courthouse.
As for Ruby Conrad, now 92, she said she doesn't have any advice for the 2008 Homecomers queen. She never entered another beauty contest. Her children recently had the diamond ring reset, and her pink dress and red hair are just a memory now. And even if she had gotten a crown, it still wouldn't be something everyone would know about.
"I never did make a habit of going around telling," she said.
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