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History of Mid-West Fairs

The Circuit Riders Friend

by Mike Heffron

Several months ago, Norb Bartosik offered me the opportunity to examine the archives of the Mid-West Fairs Association before transferring those and other documents to his office in California.

The plan was simple: Fashion out of the minutes and other ancient documents a brief synopsis of the Association’s history for presentation at an upcoming meeting of the membership in Miami.

The object of the exercise was not so simple: Provide newer members insight into the peculiar, often misunderstood customs of the group and into its draconian rules.

Could the historical record of the Association explain these eccentricities?

Other Life Members were outspoken in the view that I had taken on a disagreeable assignment, more of a chore than an opportunity. At first, I was inclined to agree.

My tour through the musty archives of Mid-West was engaging. It quickly brought me to the realization that this was indeed an opportunity … an opportunity to learn, to share and to have a little fun.

The former First Lady of Topeka, Marie McKinney served as secretary-treasurer of Mid-West for over 30 years and spent what seemed like a lifetime guarding the vault (her basement) where all that bygone material was stored. It was transferred in the early 90’s to my vault (my basement) where it has resided ever since. And so, I began my search:

Mid-West Fairs began its life in the early 1920’s as the Middle-West Fair Circuit. Having neither charter nor bylaws, a small group of ten fairs banded together for the express purpose of creating a low budget travel plan for livestock exhibitors who wished to move animals from one Midwest fair to another between mid-August and mid-November.

Other functions may have been in effect or may have evolved later, but at the time of its formation, it would appear member fairs fabricated a sort of joint-powers agreement principally to build a convenient rail route for open class exhibitors.

Middle-West Fair Circuit was an apt title for this new entity. It describes the general location of the members and the type of enterprise to be conducted by those members. The world circuit defined the method by which it would function.

Between 1922 and 1929, the Circuit grew to 13 members located in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Membership was predicated on having proximate, but non-conflicting dates and a location on a connecting rail line. As early as 1922, the Circuit had a traffic manager located in Kansas City who negotiated rates and schedules for livestock exhibitors served by the Circuit.

Premium books from Texas and Arkansas gave a graphic picture of how the Circuit was promoted: “The Middle-West Fair Circuit was formed by the ten big fairs for the benefit of exhibitors. This Circuit maintains a traffic bureau to aid the shipper in every railroad move from the beginning to the end of the Circuit. Railroad service is excellent and exhibitors will find the best of accommodations and treatment. Mr. Exhibitor we have studied your problem – We know how best to help you – and you will find that our officials give you their personal attention. We invite you to utilize this service.”

An interesting sidebar can be found in the history of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions. Two separate associations, each organized in the late 1800’s, joined together in 1919 to form IAFE. One of the parent groups was initially known as the Western Fair Circuit. It included fairs from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois and Missouri. Once again, this pointed use of the word circuit, a word clearly descriptive of the purpose for which the alliance was constructed.

Equally interesting is the fact that many of the same names show up as charter organizers of IAFE and Mid-West: Art Corey, Iowa State Fair; A.L. Sponsler, Kansas State Fair; and W.H. Stratton, Texas State Fair. Each of these gentlemen understood the strength acquired by bringing together fairs having common interest and common need, and in perpetuating bonds of common benefit.

It was not until 1934 that Middle-West began to document its record, set a dues structure – nearly prohibitive at $10 per year – and schedule to meet on a regular basis – in Chicago during the International Convention. This is also the first time we glimpse other functions of the Circuit: “It was passed that because the Circuit had last year encouraged the Castle Company to build a new show and had talked about playing one show two years in succession, the members owned it to United Shows of America to play them again next year.” In order to prove solidarity and show good will, the Circuit selected a different carnival the following year.

During the ‘30s, carnival companies appeared before the Middle-West group on an annual basis and made proposals to play the Circuit. “Motion passed that Beckman and Gerety play the Circuit in 1937.” It is also clear as early as 1938 that the carnival circuit plan was a fragile one: “It was suggested that those fairs which might work out a deal for one carnival or another should hold a separate meeting for that purpose.” And in 1940: “Motion passed that members work out the carnival situation at their individual fairs as they thought best.”

The question of limiting or expanding membership was discussed in 1937:It was pointed out that no fair could become a member that would have conflicting dates with a present member.” In 1942 new members were accepted reluctantly: “Motion passed to accept Minnesota State Fair with the understanding dates be ironed out with the Iowa State Fair.” In 1943 Wisconsin was accepted; three years later in 1946: “Wisconsin State Fair felt it should withdraw from the Association in fairness to the Missouri State Fair. A committee was appointed to try to dissuade Wisconsin from withdrawing.” Finally, in 1949: “Motion passed tabling the applications for membership from the Amarillo Fair and the Tulsa State Fair. Expanding the Middle-West Circuit was too involved, so no action taken. Dates were set for members with none overlapping.”

As the years passed, the idea of catering to all members on the basis of a non-conflicting railroad schedule became increasingly difficult, but the circuit concept did remain a central theme of membership as charter member Kansas discovered as late as 1953: “Motion passed to allow Kansas State Fair to change dates – opening on a Saturday and closing on a Thursday.”

Finally, in 1956, a short, terse paragraph in the minutes signaled that the end of the Circuit was in sight: “Motion passed to file a brief in protest of a proposal that the railroads discontinue the special rates granted to fair exhibitors.” Nine months later, the Circuit was renamed the Mid-West Fairs Association and at the same meeting, fairs were accepted which previously had been denied admittance on the basis of conflicting dates – Tulsa and Amarillo.

Carnivals, invited to attend Middle-West meetings as early as 1934, were joined in 1943 by a group of other entertainment contractors. Not yet called associates or guests, these folks included Hogan Hancock, Music Corp of America; Frank Duffield, Thearle Duffield Fireworks; and Mike Barnes, Barnes & Carruthers Theatrical Enterprises. Carnival companies on hand that year were: J.C. McCaffrey, Hennes Brothers Shows; M.G. Dodson, Dodson World Fair Shows; Penny Pugh, World of Today Shows; Carl Sedlmayr, Rubin & Cherry Shows; and Max Goodman, Wonder Shows of America. Frank Kingman, secretary of IAFE, also attended.

In 1941, Middle-West led its contemporaries by electing a woman president, Ethel Simonds, Oklahoma Free State Fair, Muskogee. Ms. Simonds served a president until 1947.

The Circuit expanded to two yearly meetings in 1942 with the second scheduled for early spring in Kansas City. Kansas City remained home for the group until 1968 when everyone took off their snowshoes and trucked on down to Tampa. Life Member John Libby, retired from the Minnesota State Fair, took full credit for the move south. According to Libby, who served as Mid-West president in 1965, the task was easy. “All I had to do was convince the group to accept the Florida State Fair as a new member and then convince Florida to extend an invitation to the group to meet in Tampa. After that, it was all sunshine and golf.”

Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, Middle-West members debated the question of expanding their membership. Expansion, it was felt, would be a good thing; it would strengthen the Circuit. The avoidance of date conflicts, however, always stood in the way of any meaningful expansion. In 1947, the Circuit had 13 members, a roster which remained unchanged until 1956. At that point, a new constitution and bylaws were proposed to liberalize membership requirements. Date conflict was set aside as a limiting factor; geographic boundaries were instituted to define territorial limitations.

The new bylaws were adopted in 1957. One year later, the boundaries were expanded. Fairs from outside the boundaries which were already accepted on a provisional basis, were given full status if approved on a two-thirds vote. Current and updated By-Laws were approved in 2014.

Aside from its reoccurring problems with date conflict and boundary questions, the mid-60s witnessed three watershed events: First, it was decided that Mid-West should host a cocktail party for members and guests and, second, it was agreed that no dues should be assessed associate members. The final key date in this trilogy was Nov. 26, 1962. On that date, Marie McKinney, secretary of the Mid America Fair in Topeka, was elected secretary-treasurer of the Association – a position Ms. McKinney held for 36 consecutive years. In 1998, Marie became Secretary Emeritus, and Mike Heffron, Honorary Life Member (Minnesota State Fair, retired) took over the duties which he shared briefly with Gary Goodman (South Carolina State Fair), until Gary stepped away in 2015) In 2016, Norb Bartosik, Honorary Life Member (California State Fair, retired) was selected as the new Secretary/Treasurer and serves currently, with Mike Heffron continuing as Secretary Emeritus.

After 1962 Mid-West settled into a more predictable format of providing solid, current educational programming and an open and (on occasion) heated exchange of views among fairs and guests about common problems and concerns.

There were infrequent flashes of light, however, to keep the group honest. Everyone’s friend Ed Leidig, was manager of the Allentown Fair in Pennsylvania. Therefore, in 1967: “Motion passed moving Mid-West boundary 130 miles east of Ohio to include Allentown, and accepting the Allentown Fair as a new member.”

Mid-West went to Las Vegas before IAFE. In 1969, the group met at the Frontier Hotel. Almost immediately the dues went up from $20 to $30.

In 1972: “Agreed that If needed, a special assessment for members could be made, but no fees for guests (associate members were now known as guests).” Ed Nelson (Louisiana State Fair) pointed out that Mid-West was unique; the only organization in the fair industry not charging guests. And to reinforce this point, in 1987: “A motion passed that no sponsorship (funding) on any kind be accepted by Mid-West.”

The fundamental reason Mid-West consistently treated associates as guests dated back to the early years when carnival companies and other entertainment contractors were invited to the meetings so that they could make proposals for playing the Circuit. Hospitality was discouraged, even prohibited so that voting members would not be unduly influenced by food, favors or other special treatment. The custom continues to this day as a courtesy and translates into giving associates more equal status within the organization.

The assessment of Guest fees was introduced in 2016 with the passage of the new budget and $50 was established to partially offset the cost of expenses related to the annual meeting including meals, hospitality and local travel, if any. After all, it was determined that this fee was reasonable and it would include a spouse or significant other.

While working on this project, it was difficult to remain detached and avoid personal comment. Truth be told, Mid-West Fairs is an organization with personality. It thrives on people. Some folks see structure and process as being most important. History has a way of suggesting that the human factor, rather than the bylaws, has guided and propelled our small group over these 98 years.

Familiar names flow across the pages of Mid-West minutes, bringing back images of friends long gone from our company. Their faces spring back to mind, especially those who became compatriots around the table at one of many Mid-West Fairs meetings … Leo Overland, Joe Monsour, Jack Duffield, Jimmy Stewart, Sam Levy, Glen Boyd, Frank Winkley, Ed Schultz, Jack Reynolds, Gene Van Winkle, Eldred Stacy, Buster Brown, Frank Kingman, Carl Sedlmayr, Al Sweeney, Virgil Miller, Pete Baker … and the parade goes on.

Reading through the Mid-West narrative of nearly 100 years might seem a tedious, even boring task. That was not my experience. Like a Tom Clancy novel, I found every page filled with unexpected twists and turns and interesting people facing dilemma and surprise.

The lessons found in this chronicle are neither deep nor discordant. They are engaging and clear and helpful. They reinforce what we know, but seldom acknowledge as we each pursue our solitary, self-directed, independent path: The whole is greater than its individual parts. Strength in number is strength without equal.

The Middle-West Fair Circuit came into existence so that ten fairs, some small, somewhat weak and located a little off the main road, might create a strong, unified, predictable route for exhibitors who, in turn, would be pleased and encouraged by the opportunity to travel economically from one blue ribbon show to another. Later, this same philosophy worked for member fairs as they sought to route carnival attractions, vaudeville shows, fireworks companies and auto racing promoters.

The unity, strength and influence of Middle-West Fairs spread as its reputation was communicated throughout the region. As a result, its membership grew and its strength multiplied.

Mid-West has evolved over the years; it is now an Association rather than a circuit. But the premise remains the same – strength through united action. What is shared in this modern era of technological change is not a rail circuit, but rather, an electronic path of knowledge. The whole is stronger than the parts because the path is recognized and the knowledge is shared. All you need do is log on.

There is a gospel message hidden somewhere in all of this … perhaps we depend upon one another no less today than did our predecessors in 1922. The circuit rider is alive and well; He continues to carry the message.

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