In 1973, writer Walter Kaufmann reflected on his first trip to the Missouri State Fair. In this essay, he recalls the pens full of animals, the wild rides and carnival games, the food, and a special day with his less-than-enthusiastic father.

By Walter Kaufmann

Originally published in the July/August 1973 issue of Missouri Life.

I think it was the summer I turned nine.

 As I remember, the first notice I took of The Fair was when I first saw the posters. They were up even before school was out, and every afternoon of the last couple of weeks before summer vacation I paused on my way home to examine the poster in the window of the barber shop at Tenth Street. Then I paused again to examine an identical poster in the window of the bakery at Tenth Street and also the one in the shoe repair shop between Sixteenth and Seventeeth.

 “Missouri State Fair, August 26-29,” was all they said. But the illustrations of Ferris wheels and cotton candy and galloping steeds implied a great deal. The implications sold me pretty quickly on the idea of going to The Fair.

 I had never been to the State Fair, or the county fair, or any other fair, and to the circus only twice.

 “Don’t like fairs,” my father had always said when the subject came up, “or circuses. Don’t like crowds of people.”

 But this particular year, after passing all those grand implications every afternoon for two weeks, I became firmly resolved that we were going to the Missouri State Fair, August 26, 27, 28, or 29.

 My chance to nail my father came toward the end of June. “What do you want for your birthday?” my father asked one morning at breakfast.

 “Nothin’,” I replied.

 “What do you mean, ‘nothin’?”

 “That’s what I want, nothin’. Instead of somethin’ for my birthday, I want to go to the State Fair.”

 “To the State Fair!” he boomed in surprise.

 “Yes sir. It’s in August. The 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th. I think.”

 “Okay.” Pause. “Okay.”

 The first ‘okay’ was testy, the second, resigned.

 Thus, the issue was resolved before June had ended and weeks of entrancing anticipation stretched ahead of me, to the edge of my imaginings. We were to go to The Fair on a Saturday. My brothers and sisters and I were forced to bed early the night before. My impression was that I did not sleep at all that night, though I have since read that a person who thinks he has lain awake through the night may have actually slept for several hours. Of one thing I am certain. At 6 a.m. when my mother came around to wake us, I was already awake.

 The prospect of a trip to Sedalia had been a big part of the fair’s attraction because I had never been that far from home. As far as I had ever been was to Kansas City, twice, to see the Plaza Christmas lights.

 Each new mile of Northwest Missouri farmland was new adventure. Each stream, each clump of trees, each farm we passed was a new experience. For about 30 miles. Then we entered the inevitable, endless expanse of when-are-we-going-to-get-there doldrums. But the long period of listless riding only heightened the excitement I felt when we rolled past the Sedalia city limits sign and into the parking lot near the fairgrounds.

 There, indeed, were the crowds of people my father didn’t like, wild amalgams of overall-and clodhopper-clad rural people, and nattily dressed, white-faced people whom, I imagined, must have been from St. Louis. And hand-holding teenaged couples, and families like us. And bands of apparently unaccompanied—and otherwise unrestrained—children.

There was the glitter and the noise, the balloons, the rides, the penny arcades, the cotton candy and popcorn. My brothers and sisters and I were given money to ride three rides apiece. For lunch we ate footlong hot dogs and drank root beer. All of us together wandered past the rows of pens full of uniform white and pink pigs and past the rows of pens full of uniform brown and white cattle.

 We examined with mock expertise the sheds full of various handicrafts and looked at countless exhibits on topics ranging from com pickers to aircraft manufacturing.

 We watched a salesman hawking “magical vegetable peeler-slicer-dicers.” He was so good he sold one to my cynical father, a true skeptic.

 The two specific incidents that stand out most in my memory are one of the rides I chose to ride and a game at which I beat my big brother.

 The ride was a swirling, twirling, dipping, and rising affair that mixed sheer terror with the thrill of speed and the giddy intoxication of dizziness. It was delightful excitement. And, yet, the end of the ride brought staggering, giggling, wholly pleasurable relief.

 The game was a marksmanship game. “Hit the bullseye! Win the big stuffed dog! Score 50 points with your three shots. Win a lesser prize. Only 15 cents. Step right up!”

 My older brother scored 50 points with his three shots and won a lesser prize. I stepped to the line when he had finished, hit the bullseye on the first shot and won the big stuffed dog.

 “Amazing, my boy. Amazing!” shouted the barker. “Did you see that, folks? Anybody can win!”

 My hands shaking with excitement, I missed the target clean on my last two shots. I later gave the big stuffed dog to my mother.

 What I most remember from that trip to The Fair, however, are not specific incidents at all, but two feelings I had that day. One was the totally carefree, essence-of-pleasure feeling that can be experienced only by children who have not yet discovered that good times will eventually be followed—must inevitably be followed—by bad times. The other was the excitement of setting foot, for the first time, in a place that is set apart in the mind from other places. Later in life, I experienced the same feeling when I first set foot on Manhattan Island, and when I first set foot in London and in the Colosseum in Rome. But, of course, a person can first set foot in a place only once. So the thrill of doing so can only be experienced once.

 The euphoria of that day extended into the trip home. It was late when we pulled into our driveway. I was only vaguely aware of being carried to my bed. When I awoke, it was the next day, Sunday, and time to get dressed for church. That first fair I ever attended was the last I attended for years and years. In fact, I didn’t go to a fair again until two years ago when I visited the very same fair.

 On my second trip to the fair I saw many things I don’t remember having seen that summer when I was nine. I saw breeders intently grooming their animals in the sea of pens housed in the great stone barns and horsemen practicing in the arena. For them, I realized, The Fair is a major-league competition.

 I saw parents struggling down the dusty midway with throngs of sticky, sweaty, howling kids. For them The Fair is, no doubt, an ordeal.

 I saw teenagers flock to the grandstand for a concert by a rock group. For them The Fair is big name entertainment.

 I saw that The Fair is many things to many people. But to me the word “fair” will always mean that day so many years ago and The Fair that was exactly what a fair ought to be.

7 Time-Honored State Fair Traditions • Missouri Life Magazine

Article originally published in the July/August 1973 issue of Missouri Life.