Step Right Up: Fairs, Fun, and Forerunners
Stillwater Street Scene. HM Wantland, circa 1903. 2000.005.2.0267. Robert C. Cunningham Collection, Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
In a world so modern it is sometimes difficult to recognize the past in the present. The Digital Age is about the new, the future, the horizon—high tech, high def, upgrade, update, faster, better. It’s a 21st century fire sale and everything old or outdated must go, often rendering the past little more than a mile marker for how far we have come. Out with Atari and VHS. In with pixels, Pinterest, tweets, and TiVo. But this distinction between then and now is less absolute than most imagine and this September 15—25, Oklahomans will enjoy an annual event that highlights the overlap.
Although more extreme than its predecessors (think Bungee Swing and deep fried Gummy Bears), today’s State Fair remains at its core a carryover from a simpler time. Since 1907 it has drawn visitors from urban and rural communities alike for the same reasons that pull us still today: amusement, entertainment, and curiosity. For the price of a ticket we can escape the daily grind for the sights and sounds of the Midway; indulge in a funnel cake, a corndog, a giant turkey leg, or even a cricket pizza; spin ourselves dizzy on Scramblers and Tilt-A-Whirls; learn the nuances of judging livestock, vegetables, cakes, and quilts; or simply stroll the grounds and enjoy the hopefully temperate weather. We do it all in the name of fun.
Let’s take a look at two photographs from the Museum’s Dickinson Research Center to see early Stillwater residents doing some of the same.
Although winter is not the season we associate with fairs and festivals, readers of the Daily Gazette on March 1, 1901, saw a surprising advertisement, not for an entire show or spectacle, but for one of its familiar elements:
Here at the Santa Fe Depot, the Santa Clara County Exhibit Cars
And Monster Shark. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. A Grand
Educational Exhibit, for Old and Young. Nothing Ever Like
It in Stillwater. Don’t miss it. Admission 10 cents Everybody.
Two days later the paper divulged the shark’s secrets and reported details worthy of a Hemingway fish tale. The creature was over 460 years old at the time of its capture in 1893 and the largest shark ever documented. Fast forward 90 years and it was no longer a dime and a shark, but $1.00 and the world’s largest crocodile. The time and place might have changed, but not the overall pitch. Little and lured by the promise of a mythic beast, I handed over four quarters and climbed the steps to the platform despite my parents’ discouragement. Disappointment is an understatement. The crocodile did not impress nor give any indication of life. The only education I received was a valuable lesson.
The second photograph dates between 1903 and 1908 and likely depicts the Gollmar Brothers Railroad Show, a popular traveling circus that crisscrossed the country for years. The large crowd spills down side-streets, boardwalks, and rooftops. Almost to a person, their gaze is fixed upwards as they shield their eyes from the midday sun. The photographer, HM Wantland, managed to capture the object of their attention—a high diver en route to the small pool below. We can see both the action of the dive and the reaction of the spectators. Like all successful acts, it provoked the right balance of fear and fascination—an anxious audience wants to look away, but a stronger sense of curiosity prevents them.
A trip to the State Fair this year might elicit the same response. Have you ever seen someone eat a Krispy Kreme burger? I have. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t look away either. Whether you visit the Fair every year or you haven’t been in ages, take an afternoon or an evening and take a chance. Aren’t you curious what awaits? Errands and chores are infinite, but the Fair lasts ten short days. Take advantage of it while you can for as Stillwater’s Daily Gazette opined: To be merry at times is to be wise.