At presstime, what is purported to be the 100th anniversary Ottawa County Free Fair is about to be celebrated.
While that is cause for celebration, it’s also about three years too late. Or is it? Read on.
The first fair took place in Miami on September 24, 1910. It was simply an exhibit of farmers’ products, judged as to quality. A somewhat larger exposition was held the next year in October. In 1912, the Farmers Institute and Ladies Auxiliary of Ottawa County voted to hold their exhibition of mineral, stock, and agricultural products on October 3-5 of that year at “Riverside Park,” as the park at the south end of Main was known. The 1913 fair was held at Afton. There was no mention of a fair in 1914, other than a single ad in the Live Wire asking if it should be held. They did that the previous three years as well.
The Ottawa County Fair as we know it supposedly began in Quapaw in 1914. Apparently, this event was accompanied by some new legislation outlining county fairs, perhaps that’s why it’s counted as the first. It was a one-day affair, held around the end of September. I can’t find a mention in the papers of ANY county fair in 1914. If there was a Quapaw fair that year, it was a tiny one. However, an article in the Miami Record-Herald in 1915 did mention the Quapaw fair the previous year. By the next year, they had added a day, and it ran October 1-2, 1915. The fair received some state support shortly after. An Ottawa County Free Fair Association was formed, and Miami would have enough pull to convince the board that they should host future fairs. They announced on December 31, 1915 that Miami would be offering a place for the fair to land on a permanent basis.
On January 28, 1916, it was officially announced that the first official Ottawa County Free Fair would indeed be held in Miami on September 18-20 of that year, and that they would also have the right to host the fair the following year. Land was set aside at the present day location of H and East Central.
Buildings were erected, the Yankee Robinson Circus announced that they would set up on the site for the last day, and the celebration began on time. The fair was a rousing success, and plans were immediately made for an even better one the next year.
Plans were announced for more construction, including a race track and a stock show ring. But the land was limited on Central. So a decision was made to move it to Riverview Park (on the east side of the river) for the 1917 fair. True to promise, the 1917 fair was indeed bigger and better. And on March 1, 1918, it was announced that yet another fair would be held that year, despite the US involvement in The Great War.
Sometime in the early 20’s, a decision was made to move the fairgrounds across the river. Buildings were erected, and our familiar fairgrounds began to take shape. A 1927 newspaper photo shows the grandstand and racetrack looking pretty much like it does nowadays. In 1938, a WPA project was announced in which a stone wall would be erected around the racetrack, and two large exhibition buildings would be built.
When the US entered WWII, it was announced that the fair would be suspended for the duration. But that didn’t turn out to be exactly true. The war was evidently going well enough in 1944 that a fair was announced for August 22-27, with wartime restrictions in effect.
So the fair was skipped in 1942 and 1943. It was skipped one more time, in 1957, due to an anthrax outbreak.
Thus, when you do the math, you can see that there have been 102 instances of the Ottawa County fair since 1914. However, the Ottawa County Free Fair wasn’t formed until 1916. And there have been 100 instances of that particular institution, including the 2019 celebration.
Thus, 2019 is indeed the 100th anniversary of the Ottawa County Free Fair.