Bumping and baby judging; but no light-fingered gentry…the 1916 Nebraska State Fair

Headline from the Sept. 7, 1916 Alliance Herald
August 25, 2016 - 6:45am

The 2016 Nebraska State Fair opens Friday in Grand Island. The event has definitely changed from the version of a century earlier. Here’s a look back, from the perspective of 1916 newspaper coverage.


“There has been a good deal of competition of Nebraska cities, outside of Omaha and Lincoln, as to which has the right to the distinction of being the ‘third city of the state in size,'” said the Alliance Herald on Sept. 7, 1916. “But there is no doubt which it is this week. It’s the state fair ground just outside the city of Lincoln.”

1916 newspaper pages with Nebraska State Fair articles

Alliance Herald, Sept. 7


Alliance Herald, Sept. 14


Dakota County Herald, Aug. 31


Lincoln Commoner, Aug. 1


Red Cloud Chief, Sept. 14


(Find more newspapers like these through the Library of Congress Chronicling America project)

The Herald reported that 29,949 people attended the fair on Monday, a state fair record for a Monday. The Lincoln Commoner reported that “although the 29th state of the union in point of population, (the state fair) usually runs sixth or seventh in point of attendance. 180,000 people attended in 1915.”

By comparison, more than 352,000 people attended the Nebraska State Fair in 2015, the highest total since the event moved to Grand Island in 2010.

Crowds in 1916 were large enough that the Alliance Herald offered this advice to fair attendees: “If somebody bumps into you and nearly exhausts your breath don’t get red in the face and say something. Just laugh and pass on. Because you are bound to get many a bump as a member of a big state fair crowd. The latter is characterized by the ability to stand any amount of bumping and shoving because everybody concerned is in a happy-go-lucky frame of mind and takes no offense.”

In 1916, they happily came by car, and they came to watch cars. “Nebraska has more than 90,000 automobiles, 5000 of them will be in Lincoln on automobile day,” reported the Dakota County Herald. “Seven great races will be pulled off from one to twenty-five miles in length.”

There were other attractions, including a wide variety of musical acts: soloists; a grand opera octette; St. Paul’s Oratorio Chorus; and something called the Whang Doodle Quartet.

There was “the best woman flyer in the world,” Ruth Law and her biplane. The Alliance Herald reported that when “the daring aviatrix brought her flyer close to the ground, two small boys looked in wonder.”

“Farmers who contemplate purchasing machinery should not fail to see the monstrous display at the state fair,” commented the Dakota County Herald. “All the new machinery will be on display.”

Like today, lots of things were judged. The Red Cloud Chief reported that “Webster County made a good showing,” with first place awards for categories like silver hull buckwheat, plums, yellow popcorn, cheese pumpkins and castor beans.

And with no further explanation, this from the Dakota County Herald: “More than 200 babies between the ages of 18 and 36 months will be examined the first four days of the state fair.”

By all these glowing accounts, the 1916 Nebraska State Fair was successful, “the best ever held in the state” according to one quote in the Alliance Herald. “The departments were filled with exhibits that were declared by experts to be the best ever placed on exposition, at any fair in the United States or elsewhere.”

Plus, the Herald reported, the 1916 event was “well policed.” “There appeared to be few crooks on the grounds or in the city of Lincoln. The management placed a ban on all fake schemes, and pickpockets and other light-fingered gentry seemed to think that the state fair was not a good field for their operations.”

With any luck, the 2016 Nebraska State Fair will also avoid the evils of “light-fingered gentry.”

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