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.

32 Replies to “1964 SEMO Fair Exposé”

  1. My family moved to Cape in 1964. We lived on Rodney Drive right near Arena Park. I could ride my bike to the fair and i spent many hours gawking at the carnies and tried my hand at all the rigged games.This was a true fantasy world for a young boy. Thanks for posting these great pics.

  2. Great photos and comments, Ken. This is also Fair week in Kansas – the state fair is in Hutchinson,KS – chances are good for rain today. Looking for boys at the Cape fair was always a main attraction; funny, now it’s all the agricultural things I didn’t even know existed when I was a young fair goer.

  3. This post brings back a lot of memories, Ken. The Fair and Jackson’s Homecoming were wonderful times for kids.

    I loved the fried fish that was always sold at the Fair…I think a Methodist church group had that stand. Always looked forward to getting some of that fish.

    1. I’ve got some Jackson Homecomers photos I’ve been sitting on until I run across a batch that I remembered taking.

      If you were a Dairy Queen or a politician milking a cow, I probably have a photo of you. I just have to find them.

  4. These pictures certainly hit home for me this week. Since it is election year for me I have to spend every evening at the fair to do some campaigning! The food stands are unbelievable now. Very few local ones still exist but the Methodist still do fish and the Lutherans still have their stand. Prices are outrageous but people are there any way. No economic crisis at the fair! No girlie show either…at least I haven’t seen any but haven’t even made it down the Midway or to the livestock. Gotta see me some pigs…love ’em! Thanks Ken for the pictures.

  5. Just reread my post and thought I shoud clarify that when I said I had to see some pigs that I was referring to the pigs in the livestock tents.

    1. Yep, there’s no doubt that you’re a politician. You didn’t want to leave that pig statement hanging out there.

      I guess the Internet has killed off the girlie shows. Darn. Just about the time I get old enough to get in, they get rid of them.

  6. I made it to the Follies. I was 16 maybe. I remember Lonnie Mack’s version of “Memphis” was the song they played, when those “gorgeous” girls made an enticing appearance in front of the crowd. It was innocent back then nobody had a panic attack about the show being there. Today, there would be a huge outrage from the moralists. On the other hand I think my generation of teenagers were more grounded in common sense and not apt to be morally corrupted from the experience.

    1. my generation of teenagers were more grounded in common sense and not apt to be morally corrupted from the experience.

      That is a real shame. You don’t know what you’re missing.


  7. I forgot all about getting an afternoon off from school to go to the fair! Was that a great time and place to grow up or what? I also remember that Fair Day was always the day we went to the fair with our friends and did the midway attractions. I would always come back at another time with my parents and see the livestock, exhibits, etc.

  8. WOW, what memories the pictures evoke! My two favorite “eating” establishments were Popp’s Pig-in-a-Blanket and Malone’s Taffy – they were usually side by side, just north of the Trinity Lutheran Men’s Club stand. Sure do miss Popp’s, but I still am able to enjoy the Malone’s Taffy – if I can’t get to the fair, I have a faithful relative pick up a box for me. Way back in about 1962, at the age of 7 years old, I actually won a BLUE RIBBON for my submission of Chocolate Chip Cookies – I still have that ribbon to this day.

  9. These pics are almost like being there . . . without the wet sawdust sticking to my shoes. Of course, no Methodist men’s fish dinners either.

  10. Ken, always enjoy your pictures and articles. But the fair day review really warmed my heart because I haven’t been able to attend in years. Seeing the the pictures caused me to smile and remember the days of getting a new pair of levi jeans and wearing my saddle oxfords….life was great! Actually fair days just about trumped any day. My dad, Bill, always worked the Lutheran Men’s Club stand and those hamburgers were the best.
    Thanks for the memories!

  11. Although I haven’t been to the fair in years, I can still remember it like it was yesterday! Fair Day on the Midway with your friends – it just didn’t get any better than that! Thanks for the stroll down Memory Lane 🙂

  12. The Grace Methodist Fish Stand is still going! I fried fish Monday and Tuesday night this year. My Boy Scout Troop provided the labor for those two nights. The fish is Whiting ordered special from Schnucks.

  13. These pictures are fabulous! I can close my eyes and hear the sound of those generators, I can SEE the greasy carnies with their cigarette packs in their sleeves. I was always afraid of the ones at the games and when we walked by the girly show my mother would turn me so I couldn’t see and hurry me by. Wet sawdust! Glitter everywhere! Those wire cables we had to try to avoid. Nothing like it EVER!

    1. Mary,

      After about 1835, old timers used to say, “You’ve been to town and seen the elephant.”

      Based on your memories, I would guess you saw the elephant or, at least, heard it trumpet.

  14. Hmmmmmmm. I’m not sure I know how you mean that Ken! I’m 55, which is not so very old! I remember my grandma babysitting me before I started school. She was born in 1886 and would tell these wonderful stories about horse drawn wagons cooking over fires and and none of the “modern conveniences” like the telephone and running water!

    Now I have 5 grandchildren of my own. They can’t believe we used to have phones that were wired to the wall, TVs with knobs you had to get up and turn if you wanted to watch one of the three channels, and the only place you could watch a movie was at a theater!

    Oh my goodness! I’ve turned into not only my mother, but my GRANDMOTHER!

  15. The early sixties were college years for me, and the employment office was busy finding me part time jobs – 2 weeks here & there. One job was working at the taffy stand at the fair. Not sure if the same people own it today, but they were nice. I got all the warm taffy I could eat!

  16. Ken;
    I have studied your picture of the nice gentleman that helped you to get safely off the midway and to your car. That gentleman was my cousin, the late Ben Kight from Arbor, Missouri. Ben, a farmer, was on the Fair Board for many years. He was a very nice man. As far as being a big burly guy, he was probably about 5’10” 200 or so pounds. As a person that spends a lot of time outside, he would have been well tanned and ruddy complexed.

    As far as the “girlie” show. I think my grandmother called it the “hoochie coochie” show. I never got pass seeing the girls on the outside and was afraid someone I knew would see me looking at them. Going into the tent was out of the question. Besides I think you had to be a certain age to go in.

    I enjoyed the penny arcade on the Midway, collecting baseball and actor cards from the machines. I worked in the American Legion food stand when I got older.

    1. Bill,

      I don’t think the fellow who might have been your cousin was the one who escorted me to my car. I think it was two younger guys who were most likely with the shows.

      I had heard the expression “hoochie coochie,” too, but didn’t know the origin. Here’s what I found:

      “The Hoochie coochie was a sexually provocative dance that became wildly popular during and after the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

      “Since the dance was performed by women, a ‘hoochie coochie man’ either watched them or ran the show.”

      Muddy Waters performed the song, (I’m your) Hoochie Coochie Man in 1954. It’s been covered by almost three dozen artists since then.

    2. Bill,
      I’ve been researching the Kight family for over 20 yrs now and csn’t figure where you tie in as Ben’s cousin. I share a house with Robert Kight in Ballwin. Can you let me know how you tie into the family?

  17. Your web site is awesome! Are grateful for putting this up on the internet and making things simple for the avarage reader!

  18. Ken, thanks so much for all the pictures. My dad was president of the Fair Board for years and I help him. I did a lot of watering of the track, and electrical work setting up the local merchants stands. It was great fun and I made a lot of friends over the years doing it. I lived in the corner of Arena Park from 1946 until 1964 so I went to the fair all the time. Thanks again for the pictures. Lots of great memories!

  19. These are great photos of the fair in the 1960s! Can I use one or two for a class oral history that is based on the SEMO District Fair if I give the credit to Ken Steinhoff?

  20. My husband’s great uncle, C.C. Groscurth, started the Bluegrass Shows Carnival. It is great to see the photos of the carnival in its heyday. Are there any other photos you would be willing to share with the family? We don’t have many. Any info about the carnival would be appreciated!

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