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The Wilton Fair

By Lydia Nagel

Transcribed by Elizabeth Casillas, February 4, 2016

     The Wilton Fair was a high spot in the summer for area residents for many years. Each year it was advertised to be bigger and better than ever and, as expressed in the 1907 and 1916 fair books and premium lists, it was “OPEN TO THE WORLD.” Bills similar to sale bills were nailed up in the country on corner posts of farmer’ fields or on telephone poles all the way to surrounding towns advertising the coming glory of the fair. Posters and pennants and fans advertising it were dispensed, and it was also advertised in newspapers of Wilton and neighboring cities. One of the posters showed two little boys crawling under the fence, as indeed they did, particularly along the south side where there was only a barbed wire fence. All stores and business houses were expected to close “in the afternoon of each day for the benefit of their employees.” That was three, and later four week days in mid-August.

     In naming the officers for 1907 and 1916 you get a fair example of who shared the responsibilities, since most officers held over for quite a number of years. The officers in 1907 were President, W. G. Griffith; Vice-President, Thos. Boot; Treasurer, C. C. Kaufmann; Secretary, H. Wildasin. Directors: Term expires October 1908 – Geo. Bannick, L. N. Ayres, F. C. Wickes, A.C. Shiflet, H. F. Nicolaus, C. H. Wilson. Term expires October 1907 – B. L. Norton, Geo. F. Thede, Fred A. Maurer, A. R. Rexroth, C. Van Zandt, H. B. Strong; Superintendent of Floral Hall, C. H. Wilson; Superintendent of Grandstand, H. B. Strong; Superintendent of Privileges, C. Van Zandt; Superintendent of Stalls and Repairs, L. N. Ayres; Marshal, Tim Russell. In 1916 the fair book tells us that the officers were President, C. C. Kaufmann; Vice President. L. N. Ayres; Secretary, H. Wildasin; Treasurer, W. D. Harris; Directors: George Bannick, H. W. Lamp, L. N. Ayres, H. E. Nicolaus, C. H. Wilson, B. L. Norton, George F. Thede, A. P. Rexroth, Harry Gordon, C. H. Jacobsen, J. W. Lenker, H. F. Ayres, Chief of Police, Charles Henderson. The fair books explained that “No pay for time or allowance for horses will be made to any officer, superintendent, marshal or assistant of any division.” The superintendent of the amphitheater was to make arrests there if necessary. “Police and gatekeepers shall be sworn in as conservators of the peace. . .”

     In 1916 prices of admission were 35 cents for one adult or one vehicle, and children 10 to 14, 20 cents. A family season ticket could be bought for $1.50. This would admit husband and wife and children under 12 years and a team during the fair. If one wished to park in the “Quarter Stretch,” the area inside the race track, that cost an additional 15 cents and admission price to the Grandstand was 15 cents. In 1907 the prices had been somewhat less. Admission charge then was 25 cents for adults, and for children 10 to 15 years, 15 cents; single or double team or saddle horse, 25 cents; family ticket, $1.00; quarter stretch for team and vehicle, 25 cents; one person 10 cents and grandstand, 10 cents. On Children’s Day, children under 12 were admitted free.

     The area of the grounds was more than twenty-one acres of level land with a generous supply of trees under which those attending. . .

Pg 48 Picture – Wilton Fair poster 1900 – Courtesy of William Nelson . . . could tie their horses or park their cars when that method of travel became more common. It was also under these trees that the people attending ate their picnic lunches. The first of the three or four days on which the fair was held was primarily entry day, and the concessions were set up that day in the area near the grandstand . . .

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Picture – Wilton Fairgrounds – 1890 – Courtesy of Gale McClean
The building at center back is the floral hall.

. . . entrance. Besides the ice cream stands, one of which was sure to be operated by Gus Nopoulos, and the rides, there were church tents where sandwiches and lunch were served, side shows, and, of course, a fortune teller. Entries for exhibit were accepted until 9:00 A.M. of the second day when they must be in their places. The various entries were judged and given ribbons for first and second prizes after 10:00 A.M. of the second day. Prizes were presented after 4:00 P.M. of the last day and entries could be taken home after that. Many times the farmers sold their exhibits (hogs, cattle, or whatever) in Wilton to the highest bidder rather than take them home.

     Ice cream, cracker jack, cotton candy, and pop were the most common of products sold to the people who came dressed in their “Sunday best.” The pop was kept cold on ice in metal watering tanks. In the early years the cones were made at the stand in plain view – baked on an iron like a flat square waffle and then shaped around a metal cone, so they were always crispy fresh when filled with the ice cream that was sometimes frozen there at the stand. Later, cones were bought in bulk as today. These treats were sold for five cents, and toward the end of the last day were offered two for a nickel, because at that time there was no refrigeration as we have it today.

     For a number of years the merry-go-round was the only ride at the fair. The first ones were turned by hand power. Men walked on a center platform higher than the carved horses and pushed on rods to make the merry-go-round go. The first horses were stationary, later they were improved by rocking. At this time there was a vertical pipe outside the outer ring of horses that contained rings that the riders tried to grasp as their horses whizzed past. Anyone lucky enough to get a ring of the right color received a free ride. The first rings were not celluloid, but later ones were. Beneath the center platform on which the human “Motors” walked was another man who turned a hand organ for music. One of the early managers of the merry-go-round was “Biddy” McCartney, Senior. Later a steam engine was . . .

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Picture – Merry-Go-Round at Wilton Fair – drawn by Lydia Nagel
This drawing shows how the merry-go-round was hand operated.

. . . substituted for the manpower, and there would always be a pile of coal nearby for the fuel. About this time the horses or other animals (for there were sometimes tigers and lions as well as galloping horses) were moved up and down on brass rods. At this time, too, a steam calliope replaced the hand organ. There was also a stationary seat for mothers with small children and a “lovers’ tub” that went round and round instead of up and down. A ride on this glorious invention cost five cents for many years. We children were horrified when the price went up to ten cents. Older girls weren’t too concerned about the price because if they stood around and looked attractive enough there were sure to be pleasant young men who would invite them to ride. The rings for free rides had been eliminated by then, but an adult could ride free if he stood beside a child too small to be trusted on the racing steed. Sometimes there was also a Ferris wheel. This began the phasing out of adult riders on the still popular ride. One year, instead of the merry-go-round there was a pony ring where children could ride on live ponies.

     The many exhibits in the Floral Hall were under the supervision of Mrs. H.E. Nicolaus. This octagon building measuring sixty feet across had the entrance on the west side and on the east a door which opened into a rectangular building 36 by 30 feet. This smaller building was used to exhibit fruits, vegetable, and grain. In 1907 C.H. Miller and E.F. Einfeldt were in charge of these exhibits. Grains shown were wheat, barley, oats, rye, timothy and clover seed, and corn, which included the tallest stalks as well as the best and biggest ears. No soybeans then, although that is now one of the chief crops in this area. Thirteen vegetables were listed and five varieties of apples, with “summer apples” and “winter apples” counted as two varieties. Others were Duchess, Wealthy and Ben Davis. Fair books . . .

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Picture – Prize load at Wilton Fair, Aug. 17, 1911 0 Courtesy of Catharine Herr
The Farmington church Ladies Aid Society won a $15 prize given by Nicolaus Bros. Clothing Store for the largest number of people riding into the fairgrounds in one vehicle. Seventy people on the hayrack weighed 6980 pounds.

. . . announced, “No premiums will be allowed on wormy apples.”

     In 1907 plants and flowers were under the supervision of Mrs. John Gray, in 1916 the superintendent of this department was E. Friederichsen who owned and operated the local greenhouse.

     The octagon building was used for exhibits of baked goods, canning, sewing and fancy work. Of course this building was of prime interest to the women because it was there that they displayed their skill in baking, canning, sewing, embroidery, tatting, crocheting and knitting as well as quilt making. Overseers here were Mrs. F.A. Maurer, Kate McNulty, Mrs. T.P. Russell, Mrs. L.R. Dunker and Miss Eva Port. It was also in this building that the rural and town schools exhibited their best work in mathematics, penmanship, art, manual training, and domestic science. There was no 4-H category then. Singer Sewing Machine Company exhibited there too.

     Another area where the women “shone” was the poultry building. This was always a noisy place because the chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys raised their own chorus. It was also a building that had its own peculiar odor although the coops were kept clean. The fair association furnished the water and coops for the birds, but the owners were responsible for cleanliness and for furnishing feed and watering cups. The exhibitors were required to be on hand when the judge was at work, to handle their birds if he wished. Perry Bridges supervised this area. There were 28 varieties of chickens, two of turkeys, four of ducks and four of geese. Sometimes there were also peacocks, pigeons and guineas.

     Agricultural implements were exhibited in the open or under tents erected by the owners. George Nolte supervised these exhibits in 1916. Items exhibited for prizes were farm wagons, grain drill, sulky and gang plows, manure spreader, potato digger, riding cultivator, gasoline engine, check row corn planter, buggy, cream separator, lightning rods, windmill, hay fork, and automobile. For the largest and best display of automobiles the first prize was fifteen dollars.

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Picture – Nelson Hardware Store Display at Wilton Fair – Courtesy of William Nelson
This scene is in the Floral Hall on the Wilton Fairgrounds. Gentleman on left is Thomas Boot, in center A. T. Nelson, other unknown.

. . . Farmers were especially interested in these exhibits to see what new machines and tools were being made and new styles in automobiles. In 1907 there were no automobiles exhibited and the agricultural implements listed were of earlier vintage. Some of them were walking plow, tedder, wood pump, iron pump, buggy, one seat, top buggy. Diplomas rather than prizes were offered for the best on display at that time.

     Townspeople who did not want to drive to the fairgrounds had hacks at their disposal. These were similar to spring wagons and had three seats each of which would hold two or three people. They were driven at regular intervals between the business district and the fairgrounds. At the fair you could hear the drivers call, “Hack for downtown!” and people ready to leave would move in their direction. These hacks were operated by the owners of a local livery stable. Later, Model T Fords replaced the wagons. (A livery stable was a building in which farmers could park their horse-drawn vehicles if staying in town for a length of time and be assured that the animals would be fed. Also, a town resident could have his horse and buggy stabled there if he did not have a barn of his own or if he was too busy to care for them himself as would be the situation in the case of a doctor.)

     People who lived at a greater distance could come by train, and if they wished to stay overnight, the 1914 paper announced that they could reserve rooms if they notified the secretary, W.A. Cooling. Another announcement in the paper said, “Arrangements have been made with the railroad company so that on August 20 the Wilton Plug on the afternoon run will be held until 6 P.M.” In 1907 the fair association announced, “The Rock Island Railroad will sell round trip tickets to Wilton Junction from points within 75 miles at excursion rates September 18 and 19 with return limit of September 20.” Also, . . .

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Picture – Wilton Fairgrounds taken from ferris wheel 1913 – Courtesy of Harry H. Dice,/p>

. . . “a special train will be run from Muscatine each day of the fair.”

     Another important building was the grandstand which held 2,500 people. This building with heavy plank seats was 180 feet long and stood west of the race track that was a half mile around almost oval in shape. Across the track in the quarter stretch was the bandstand, a round, two-storied building with the sides of the upper story open. This would accommodate a small band and was used by the judges of the races. There was a bell hanging in the center under the roof that was rung as a signal for races. According to ads in the Wilton paper, bands were brought from other towns. In 1913 the Nichols band played on Tuesday and Wednesday, and on Thursday which was “Muscatine Day” the Muscatine band came. In 1914 music was furnished by Sweets Big Carnival Band. That year, incidentally, the fair was extended one day because of rainy weather. In 1915 Morgan’s Show Band played.

     B.L. Norton was superintendent of horses in 1907 and 1916 and probably the years between. Single drivers, carriage teams, draft teams, general purpose horses and saddle horses were shown in front of the grandstand. Ponies and mules were also judged.

     In 1907 C. VanZandt was superintendent of the race program, in 1916, Tom Killian. A three-year-old trot or pace drew a prize of $200. A two-year-old trot, $150 and pace or trot by older horses, $250 to $300. Local men who were active in the race program were Dr. W. Cooling who owned race horses, W. Griffith who raised them, Tom Killian and son John who trained and drove race horses, and Roy McCoy who helped Killian. Betting on the races was on individual basis. Men came from Muscatine and other towns to get in on this. One day there would be a Farmers’ trot or run in which men mounted their best running horse—probably one usually hitched to the buggy or surrey—and competed with their neighbors. A roadster race (single seated . . .

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     Remember when the boys and girls came to school on roller skates? It was much faster than walking, but you had to jump the cracks and uneven places in the sidewalks or take a nasty tumble. If the skates were well oiled you might pick up too much speed on some of the steep slopes. The storekeepers didn’t like to have you come in the store with skates on.

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. . . automobiles) brought first prize of $35. Sometimes there were motorcycle races.

     There were also free attractions. A balloon ascension a couple of years and one year airplane flights. The pilot was Lincoln Beachey, a popular and daring pilot who met his death less than a year later when his plane crashed and was buried in mud. I am told that he had planned to take a local girl up with him, but the weather was windy and he considered it unsafe to have a passenger. (Open cockpit then, you know.) Another source remarked that a number of men had to push the plane to get it off the ground, but it did fly. Ads in the Wilton paper announced that he would make two flights daily, but a later report said that he made three perfect flights. This was in August 1913, when the attendance was 5,000 people and all concession space was sold out. Besides the airplane, there were also Mosley’s Educated Horses and Diamond Clark, the acrobat. In 1914 attractions were Teko the fat boy and a ball game between West Liberty and Walcott. In 1915 there were daylight fireworks. The association did not always succeed in getting the attractions they wanted. For example, the president went to see Frank James, brother of Jesse James, to judge the races. Frank James was a drawing card in Missouri where he called many races, but he did not go outside the state of Missouri. There was no night show, but we know people stayed for the evening because the fair rules said the superintendent of police was obligated to detail “a suitable number of his force for night service.”

     There were two barns for horses. One for race horses had box stalls and a room overhead for men to sleep if they wished. There was also a cattle barn that measured 80’ x 28’ or 30’ and a hog and sheep barn. C.C. Coxen supervised the barn of cattle which were classed according to age, sex and number shown. Prizes ranged from $2 to $10 for single animals and $5 to $30 in the sweepstakes that had three prizes in each group. A. Rexroth as superintendent of hogs recognized seven different breeds: Poland Chinas, Berkshires, Chester Whites, Duroc Jerseys, Yorkshires, Tamworths, and Hampshires. First prizes for hogs ranged from $3 to $10. Second prizes less. Sheep were judged according to their wool. In 1907 Frank Baker was superintendent of entries and in 1916, J.W. Lenker. Sheep that were stubble shorn were not allowed to compete.

     In 1915 the paper announced that “prize moneys paid are considerable better than is offered by a good many fairs in communities larger than ours.” However, because the weather was unsettled, attendance reached only 3,500. Again in 1916, in addition to unsettled weather there were too many attractions elsewhere—ball game at Muscatine between Marshalltown and Muscatine, Ringling Brothers at Davenport, and a fraternal picnic at Davenport.

     Financial problems caused the eventual breakup of the Wilton Fair Association. Buildings were sold and moved. Dr. Abbott bought some lumber from of the buildings and used it in his new house in town at 306 West Fourth Street. Gus Nopoulos bought lumber in the grandstand used it on one of his farms. The cattle barn was moved and rebuilt into a hog barn on C.C. Kaufmann’s farm, and planks from the grandstand were taken to that same farm but were destroyed in the fire. The fairground land, owned by C.C. Kaufmann,. . .

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. . . was sold to Gus Nopoulos who sold it to Cockshoot’s Dairy. Today it is the R.E.C grounds for meetings and annual barbecue celebrations. What better ending could there be for a place that was originally set aside to be enjoyed by many people?

     My thanks go to the following people for helping me assemble this material: Togo Kaufmann, Esther Meinert, Elsie Frymoyer, Joe L. Kaufmann, Harry Griffith, Gus Nopoulos, and the Wilton Advocate.

     (Editor’ Note: In 1906 the Muscatine Journal gave an account of the special train to Wilton on Muscatine Day at the fair. The “Plug” engine pulled two coaches and a freight caboose from a local work train. The cars were crowded and people were hanging from the hand rails on the steps. Even the tops of the cars were covered and engine and coal tender were full. The train carried 500 passengers in two trips. That year the fair had a record attendance for one day of 8,000 people.)

     “One of the ‘attractions’ of the Wilton Fair yesterday afternoon. . .was a spirited contest of strength and skill between two pugilistic bummers, who chewed each other badly. From accounts, the affair attracted more attention than anything else on the ground!”           Wilton Exponent, Sept. 11, 1874

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