80 years of fun at the Ozark Empire Fair

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The Ozark Empire Fair, shown in the 1950s, celebrates its 80th birthday in 2016. (Courtesy of the Piland Collection)

Summer moments, sweeter than any snow cone, have been celebrated by generations at the Ozark Empire Fair. Those snapshots are as unique as the people who recall them: Perhaps some remember their first drippy Pineapple Whip, or summer romance found on the ferris wheel. For others, winning that long-sought blue ribbon still brings smiles.

Whatever the reason, such memories should be celebrated — along with the fair itself. Because after decades of fun, farm life and funnel cakes, the Ozark Empire Fair is turning 80 years old.

Years of preparation

The Ozarks Empire District Free Fair was initially held in 1937, but it wasn’t the first fair seen in Springfield. Others had been held sporadically, but “none of them ever took root where they were,” says Cheryl Kepes, a local writer and historian about the Ozark Empire Fair. She notes that some of those previous fairs were held where Missouri State University is today – and in the 1890s, near the current fairgrounds. In those days, however, the area was known as Zoo Park.

“When in its glory, (Zoo Park) contained one of the best race tracks in the country,” reported the Springfield Leader in 1922, which also boasted several cottages, a hotel and a large zoo. It was such an attractive piece of land that the Springfield Park Board purchased it in 1922 for $23,000. At the time, they planned to add an 18-hole golf course, a camping site, and a zoo.

It also contained space that could be used for an annual fair. The idea was met with community support: In fact, on Oct. 23, 1922, the same newspaper reported that several local men had already obtained a lease for the land so they could hold such an event.

That plan, however, fell through. It was revived in 1929, just a few months before the onset of the Great Depression. That attempt also came to naught.

Springfield Leader and Press, Feb. 3, 1936

In the mid-1930s, however, things changed. “In the fall of 1935, when the works progress administration was in its beginning, projects were being sought — any sort of project so long as it would put men to work,” reported the Sunday News and Leader in 1937. “The park board submitted a blanket project for a fairgrounds, requesting $40,000 in federal funds.”

They were successful.

“An Ozarks District Fair, dream of city and county officials and civic leaders for several years, was definitely assured for Springfield today as a result of a $40,442 grant by WPA,” reported the Springfield Leader & Press on Feb. 3, 1936.

To say locals were pleased would be an understatement: “Merchants and civic leaders here were jubilant at news the project had been finally approved by WPA,” wrote the newspaper. “Their sentiments were summed up by John T. Woodruff, president of the Chamber of Commerce: ‘It’s certainly a good break for the city.'”

WPA work

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“The composite photograph and drawing shows the location of some of the buildings according to tentative plans. The grandstand is on the south side of the track. The camera is pointed down the home stretch.” — Sunday News and Leader, Feb. 9, 1936

According to the newspaper, the original agreement was that 120 WPA men would use five months to construct a new grandstand, a stable for race horses with 40 stalls, an agricultural and horticultural building, a fine arts building, a dining room, an automobile and machinery building and a livestock pavilion. That spring, a fair association began to lease the land, and a “mechanical and industrial” exhibit organization was formed to comply with statutes.

As the original timeline stretched, interest waned. By the spring of 1937, however, enthusiasm began to grow as work on the grandstand progressed. But there was still a challenge: A need for $10,000 in premium money to pay prize-winning exhibitors. According to online calculators, that amount would equal more than $170,000 today.

But “doubt of some businessmen was replaced by determination,” reported the Sunday News and Leader. Instead of $10,000, the men decided to raise $12,000.

Perhaps their initiative was driven by a belief that the fair would economically boost the city. “(The) idea was to provide a place where the products of the Ozarks Empire might be displayed, where the counties of the district right compare notes, and where the younger folk might get education and inspiration which would enable them to produce better farm products and better livestock,” said the newspaper of the fair, which also bled a bit of emotion on its pages.

“When the gates swing open on October 10, it will be the realization of a dream for many people, for at last the Ozarks Empire will have a fair of her own.”

Getting ready

By today’s standards, it might seem odd to host a fair in the fall. And it likely wasn’t ideal back in 1937, either. But it’s what organizers had to work with, especially considering the need to secure funding — and the issue of time. “All the other fairs already had their dates set,” says Kepes. “So some people say it was pushed into October because they couldn’t fit it in (before).”

Work was hurried to get everything ready and just right for opening day on October 10. A newspaper reporter visited the fairgrounds the day before opening, and gave commentary on how things were shaping up. He mentioned Wanna Doss, a 13-year-old girl who was dropping off her canned goods for judging. There was a note of the newest ride on the midway, which “will be something fine for what ails your stomach.” And a comment about small boys who were trying to name all the presidents who had their portraits painted on the grandstand piers.

“They all got Washington and Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, but broke down after that,” the reporter wrote. “We looked up the fellow who painted them in the ‘Sign Painting Dep’t’ under the stand. He said he painted them all in three days. Some presidential portraits he copied from postage stamps. Washington, of course, came from a dollar bill.”

Opening day: Ozarks Empire District Free Fair

Fair Oct 10 1937

A special section was included in the Sunday News and Leader on the fair’s opening day.

That first year, the fair was open from 7 a.m. until midnight. Special bus routes departed from Springfield’s Public Square every five minutes, if not more often, to drive attendees to the fair. Admission was free, although it cost 25 cents per car to park — and tickets for the grandstand ranged from 35 cents to $1 for box seats.

The fair was so important to Springfield that it cancelled school on Wednesday and Friday afternoons so children could attend. Other local schools used the event as an excuse for class field trips, especially vocational subjects and home economics. A nursery was also available 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. for younger kids, which left “mother free to enjoy the fair, leaving the children in good hands.”

And the attractions, although not what are seen today, really aren’t fundamentally different.

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An MFA display at the fair, and its visitors, are shown in 1943. (Courtesy of The History Museum on the Square)

 Early exhibits featured livestock, gardening, canning, baking, knitting, quilting, as well as a “better babies” conference. There was also a show by Captain Frakes’ Death Fighters (dare-devil drivers), Station WLS’s National Barn Dance and Round-Up, auto races, horse races, grandstand attractions, a “Parade of Stars” (featuring acts “ranging from trained elephants to a ballet-extravanagnza and adagio dancing”) and a midway with 12 rides.

“It was just a sea of tents all over the place,” says Kepes, a comment which the newspaper took a step further.

“It will be easy to get lost on the roads and among the tents and buildings at the fair grounds, there are so many of them,” wrote the Springfield Leader & Press the day before the fair opened. “It would be a good idea to take a compass along, or use the huge white transits of the highway department exhibits as landmarks.”

In the end, the fair was a success. “They had 100,000 people during those seven days, which they thought was great for the very first one,” says Kepes.

Writing history

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Entertainment at the fair was different in 1938. “One of the high spots of this year’s Ozark Empire District Free Fair at Springfield September 11 to 19 will be Captain F.F. Frakes’ sensational stunt of crashing a speeding airplane into the side of a house.” — The Rolla Herald, Sept. 1, 1938

It would take a book to paint a complete picture of the fair since its start — so luckily, one now exists. In honor of the fair’s 80th birthday, Kepes was commissioned to compile a comprehensive history of the fair, which has materialized into a 176-page book containing more than 300 photos.

But to Kepes — who spent her childhood showing cattle at the fair — the project was more than just a book. “I grew up going to the Ozark Empire Fair, showing animals and cattle there, and I just have a lot of childhood memories there of making friends with other kids who were doing the same thing,” she says. “My children go to the fair now, my daughter shows her cattle there, so it just has a special place in my heart.”

One of the people interviewed for the book is 80-year-old Juliette Kissee, who began showing cattle at the Ozark Empire Fair in 4-H when she was 8 years old — and has attended every fair since then except one. “One year, polio was real bad,” says Kissee. “And I had my calf all ready to come to the fair and all, and my dad wouldn’t let me because they were telling all the parents that there were too many people there.”

Looking back at a lifetime of memories, the fair sticks out as a highlight for Kissee. “In my day, that was your summer thing you did,” she says. “That was your vacation. You went to the Ozark Empire Fair. Especially in the dairy people. That was about the only time they could leave your cattle or take a trip or anything.”

The event was one for fun — she mentions the romances made, the tree-covered picnic lunches, and the nights spent sleeping at the fairgrounds  — but it was also educational. “You know, everybody came to the fair, all the farm people, to see the new farm equipment that was out,” she says.

“It’s just a homey thing,” Kissee says. “It’s kind of like a family reunion, really.”

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Sunday News and Leader, May 18, 1941

By interviewing people such as Kissee, Kepes takes readers through the fair a decade at a time. She mentions bubble and fan dancer Sally Rand’s appearance in 1941 (although no one she interviewed admitted that they went to see the show, says Kepes), which even attracted folks from Rand’s native Hickory County. According to the Index, a newspaper for Hermitage, Mo., Rand’s kinsfolk held a picnic at the fairgrounds — and “many Hickory Countians were in the crowds which attended the show on these two nights.”

Through her research, Kepes found that the fair evolved with the world.

“It reflected the culture and the heritage and the times,” she says. “So during World War II, there was no auto racing because all the war effort was poured into building ammunition, vehicles and things for the war.”

She covers the mysterious destruction of the grandstand by fire — and in 1960, the torching of the Coliseum, a two-story building dating from the 1930s.

“The Coliseum was kind of the crown jewel for a long time at the fairgrounds,” says Kepes. Its blaze was so spectacular that it ultimately destroyed other barns as well — and attracted attention from miles around. “They knew something major was happening and so they followed the flames in the sky, the orange glow,” she says. “And it was to the fairgrounds.”

The young adults who torched it were caught just hours after the blaze began. “And they just did it for kicks,” says Kepes. “For fun.”


The fairground’s Coliseum is shown in the late 1950s (left) and during the fire that destroyed it. (Courtesy of the Greene County Archive)

Of course, the fair features far more happy memories than sad. There were the years of car racing, midway rides and Family Living (now Life & Art) exhibits. Memories of animal shows, grandstand performances, and the fair’s resurgence in the 1980s — leading to numerous years of record-breaking attendance — are also high points in the event’s history. And those memories live through the minds of longtime attendees.

Some of those familiar faces, however, aren’t simply individuals walking through the gate. Partnering businesses and organizations have continued to make the fair a success, such as the Lions Club Duck Pond, dating to 1948, and the 64 years of barbecue from Rudy’s Bar-B-Q. And one can’t forget Pineapple Whip, which was originally sold at the fair in the mid-1970s (and was developed by former fair manager Dan Fortner).

Duck pond

The Lions Club Duck Pond has been a staple at the fair since 1948 — but the first year, they used plastic fish instead of ducks because the latter couldn’t be found. (Courtesy of Cathy Claypole Carr)

The book was the brainchild of Aaron Owen, who has served as general manager of the Ozark Empire Fair since 2012. Owen grew up showing animals at the fair, and today strives to keep tradition alive — all while keeping up with the times. “We’re in a very competitive market,” says Owen. “(Most cities) don’t have two colleges putting on concerts, and a Branson 45 minutes away.”

Looking ahead


“Freak” and “girly” shows were common in the past — even in Springfield — and proven by signs sighted in this view from the 1950s. (Courtesy of the Piland Collection)

For Owen, labeling the fair a success is dependent on various factors, only one of which is money. Each year is a learning experience — and feedback is helpful, too, which he’s gotten from former fair managers Dan Fortner and Lewis Miller. “He critiques the ads he sees on TV and comes to the fair and gives me feedback,” says Owen of Miller. “He still tells me we need to have a free grandstand, and I say things have changed. We laugh about that.”

It’s undeniable that things have, indeed, changed. And with them, so has Springfield. “We’re not a big farming community anymore,” says Owen. “We’re an urban community.”

That change has altered the fair: These days, the majority of attendees don’t come to show off their livestock or display harvest from their gardens. But agriculture is still a focus. “It’s shifted in that they want to teach young kids about where their milk comes from, and how crops are grown, what an old tractor looks like,” says Kepes. “So it’s more about teaching and preserving that agricultural link rather than showcasing it because you’re a part of it.”

Want to buy a book (or attend the fair)?

“Memories in the Making” will be sold during the Ozark Empire Fair in the E*Plex.

Kepes’ book, “Memories in the Making: The History of the Ozark Empire Fair,” will be sold in the E*Plex throughout the fair and costs $29.95. After the fair is over, it will be available at PFI Western Store, Race Brothers and Somo Farm Supply.

All proceeds from the book benefit the Ozark Empire Fair Foundation, which helps promote local agricultural awareness.

The 80th annual Ozark Empire Fair runs from Thursday, July 28 until Saturday, August 6. For more information about admission and hours, visit the fairground’s website.