Sedgwick County Fair marks its 75th edition

By Travis Mounts
Times-Sentinel Newspapers

This summer, fairgoers will help celebrate the 75th Sedgwick County Fair. It’s a historic milestone for an event with roots in the 1940s.

The first Sedgwick County Fair was held in October 1940. Now, we know what you’re thinking – there are more than 75 years between 1940 and 2019.

That’s true, but World War II led to cancellation of many events across this great nation. That includes a four-year gap for the Sedgwick County Fair, starting in 1940.

The Sept. 25, 1941, Cheney Sentinel promotes the upcoming Sedgwick County Fair. It was the second iteration of the event. The current run of 75 Fairs started in October 1940. After just two years, however, the Fair was cancelled for four straight years during World War II. Therefore, the 75 Fairs have been held over the course of 79 years.

The Sedgwick County Fair has always been located in Cheney, and had its roots in the old Cheney Fall Fair.

The 1940 archive of the Cheney Sentinel, from the first year of the Fair, could not be located.

However, the Sept. 25, 1941, edition ran a headline stating “County fair, horse show big event here next week.”

It read, in part: “The first big event of the Second Annual Sedgwick County Fair will be the parade at 11 o’clock Thursday morning, Oct. 5. Included in this display will be the floats of business houses, civic organizations, schools and school bands…

“The attraction of Thursday afternoon will be the free football games between Cheney and Milton which will be called at 2:30 p.m.

“Thursday night the bands of the 13 high schools in the county have been invited to participate in a giant concert. This free entertainment begins at 7:30 p.m.”

That year’s line-up also included midget auto races on Friday, with an admission of 40 cents plus 5 cents tax, and all school children were admitted for 15 cents. The Beacon entertainers also performed Friday.

Saturday included a horse show, with an admission of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for high school students.

The following year, in 1942, organizers decided to not hold the Fair. Nine months earlier, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, and quickly the United State was embroiled in a war on two different fronts. The Fair did not resume until 1946, after World War II came to an end.

In 1969, the Sedgwick County Fair marked its 25th edition. The Aug. 14, 1969, edition of the Sentinel previewed the event. The fair began on Thursday with the parade at 11 a.m. Dean Harding directed, and judging began following the parade.

A scene from the early days of the Sedgwick County Fair. Many events were housed under tents. The photo appears to be from the crows nest that currently sits at the back of the Open Air Stage. In the upper left is the metal structure now known as commercial building No. 2.
Souders Historical Museum

Free entertainment at the outdoor arena that night included music from Cheney Public Schools under the direction of Howard T. Oliphant. The Cheney High twirlers were Marcia Branine, Karen Dieffenbacher, Janice Hillman, Kim Compton, Debby Naasz and Margareta Kohler. Connie Hinnen played piano, and singers included Rochelle Butler, Debby Alexander, Kristi Dewey, Peggy Robbins and Roger Brown.

Another milestone moment for the Sedgwick County Fair was when it merged with the Sedgwick County 4-H Fair. The 4-H Fair had taken place for years at the corner of Central and Tyler but needed a new home after that land was sold. The first post-merger Fair was held July 13-17, 1993.

“It’s a natural marriage,” said John Mies in 1993, who was treasurer and resident agent for the Fair at the time. The consolidation was expected to bring as many as 4,000 new patrons to Cheney.

“The way we feel it will enhance the 4-H part of the Fair is, it gives an opportunity for the 4-Hers to display their talents in these areas to a larger audience,” said Extension agent Eric Otte. “More people will be exposed to what 4-H has to offer.”

In preparation for the change, a new 6,000 square-foot building was constructed. It is known today as the Farm Bureau Building, and it hosts public and private events all year. The show pavilion from the old 4-H property was reconstructed and placed south and east of the cattle shed, according to the 1993 Sedgwick County Fair Guide, produced by Times-Sentinel Newspapers.

“This is going to be a real opportunity for families and kids to have a lot of fun,” Mies said in 1993. “Our goal has always been to be diverse enough to have something for everybody.”


The Fair’s ‘First Family’


Editor’s note: This story appeared in the 1994 Sedgwick County Fair Guide, when the Fair celebrated “50 Golden Years.”

By Jeff Adkins
Times-Sentinel Newspapers

Floyd and Norma Souders on the golf cart at their historical museum.

It may have looked like just another building for anyone driving south on Main Street in Cheney, but to Floyd Souders it was a grand palace.

The Cheney Fair Building represented a starting point in 1939 for Souders and the organizers of the Sedgwick County Fair. No one needed to tell Souders  of the long road that lay ahead in the coming months and years. However, this strong 36-foot by 80-foot iron structure certainly provided the foundation for continued growth.

“That’s where we held the last Cheney Fall Fair in 1939,” Souders said. “From that point on, we planned to have that building become the home of the fair.”

Of course, the fair eventually outgrew the building.

Today, the Sedgwick County Fair is held on 20 acres of land that houses more than 20 permanent buildings. The current fair administration will need every inch of that space to accommodate nearly 30,000 patrons, including almost every 4-H family in the county.

Those figures are staggering to Floyd and Norma Souders, who will always be regarded as the First Family of the Sedgwick County Fair.

“We weren’t really sure how much it was going to grow,” said Norma Souders, who hopes to attend the 50th anniversary of the Fair July 13-16.

“We just tried to improve each year over the previous year.”

The hardest part was getting the project off the ground in 1939.

Sentiment had been growing among the county’s agricultural leaders for the fair to be redeveloped. Sedgwick County had not held a fair in several years, but the idea was appealing to livestock breeders, who needed an outlet to show their livestock and prepare for the State fair.

Farmers were just coming out of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. They needed an event to rally around, something that would unite the county’s agricultural community.

“It was needed to promote agriculture in every community,” said Norma Souders. “The State Board of Agriculture wanted farmers to go to a county fair before they went to the State fair.

A delegation was assembled in February 1939 in Cheney, where the first modern day Sedgwick County Fair Association was assembled.

Cheney was a logical site for the Fair. The city had a good track record for such events. Each year, Cheney had held a Fall Festival, which was well received by the people who lived in town, said Norma.

Leaders in Cheney also were enthusiastic about the idea. The Chamber of Commerce volunteered to erect a fair building in the city park. In April 1939, voters of the city passed a bond issue of $1,200 to erect a fair building in the city park.

“We had been pushing for that for some time,” said Floyd. “The livestock people at that time really needed a county fair. I think it really was a cooperative effort between these townships and the people of Cheney.”

Floyd Souders always held the interest of the farm family close to his heart.

He grew up on farm land in Kansas and continued to work the land from his Cheney home.

“Farming is all he has done since he was 16,” Norma said. “He’s still a farmer.”

Souders would also have a great impact on Cheney in other ways. He served a long term as the school district’s superintendent. He ran the town newspaper, the Cheney Sentinel, for nearly four decades, and served a term in the Kansas House of Representative.

Souders would use all of his connections to help build the Fair into a special event. A friend hooked him up with Harry Peoples, a popular country booking agent, who would supply the Fair with Minnie Pearl and other country acts.

The Cheney Fair Building was completed in October 1939, just in time for the final Cheney Fair.

Workers construct the first building on the Sedgwick County Fairgrounds in 1939.
Souders Historical Museum

According to newspaper reports, the Hon. Frank Ryniker, mayor of Cheney, spoke on the location of Cheney “as a logical site for the Sedgwick County Fair.”

He pointed out that the local fair had grown from a one-room affair held in a downtown store building to the present, and that “we could point with pride to the new building as a permanent home of the (Sedgwick County) Fair.”

The next year, organizers gained approval from the State Board of Agriculture to hold the Fair. The first Sedgwick County Fair was held Oct. 2-4, 1940.

Entertainment included a carnival, horse show, music from the Beacon Entertainers, and a Tiny Tot Revue Show.

“Little kids would dress up and walk up on the platform representing different things,” Norma said. “Everyone in the community loved it. I can remember them very well.”

A parade attracted 3,000 people. The local newspaper reported that the crowds were believed to be the largest ever in Cheney. The Fair was on its way.

“When you do something like this, it doesn’t seem like work,” said Floyd. “You do something like this because it’s fun to do.”