The old dirt track was barely recognizable. To someone who had been there in its heyday several years before, there were still some things that might have looked familiar, but probably not much. New buildings were going up, and old buildings being torn down. What was once an aging eyesore on the western edge of Davenport, Iowa, was being transfigured into what would be one of the biggest annual events in eastern Iowa – the Mississippi Valley Fair.
Built to Be Bigger
The Mississippi Valley Fair, like most great things, started as an idea.
It was the early years of the 20th century, and county fairs were great sources of entertainment. City folk and their rural cousins alike would flock to a large fairground in their county and play games, show off their livestock, and enter friendly competitions. In the days before television, the county fair was a tremendous source of live entertainment.
But there were some in Scott County that dreamed bigger. They weren’t satisfied with the county fairs. Davenport and Bettendorf, the two largest cities in the county, were experiencing rapid growth and prosperity. Industry was thriving, and while some were merely comfortable, there were others in the area that grew rich through various businesses. Life was good. It was time to show the world just how good.
In 1919, a group of individuals gathered together to pioneer a new entertainment venture. They imagined a regional fair that would be second in size and prestige only to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
Assembling at the Blackhawk Hotel in Davenport, they elected officers and formally made the Mississippi Valley Fair Association. There were twelve officers, headed by Matthew H. Calderwood, a banker and former farmer from Eldridge, Iowa.
These were ambitious men, and they wasted no time. They began to seek out suitable real estate for their proposed fair. In late 1919, they found their site – a former mile-long horse racing track west of Davenport. It hadn’t been used for several years, but it came with more than enough land to build their dream.
They bought the land and began to accept bids on the work. Eventually, the construction contract went to Walsh Construction, a locally-based firm that handled jobs all over the country. Working for them was Arthur Ebeling, one of the most iconic architects of the Quad Cities area. By that time, he had designed several homes along the Davenport bluffs, including the Kahl Home, both the William and Joseph Bettendorf mansions, and the Carmelite Monastery. He was experienced, ambitious, and capable. He designed all the buildings on the site.
A landscape architect, L.W. Ramsey, was hired to design the fairgrounds themselves. The Association board members, for their part, had visited some of the largest fairgrounds in the Midwest to see for themselves what aspects they liked and which ones they didn’t. With their input, Ebeling and Ramsey began to design the initial layout of the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds.
Building the Dream
A livestock pavilion and six stock barns were needed, as well as a Woman’s Building. This building would house everything to do with the domestic sphere, including handmade arts and crafts, as well as various cooking competitions.
The horse track would be shortened to provide room for other structures on the fairgrounds. The track would then be levelled and graded for the races. Barns would be built specifically to house the horses themselves.
The center piece of all this was the grandstand. Originally designed to seat 6000 people, the building’s roof slanted upwards to allow people an unobstructed view of airplane shows. With a normal roof, a seated viewer wouldn’t be able to watch the show if the person in front of them stood up. With the slanted roof that Ebeling designed, the seated person could still watch unimpeded.
A special power line was run to the new fairgrounds to provide electricity. The idea was that when night fell, the lights would be turned on and the festivities would continue into the evening hours virtually unimpeded.
Because it was outside of the city, transportation was a consideration for the Association almost from the beginning. First, they struck a deal with the Rock Island Railroad to procure passenger cars that would bring people from downtown Davenport all the way out to the fairgrounds. Several automobiles were also appropriated for shuttling fairgoers to and from the fair.
To help accommodate the flood of foot traffic and cars, the city of Davenport made plans to have the dirt road leading to the fairgrounds regraded and oiled, to provide for a smoother, less dusty drive.
While the Mississippi Valley Fair Association booked acts for entertainment and sorted through funding and logistical issues, Walsh Construction was hard at work. From the beginning, they were fighting an uphill battle.
They had signed on to take a rundown horse racing track and turn it into the premiere fairground attraction of eastern Iowa in just a few months. In 1920, they didn’t have the benefit of large-scale mechanized machinery or power tools. What they did have was horsepower, manpower, and a will to succeed.
One hundred and twenty-five men under the supervision of Harry Rand, superintendent of Walsh Construction, set to work as soon as the winter frost had thawed sufficiently to allow work. They quickly began erecting the new buildings, setting the landscape, and making sure all the utilities were hooked up and running.
On July 29, 1920, the directors of the Mississippi Valley Fair Association, along with anyone else in charge of any number of the myriad projects happening on the fairgrounds, met for a progress meeting. All of those in attendance were amazingly optimistic and enthusiastic about the fair, which was set to open in a few weeks.
Many of the buildings were done, with the utilities hooked up. There was tremendous interest in the fair, and people were excited to come and see it. Entertainment had been booked, prize money for competitors procured, and parking and transportation provided for. The fair was ready to begin.
On August 16, 1920, the very first Mississippi Valley Fair opened. The turnout was even better than expected.
Thousands of people came to see the fair, not only from eastern Iowa but also western Illinois. There were so many livestock competitors for hogs, cattle, and sheep that giant tents were erected to accommodate the overflow from the stock barns.
Women’s associations made sure that female attendees had restrooms to use. They also oversaw several different kinds of cooking, baking, and craft competitions specifically for women. Guest speakers were brought in to give lectures on several different subjects.
Special activities and competitions were there specifically for children. Food vendors provided special treats like ice cream to fairgoers. Several clothing companies, including local dealers Petersen, Hagge, and Von Maur were on site, selling the latest fashion trends.
Race horses competed along the new track, coming in from both Iowa and Illinois. Musical acts gave attendees something to listen to and dance along with. And in the skies, Lt. Ormer Locklear delighted audiences in the grandstand by climbing from one airplane to another in midair.
There had been skeptics. There had been those who said that the Mississippi Valley Fair Association and Walsh Construction wouldn’t be able to build the new grounds, and the fledgling fair would fall on its face like a newborn calf.
But it hadn’t.
The fair was a roaring success. Thousands attended, and it truly was a spectacle to rival the Iowa State Fair. It had a little something for everyone, and if you walked away without being entertained, then you must have walked around the fair with your eyes covered and with wax in your ears.
But, despite the success of the fair, the Association remained humble. M.H. Calderwood, the president of the Association, said simply that the project had brought everyone together, and together they had made it come to life. Instead of one group pulling more than the others, the cities, county, builders, societies, and associations had made the fair happen as a community.
On Tuesday, August 1, 2017, the 98th Mississippi Valley Fair opened. The dream that so many had all those years ago is still bringing together the Scott County community to make it happen all over again.