The Jackson County Historical Society occasionally answers queries about area fairgrounds of days gone by. The Independence Fair Association purchased the J.C. Gates farm in 1906, located on the south side of present-day 23rd Street (originally called the “Blue Springs Road” and later “Alton Avenue” before it became 23rd) between Hocker and Leslie Streets, and running south to Fair Street.
Soon, grandstands for 2,500 people, tents, and a judge’s stand were also constructed. The first fair at that location on Sept. 25-29, 1906, drew a conservatively estimated 12,000 attendees on the first day. Government workers got a day-and-a-half holiday to attend, and the streetcar line from Kansas City was extended to the Independence fairgrounds. The last fair there was in 1924, when the association dissolved and the fairgrounds were sold and made into a housing subdivision.
By the way, in September 1853, the first fair in Independence was held in Smallwood “Wood” Noland’s pasture, near present-day Proctor Place (between where Alexander Proctor lived along what became Winner Road and the Chicago & Alton Depot). In 1854, the Fair Association – doing business as the “Jackson County Agricultural and Mechanical Association” – purchased land from John B. Oldham (near Rock Creek School, near where Rockwood Country Club was later installed). Fairs were held there annually until 1861, when the Civil War broke out, after which they were again held annually from 1866 to 1871.
Kansas City’s fairgrounds operated each fall from 1871 to 1893 on 97 acres between 12th and 15th Streets. A natural park with a large grove of oak trees, bluegrass and wild flowers was a highlight of the fairgrounds. A 20,000-seat grandstand and circular race track were added, and an old mansion on the property served as administrative headquarters.
The prosperity of the first exposition also attracted the attention of the Jesse James gang of “bandits,” or so it was then believed. On Sept. 26, 1872, the box office at the fairgrounds was robbed at sundown by three masked men, mounted on horses, who rode to the ticket office at the 12th Street entrance. One of the men said to be Jesse James dismounted and went to the ticket booth. He “covered” Benjamin Wallace, the ticket seller, and took $978 from a tin box. The robbers escaped.
The Interstate Fair Association equipped exposition grounds in Westport and held the fair in what is now the Roanoke residential district from 1883 to 1886, before it was moved again between 12th and 15th at Kansas Avenue.
There, in 1887, a building modeled after the Crystal Palace in London was proposed by James Goodwin as an individual enterprise; but, to complete the project, the public contributed $200,000. The building opened on Oct. 6, and U.S. President and Mrs. Cleveland visited the fair to a crowd estimated at 50,000. Needless to say, Kansas City’s “crystal palace” was for several years one of Kansas City’s main attractions. It had 17 acres of floor space and 80,000 square feet of glass forming its roof.
The last exposition was in 1893 after the event began to lose money. The empty shell of the “crystal palace,” its glass roof shattered by hailstones, was destroyed by arson on Aug. 5, 1901.
There were other fairs throughout Jackson County, to be sure. Lone Jack had annual picnics, which were featured in a past column. But these were the main draw for miles around over those many years. As time went on, fairs gave way to outdoor amusement parks like Fairmount Park and much later, Fairyland Park, and many others of their kind in the metro area.
The advent of television began to curtail outdoor gatherings like these. And, the expansion of air conditioning really squelched this kind of outdoor entertainment. Later came the outdoor water park phenomenon. Guess we must be thankful for Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun, huh? Still, I wish I could have seen the Crystal Palace.
David W. Jackson is archives and education director of the Jackson County Historical Society.