By Wendi Bevitt
In September 1876, Burlingame held its first fair, sponsored by the local agricultural society. In the early years they promoted not only competitions for stock, dairy and produce, but brass bands, a “grand baby show”, and horse racing on reportedly the best half-mile track in the state. Attendees coming from a distance could be transported to the fair via the railroad at a reduced rate. When the Chautauqua movement, aimed at increased education among communities, became popular in the 1890s, attractions evolved to include popular speakers.
The first cultured speaker to present at the fair in 1897 was William Jennings Bryan, whom the fair association paid $500 to attend. Just the previous year, Bryan had run for the office of President of the United States. His speaking topic promoted his belief in “bimetallism” – where the monetary standard would be set on both gold and silver.
The event was a success and the fair association sought out someone to meet or surpass the previous year. Their pick was Rev. Frank Gunsaulus, a premier speaker within the Chautauqua movement.
That portion of the fair produced great financial losses however, as Gunsaulus required he be paid more than twice what was charged per person as admission to the event, which brought in just 500 attendees. The failed forum left some with the consolation that it was a paying investment that promoted the quality of learning and entertainment that Osage County could provide.
“Next year,” they said, “a like effort by an equally able orator will pack the tent.”
But the next year, they would not have a great orator attend the fair. The fair board brought the infamous outlaw Frank James.
After James had given up his outlaw ways, he had settled into a more ordinary life, and one of his pursuits was starting horse races in the Midwest. James aimed to make the races he started as honest as possible. He would stretch an immense rubber rope across the track and when the racers were at their mark, he would let the rope fly free.
The horse races at Burlingame had always held a little bit of controversy because of the nature of the competition, and having a former outlaw as the star of the show was too much for some to bear. However, having Frank James as the main attraction turned out better than the fair association could have imagined. He outdrew the orator Gunsaulus by 2,000 attendees, and the new grandstand that held seating for 500 was not nearly enough.
In 1894, James had sworn off running a horse race again, but nostalgia and a special connection to Osage County might have swayed him into attending the fair. Nearly 40 years before, during the summers of 1858 and 1859, he lived and worked within the Sac and Fox reservation lands near Quenemo, breaking sod for Sac and Fox Agent Perry Fuller and a man named Tom Shirley.
The memory of Tom Shirley was vivid in James’ mind because Shirley was “the wickedest man [James] ever saw”. While James helped him break the prairie sod, Shirley had a hatchet that he let hang to the side of his plow which he would pound the oxen with when they got out of line. This struck fear into the then teenage James who would someday become a fearsome person in his own right.
While James was in attendance at the fair in 1899, he found that his connection to Osage County extended even further than his brief sojourn in his younger years. The starting bell at the Burlingame racetrack was one that had been removed during the Civil War from a church not too far from James’ old home in Missouri. James let it be known that he would like to have the bell, and there was a movement to present it to him, but it was never carried out.
The fair association sought to reclaim the glory of the 1899 year the following season and invited the former outlaw to return once again, but he was unable to attend. While that period of bringing in large attractions had passed, by 1902 the fair association had found such success with the fair that for the first time in 10 years the group was not in debt. The fair association was able to show that Osage County was indeed able to show that they could provide both quality learning and entertainment.
A fair association ad promoting the appearance of Frank James at the 1899 Osage County Fair in the Osage County Chronicle, Aug. 23, 1899.
Photo of Frank James from Wikicommons.
Wendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.