Ralph and Lois Oltmann remember well all the rain that fell in Union during the County Fair back in July 1958.
Ralph wasn’t chairman that year. His turn came the following year, but it was because of the rain of ’58 that the Fair was relocated in ’59, said Ralph Oltmann, from the high school athletic field to the city park.
“The whole field got so muddy and tore up that the school board wouldn’t let us have it there no more,” he recalled.
“So we moved it to the city park. We set up our tents over where the swimming pool is now. We used the pavilion for home ec stuff. We had stands there for sodie and sandwiches.”
Oltmann, as the oldest living Fair chairman, served as the grand marshal of the Franklin County Fair parade this past Sunday. It’s one way Fair organizers are paying tribute to the past as they celebrate the Fair’s 60th anniversary.
Over the years, the name of the Fair has changed several times — it has been known as the Junior Achievement Fair, Franklin County Jaycees Youth Fair, the Franklin County Youth Fair and now just the Franklin County Fair — and it has grown both in size and scope.
As the annual event gets under way this Thursday, July 10, The Missourian looks back on the Fair’s history.
First, a Livestock Show
The roots of the Fair actually go back to July 1949 when a youth livestock show was held behind the Union Memorial Auditorium with 300 people in attendance, said Eric Schmuke, 2014 Fair chairman. Reinhard Schroeder was one of the show officials, and he was hopeful that “in a few years the event may be combined with the annual horse show to give Franklin Countians a real County Fair here in the county seat,” according to one history summary.
The following year, the livestock show was moved to the city park and held in connection with the 4-H Achievement and JFA Assembly Day. It was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and organized by the Agricultural Committee composed of Schroeder, Owen Frick, Albert Schulte, Elmer Landwehr and Grant Shrum.
The Jaycees took over the Fairs’ sponsorship from the Chamber, and Ed Bauche served as Fair Board Committee chairman.
“Their purpose was to help young people develop desirable ideals and standards of farming, homemaking, community life and citizenship, and a sense of responsibility for their attainment,” the summary reads.
More than 200 members of 16 area 4-H clubs were represented at the Fair that year and nearly 3,000 people attended.
Two big events that year were a calf scramble and a milking contest between Union Mayor Reinhard Schroeder and Washington Mayor A. Roy Pearson.
The first Fair queen contest was held in 1956, the year John Conley served as chairman. There were 19 4-H clubs that entered candidates for the title of Junior Achievement Queen, an honor that went to Marybelle Drewel.
Bauche was chairman again in 1957, and Carolyn Temme was crowned Fair queen.
The year of the big rain, 1958, is the same year the Fair was extended from two days to three. Bob Mittler served as chairman, and Ruth Geiselman was crowned queen.
“It just rained and rained,” Lois Oltmann recalled, “and everybody carried a sack of shoes because they had to walk in through the mud, and by the time they got to wherever they were going, they had to change shoes. Then they put their muddy shoes back on to go back to the car.”
In 1959, the year Oltmann served as chairman, Marie Elaine May was named Fair queen.
In addition to the queen contest, one of the early contests at the Fair was judging of produce and canned items.
Lois Oltmann remembers one year a young boy who entered and won multiple categories. She can’t remember his last name, but she does remember it was long.
“We counted and there were 26 letters in his last name,” she said, with a smile. “We all got tired of writing it.”
Ralph Oltmann said one of the hardest parts of managing the Fair in those early days was the setup. There were two large tents they used, and it took lots of hands to get them up. Unfortunately, not everyone who planned on helping was available when the time came, he recalled.
Organizers rented the tents in those early years, but in 1959, they were able to borrow them from Purina Farms at no cost, said Oltmann. A volunteer who had a tractor-trailer picked up and later returned the tents to Purina.
The Jaycee wives were an invaluable part of organizing the Fair in these early years, said Lois, noting they helped with such things as finding a company to provide the rides and preparing and selling refreshments —hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream on a stick.
“It was a lot of work for a small organization,” Lois Oltmann recalled. “The wives really pitched in. They had to help because there just weren’t a lot of volunteers. It was hard to get ’em.
“You didn’t have a three-hour shift. You had a three-day shift,” she remarked. “You just had to pitch in and do it . . . It was a good thing though, and we all had fun.”
Old Chairman’s Guide
Flipping through the chairman’s guide from the 1975 Fair — a binder 2 1/2 inches thick and filled with information on planning, budget, implementation, evaluation, contracts, correspondence and publicity — Eric Schmuke is stunned by the amount of detailed records that were kept in the early years.
“It tells what you had to do and when,” he said. “It’s amazing . . . Ours isn’t nearly as detailed.”
Of course, many of the steps involved in planning the Fair have changed, Schmuke noted. For example, the instructions say to begin planning for entertainment in January, but today’s Fair Board typically has that decided by November.
As someone who has grown up in the Fair and seen behind-the-scenes operations, Schmuke is impressed to think there was a time when the Jaycees managed the Fair as a single organization.
“Every stand where we have other groups doing them now, back then had a Jaycee member in charge of it,” he said. “That’s what I thought was so neat about this, how they did everything themselves.
“And there’s all these little thank-you notes, which I think is cool.”
Growth and success of the Fair led to the need for a reorganization in 1981, said Bob Schmuke, who served as chairman that year (he also was chair in ’92 and ’05).
The Jaycees made the Fair a joint effort between their organization and the Union Chamber of Commerce. A Fair Board was comprised of four members from the Jaycees and four from the Chamber with representatives from other civic groups serving in an advisory capacity.
These included groups like the FFA alumni, the Knights of Columbus, Lions Club, park board, fire department, University Extension Office . . .
The result was a Fair that grew and evolved, said Bob Schmuke.
Big name entertainers have been performing at the Fair since the Thrasher Brothers took the main stage in 1971. Over the years, others have included Crystal Gayle, Barbara Fairchild, Reba McEntire, George Strait, The Guess Who, Little River Band, Charlie Daniels Band, 38 Special, Oak Ridge Boys, Sara Evans, Little Big Town and Tracy Lawrence, to name a few.
Organizers are particularly excited about this year’s main stage entertainer — Craig Morgan.
“We’ve been trying to have him for 10 years now and we finally got him,” Schmuke said. “Ever since he came out with ‘Red Neck Yacht Club’ we’ve been trying to get him, and it’s just never worked out in his schedule to come to our Fair.”
Schmuke has worked closely with many of the main stage entertainers.
“Some of them have been really nice,” he said.
“The one who was the best after the show was Joe Nichols. He stayed after the show until about 3 in the morning, on the fairgrounds having fun with us, a little party.
“The toughest one was Sara Evans’ road manager,” Schmuke said. “He was her husband at the time. He was not easy to work with.”
The main stage entertainment has often presented challenges for the Fair.
“We had one member of Gloriana quit right before playing our Fair,” said Schmuke. “Hotel California (in 2012) was rained out two nights in a row. They were canceled one night, were gracious enough to stick around the next night to try to perform, and they were rained out again.”
There was a power outage in 2009 on the night Chris Young was scheduled to perform.
“Every year the biggest risk we take is the entertainment,” said Schmuke. “We have so much money out that if we don’t bring in enough people, that’s it.”
Celebrating 60 Years
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Franklin County Fair, the board is bringing back some of the features of the early Fairs.
An opening ceremony, which was dropped in the ’90s, will be held. And there will be an event on the main stage Thursday (queen contest), Friday (local band Crazy Aunt Linda) and Saturday (Craig Morgan).
And the Leonard Brautigam Memorial Truck & Tractor Pull will be held on Sunday again, where it was for years, said Schmuke.
Livestock shows will be held on Thursday and Friday.
A pig scramble and Safety Show will both be held on Thursday.
A new event this year is the Lil’ Mini Monster Truck Show featuring drivers ages 6 to 17 years old. It will be held Friday night
“It should be just like a regular monster truck show, they’ll be jumping cars, I think they’ll be racing. They will be doing all kinds of stuff out there,” said Schmuke.
And the Kathy Prilwetz Memorial Bull Ride will return.
“Last year’s was the best bull ride we ever had, so it should be a bigger event this year,” Schmuke commented.
For more information on the Fair, people can visit www.franklincountymofair.com.