Before starting this most recent vignette about an event that was a significant part of our lives growing up, I looked for a little background on the Boone County Fair. Not having the time to research deeply, all I could find was that it dates to 1835. But even this small bit of information is substantial, making it one of the oldest fairs around, having been created only a generation or so after Missouri came out of the woods and made itself a state.
County Fairs, back when they touched most all Americans, were a reflection the area and the people that attended and supported them. They were our nation in microcosm—a mixture of showing off what we were, and what sustained us as we got together, ate too much, and took rides on machines that whirled us around or took us in circles, enthralling us (and sometimes making us sick to our stomachs.)
The memories we took from them were overall, nice ones. Here is a little of what I remember of our own fair, going back to the late 1940’s and forward into the early 1950’s.
When I was on the young side of grade school, the western city limit of our town was a fairly straight north/south concrete strip called West Boulevard. Emerging from a four-way intersection with Highway 40 (now called “Business Loop 70” after the newest boy on the block) and skimming south through the west side of town, it more or less terminated as it disintegrated from concrete to blacktop to gravel, petering out somewhere southwest of what is now the intersection of Chapel Hill and Fairview Roads.
And as I remember, the Boone County Fair was held, if only for a few years, in a vacant lot on the west side or the road in the far north end of West Boulevard.
Moving from there shortly after the end of World War II, the Fair spent many successful years at the northwest corner of Clinkscales Road and West Ash Streets. Anchored by an attractive and permanent horse show arena tucked in right at the corner, the fair was a popular venue, coming at us in mid-to late August (back in the days when school began in early September) and running around five days.
(And though it had yet to play into our lives, just adjacent, on the southeast corner of this intersection, was a bar/restaurant called appropriately, “The Saddle Club.”)
On the fairgrounds proper there were also permanent barn-like structures on the property, with pens to hold show animals, cared for by young farmers-in-the-making, who usually slept on the ground next to their prize creatures, after a day of combing, brushing and cleaning their animals in hopes of winning a blue ribbon.
Anyone attending the Boone County Fair in those days also had an opportunity to look over the many examples of foods, from basic to exotic pies to canned fruits and vegetables. You were given many chances to actually sample some of these goodies, especially the world-renowned Boone County Ham, the main entrée served at the “Ham Breakfast” that marked the official launch of each year’s fair.
As young teenagers, it provided kids from the high schools across our town the chance to mingle—for in those days there were few other opportunities to interact outside their respective groups, unless they lived in the same neighborhood together, or played in one of the city’s summer baseball leagues.
If you were not that interested in agriculture (though you appreciated it in a subconscious way) when we were about 14-15, and old enough to attend in small groups without being protected by doting parents, the carnival midway was the place to be.
Traveling carnival troupes in those days must have done a box office business; there weren’t that many of them, and demand for their services was high. They’d come into town under the cover of darkness, and overnight would construct a world of wonder on the grass common just beyond the horse show arena, animal pens, food displays and hamburger, hotdog and country ham venues.
Though those manning these businesses weren’t exactly polished professionals, we were enthralled at everything from the “games of skill” that hardly anyone could win, to the various rides—like the tilt-a-whirl, merry-go-round, and bumper cars, all highlighted by a good-sized Ferris Wheel.
In my early teenage years there were also at least two or three “side shows” up and running, featuring presentations that included everything from scantily-clad women (to which 14 year old boys need not apply as audience members) to human beings who were either misshapen, had hair growing where it shouldn’t be, or possessed a bizarre talent, like “eating” fire or sliding a long sword down their throats. Knowing that these shows were off limits, we still stood as close as could, in order to get a look at the “teasers” provided on the makeshift stages placed in front of a large tent, inside of which were held delicious mysteries, or so we thought.
Even though a little less than pure, the carnival was safe, with the rides having been inspected in advance by the city’s fire and policemen. Because there was little fear but lots of potential titillation, it was considered a great place to take a date, and many of us did.
I don’t have any statistics to prove it, but something tells me that a much greater percentage of the population of mid-Missouri in those days attended the fair than they do today. In this more innocent time, it provided a setting where kids and adults from all walks of life could come together and share a little sparkle on a soft summer night.
It’s sad that these times have passed into history; I think we’d all be a little better off today if we had an event like this we could indulge in each year when the dog days of summer rolled around. If nothing else, it could be an enormous stress-reliever, and much more fun than sitting on your living room sofa, texting someone.