1964 SEMO Fair Exposé

The Southeast Missouri District Fair in Cape Girardeau was my first newspaper undercover investigation assignment. Jackson Pioneer Editor Gary Fredericks decided he and I would go to the fair to see if we could uncover and document gambling violations on the fair’s midway. I have no way of knowing whether or not he had any evidence of the gambling or if he just wanted to go to the fair.

[Editor’s note: I THINK Gary was editor. We had so many come and go it was hard to tell who was wearing the Editor hat on any give day. I also can’t remember if his last name had an “S” on the end. We’ll just call him Gary from here on out to be safe.]

Mike’s Krazy Ball – Gary’s Krazy Theories

Gary had a number of theories

  • The midway games were either rigged
  • Or, they weren’t games of skill, which would make them gambling
  • If they were gambling, the cops had been paid off
  • UFOs were real.

Gary was capable of multi-tasking. He was working on that last theory at the same time.

Gary was playing, I was shooting

That’s Editor Gary pitching the Krazy ball trying to win a piece of plush (stuffed toy). I presume the enthusiastic gentleman perched on the stool is Mike. I’m not sure how Gary rated this stand.

Was THIS game rigged?

Soon we meandered over to this game. You might detect some kinda bad vibes coming off the gentleman at the left. I was beginning to get the feeling that he might not like me.

Nice man concerned with my safety

Before long, this nice man came over to talk with me. He was joined by two other burly fellows who wanted to make sure I got back to my car safely at the end of the evening, which, coincidentally, was Right Now. Gary shot this with a camera I slipped him when I thought things might be going south.

I was 5’10 and weighed maybe 105 pounds in those days, so they wouldn’t have had to be too big to meet my definition of “burly.” At any rate, I thought that maybe since they were kind enough to offer me an escort off the grounds that it would have been ungracious to refuse.

I don’t remember what kind of story Gary ended up writing. It may have had something to do with UFOs.

Blue Grass Shows Mighty Midway

When I wasn’t getting kicked out, the SEMO Fair ranked right up there with Christmas, the 4th of July and your birthday for big events. It was such a big deal that the schools let out for Fair Day.

Bottle deposits kept the day going

When you ran out of money, you’d scrounge the grounds looking for soda bottles to turn in for the two-cent deposit to food stands like this one.

Fair used as local fundraiser

Many local service service clubs and schools set up tents and stands to make money. This one has a sign, Delta Senior Stand. Note the electrical wires snaking along the ground.

Power for the grounds was provided by huge generators on the back of 18-wheelers. Huge cables the size of your wrist would feed into junction boxes on the ground, which would, in turn, fed into smaller cables. I always wondered why nobody got electrocuted when it rained. I’ll never forget the sound those generators made. They were noisy all the time, but they would scream when a big ride started up and they had to catch up with the sudden load.

Midway laid out in horseshoe shape

Most midways were laid out in a U shape was designed to draw crowds throughout the entire carnival and maximize spending. Crowds tended to enter the right leg, so the stands on that side were more valuable and were either owned by the promoter or went for big rents.

I wasn’t old enough for The Follies

Game concessions were usually the first joints along the outside of the right leg of the U. Rides would be located down the center column, with the carousel traditionally being the first ride beyond the front gate. After the games, the crowd would find the shows and the penny arcade.

The right hand bend was where the girlie show lived. I never made it into The Follies. I’ll have to let someone else fill me in on what you saw there.

The left leg would contain more shows and games all the way back to the front gate. They had slimmer pickings because a lot of money drained off before it got to them.

Ferris Wheel dominated the skyline

Other rides might be more spectacular, but the “wheel” traditionally signaled the end of the night. Because it was generally the tallest ride and could be seen throughout the whole midway, the carnival would use it to signal that the midway was closed for the night. When it went dark, it was time to go back to the trailers to get ready for the next day.

Carny could be your friend – or not

The greasy, tattooed guy with his cigarettes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve who took your ticket when you got on a ride could be your friend – or not – depending on how he sized you up. He could give you a great ride or, by cleverly working the clutch, he could shake the change out of your pockets and make you puke on your girlfriend.

While we were scouting bottles for the deposits, we tried to look for loose change under the big rides. The carnies would run us off, though, because they considered that “their” money.

Not a Fair Week without rain

SEMO fairs are either hot and dusty or rainy and muddy. Frequently, they are both. Sometimes they even mix in cold and windy with the rainy.

Crafts and Good food

All of the action didn’t take place on the midway. Cape was an agricultural area, so there were plenty of 4H and livestock exhibits. The Arena building was stuffed with baking contests, quilts and sewing competitions with their blue, red and white ribbons.

In addition to the exhibits, there were scores of booths set up that were the Real World equivalents of the Home Shopping Network. Barkers were hawking every imaginable thing. No kid – and few adults – went home without a shopping bag of handouts and samples.

It was a great place to go when you had run out of money and soda bottles.

Southeast Missouri District Fair Gallery

Here’s a gallery of photos taken at the Southeast Missouri District Fair in the middle and / or late 60s. I don’t know that they were all taken in the same year. The earliest photos would have been of the 1964 fair. Click on any image to make it larger, then click on the left or right wide of the photo to move through the gallery.

Earth Day 2010

Warning: non-Cape, obligatory Earth Day content follows.

When I was working for The Athens (OH) Messenger, I had to produce five photo essays a week. We called it The Picture Page, but it was really a 9×17-inch hole that was given to the photographers to fill during the weekdays. We had to find the subject, shoot it, write a minimal amount of copy and lay it out ourselves.

Deadline was 10 a.m. and I was sucking air. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to fill the space. I didn’t want to be the first photographer to end his career at The Mess by having a 9×17-inch blank space mark his professional obituary.

Please, let there be a picture out there

With the clock clicking down, I was frantically driving around hoping SOMETHING would catch my eye.

Suddenly, this tree popped out of the fog. I knocked off a couple of frames before the light changed, then blasted back to the darkroom. I needed to cut corners, so instead of spending seven minutes using film developer, I used paper developer, which produces more grain and contrast, but only took two minutes. Serendipity kicked in and the technique made the photo better instead of worse.

This and another photo of the park got me off the hook for yet another morning. It turned out to be one of the most popular photos I took in three years at the paper.

Hocking River flood control took my tree

About six months later, I went back to the site to shoot this photo. A flood control project to reroute the Hocking River was going right over my tree. This was the result.

Hokey Poem #22

I was flattered when Carol Towarnicky, a reporter I worked with at The Ohio University Post, wrote Hokey Poem #22, which said, in part,

. . . consider the man.
who records the land.
low-key, like the hills.
gentle, like those who
who dot the country side.

familiar, calm.
he grabs his camera,
squints, clicks, moves on,
nonchalantly.

who ridicules the thought
of an “eternal message,”
yet mourns the passage
of a tree.

I’m sure CT (I called her that because Towarnicky was a mouthful, even for someone with a name like Steinhoff) was rushing to meet a writing class deadline like I was trying to fill a hole on just another work day, but I still hold on to that tree photo and Hokey Poem #22. It’s funny how something seemingly insignificant can mean so much.

The First Earth Day

My  photo of an abandoned strip mine in southern Ohio ran on the front page of The Athens Messenger on the first Earth Day. You can read the whole story about the picture here.

One-Shot Frony

GD Fronabarger c 1967

Everyone’s been shot by Frony

There’s probably nobody who lived in Southeast Missouri between 1927 and 1986 who hadn’t had his or her picture taken by One-Shot Frony.

G.D. Fronabarger started working at The Southeast Missourian in 1927 and stayed 59 years.

When I knew him, he was called One-Shot because he seldom took more than one picture per assignment. He’d line up a group shot with 50 people in it, growl through the cigar clenched between his teeth, “Don’t blink. I’m taking one shot,” push the shutter release and walk off.

He and I had a somewhat tense relationship in our early days. I was a reporter who got paid $5 for each shot that ran… when one ran. Because most of the staffers liked my candid style, as opposed to Frony’s more formal posed pictures, they’d connive to slip assigments to me on days when they knew Frony wasn’t available. He was gruff with everybody, but it always felt like he was a little more gruff with me.

Frony defended a controversial picture

Barge fatalities 12-05-1966That all changed after I went out on an early-morning spot news run Dec. 5, 1966.

A 19-year-old and another man were cleaning the inside of a closed barge with gasoline when they were overcome by the fumes. I took a front-page picture of the young man laying face-down on the cold barge deck while rescue workers lifted his partner out of the hold.

It was the first body I had ever seen outside of a funeral home – certainly the only one of someone my age – and it was one of the few I can recall The Missourian running. Seeing that, and writing the obituary of a kid I went to kindergarten with, showed me just how fragile life is. I never forgot it.

Predictably, the paper came in for a lot of criticism

I was surprised one day when I was in a coffee shop and overheard Frony defending “the kid” who took the picture to someone who was bending his ear. After that, Frony treated me a lot differently. Maybe he felt like I had paid my dues and had what it took to be a real newspaper photographer.

Fred Lynch is preserving Frony’s early work

Southeast Missourian Photographer Fred Lynch

I dropped in to see Fred Lynch, a Missourian photographer since 1975. I had seen his work over the years, but had never met him. While we were sharing war stories, he said that he was involved in a project to digitize all of Frony’s 4×5 negatives.

Frony was an early adopter of 35mm technology. He showed me a long telephoto lens one afternoon, and I asked what he planned to use it for.

“I’m going to stand here and shoot corruption in Illinois,” he groused, without a hint of a smile.

Fred pulled out a series of prints that showed a completely different side of Frony, the photographer. There were images that would qualify as art in any museum. He managed to capture a portrait of his era in a way I hope my pictures do.

I’m not sure how The Missourian will ultimately use the photos, but I’ll be first in line to buy the book if they publish one.

Frony’s Twister Tornado Warning Alarm

Tornado Warning Alarm owned by G.D. FronabargerI happened to be in town when many of Frony’s possessions were auctioned off. (A copy of the picture of him on the river front was one of the things that sold. I was touched that he had hung onto it for all those years.)

One thing that caught my eye was a Twister Tornado Warning Alarm. It was a quirky device that had a metal can in the middle. If the air pressure dropped suddenly, a buzzer would sound and a light would light. It had no practical use, but it was neat.

Auctioneer sweetened the deal

I bid two or three bucks and figured I had a clear shot. The auctioneer, though, wanted to boost the bid, so he threw in two pairs of Frony’s old shoes. One was an orangish color not seen in nature. NOW folks were getting interested. I think I finally had to go to five or seven bucks for my trophy, plus the bleeping shoes.

I felt foolish enough buying the Twister Torado Warning Alarm (which, by the way, is on permanent loan to the Mark Steinhoff Memorial Museum in St. Louis), the shoes made me feel REALLY foolish.

Frony Shoes are still in service

Frony Shoes, modeled by Matt SteinhoffIt turned out that Kid Matt, who was in high school at the time, thought they were the most comfortable things he’d ever found. And, showing that he had inherited his fashion sense from me, he insisted on wearing them in public.

I asked him the other night what ever happened to his Frony Shoes.

He was more than happy to pull them out of his closet to pose for this picture.

I guess you could say that the Steinhoffs have walked a mile in Frony’s shoes.