Revitalized and Reenergized
By Jean Wasko, Missouri Historical Society
Caduceus, the Beaumont High School yearbook for 1926, contains an essay by Helen Kahl, a graduating senior, who encourages her peers to take a new look at a “familiar spot.” Her subject is Fairground Park, a city park adjacent to the north-side high school and known intimately by the students who passed it daily. The park’s identity, Helen would have the students know, is not contained by the spatial boundaries she lays out—Grand to Fair and Kossuth to Natural Bridge. Looking to the past, she takes her readers for a ride on the Mound City car, which leaves them off at the Grand Avenue entrance where visitors were admitted to the fairgrounds a half-century earlier. As the graduates confront the future, Helen evokes the past.
Grand entrance of Fairground Park. Colored engraving by Wittenberg and Sorber, 1888. MHS Photographs and Prints.
“We see the very lake upon which many of us have skated,” she writes. “Standing beside it, one sees the familiar bear pit, the only present remains.” A skilled writer, Helen works to establish continuity between the fairground of the past and the park that her audience knows. Her description—replete with exotic animals, balloon ascents, parachute jumps, and visits from “the great western trailblazer, Buffalo Bill”—creates the spectacle of the fairs provided by the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Association between 1856 and 1902. A careful historian, she notes that fairs were suspended for five years during the Civil War when U.S. troops occupied the grounds. Her audience learns that the land was purchased by the city in 1908 and dedicated as a public park in 1911. Helen concludes, “Thus our present Fair Grounds was established, offering amusements of various sorts to the public and creating for Beaumont a campus perhaps unsurpassed in this state.”
The quote beneath Helen’s picture in another section of the yearbook from 1926 reads, “Who makes quick use of the moment is a genius of prudence,” an apt description of the young graduate, who, facing the future, seized a present moment to savor the past with a sense of pride.
|The Great Fair at St. Louis. Wood engraving, 1877. MHS Photographs and Prints.|
Helen was not the first to view the acres that became Fairground Park as a locus of value. In fact, its origin speaks to the issue of civic pride in an era when expositions were designed to reflect the greatness of cities. A Visitor’s Guide to St. Louis and Exposition Directory, published in 1885, offers a brief history of annual meetings and fairs that took place all over the world in the late 19th century, concluding that they show “not only the footprints of progress in the arts and sciences, but also the plainest indication that where the most successful Exhibitions have been held, there also live the people who are in the advance guard of progress in all that pertains to the elevation of mankind.”
Framing its goals in more practical language, the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Association organized the fairs that gave the park its name for the purpose of promoting St. Louis industry and agriculture, and their efforts have been described as the “most successful promotion of St. Louis in the city’s history.” This promotional campaign began in 1855 when Colonel J. Richard Barrett, a member of the state legislature, joined with a group of local civic leaders determined to establish annual fairs. The next year, using funds raised through memberships and subscriptions, they purchased fifty acres of land at the northwest corner of Grand Avenue and the Natural Bridge Plank Road for $50,000. The land, sold to them by Colonel John O’Fallon, nephew to William Clark, had become a part of the city of St. Louis just the previous year when its boundaries were expanded.
St. Louis Fairgrounds. Lithograph by Camille N. Dry, 1874. MHS Photographs and Prints.
Determined to hold its first fair in the fall of 1856, the group worked quickly, converting the rural acreage into a fairground in less than a year. A nine-foot wooden fence surrounding the site was the first construction project. By the time the fair opened on October 13, visitors saw eight fountains, a mechanics building, a floral tent, a machine shop, livestock stalls, and the largest amphitheater in the United States. Its two tiers provided seating for 12,000 people, with standing room available for another 24,000, along with booths for 81 vendors and a pressroom. In the center of the amphitheater was an elaborate three-story pagoda for dignitaries and judges.
The weeklong fair was an immediate success, producing $25,000 in profits. Although stockholders had financed the fair, it was agreed that profits would go back into improving the event and the grounds for future years. The association made good on these plans as visitors returned each year to find new attractions like the permanent floral hall, a fine arts hall, and a wonderful three-story gallinarium or “Chicken Palace,” described as a “Victorian whimsy.” Women were able to rest at the “Ladies Cottage,” where two maids were always present to serve their needs. With their keen insight for revenue, the fair’s board made the grounds available to the public for private picnics in 1860.
Also in that year, an event of great historic significance took place at the fairgrounds on July 9—the first regular game of baseball was played in St. Louis when the Cyclone took on the Morningstar Baseball Club. It was clear, however, that baseball fever had not yet taken hold, since the morning paper did not even report the scores.
The association encountered a problem in 1860 when the agricultural yield was compromised by drought. Fearing diminished crowds, the board invited the Prince of Wales to attend the fair. His Royal Highness attracted a crowd of 100,000 who did not seem to notice that the agricultural hall lacked its usual bounty.
|Benton Barracks. Lithograph by A. McClean, 1862. MHS Library.|
The excitement generated by the fair came to an end in 1861 when Col. John O’Fallon leased land immediately west of the grounds to the government as a site to train soldiers for the Civil War, and the fairgrounds too were dedicated to military purposes. General John C. Frémont was responsible for the installation of “Benton Barracks” and the training of 20,000 men. During the war years, the amphitheater became a military hospital, described as follows in a document from 1864:
It was enclosed, thoroughly whitewashed, furnished with iron bedsteads and good beds, and converted into one of the largest, most thoroughly ventilated and best hospitals in the United States, capable of accommodating two thousand five hundred patients. Numerous other buildings . . . were used for officer’s quarters, medical dispensary, commissary rooms, special diet kitchens, &c. and the fine walks and splendid shade added much to the beauty and attractiveness of the place.
It should be noted that the hospital had a separate facility for black soldiers and for sick or injured slave refugees who came to St. Louis in great numbers.
When the fair resumed in October of 1866, the Agricultural and Mechanical Association resumed its pattern of offering its audience new attractions each year. First on the agenda was enlarging and rebuilding the amphitheater to a diameter of 450 feet. In 1874, Julius Walsh, president of the association, opened the park grounds to the public for their use as a park when the fair was not in session. The grounds were expanded by 83 acres, allowing for further development. Thus a new Mechanical Hall, the largest building on the fairgrounds, greeted visitors in 1876 when the Zoological Gardens were also established. Patterned on the best European models, the structures included a monkey house, bear pits, an aviary, and a carnivore house, with outdoor areas for herbivorous animals added later. Between 1856 and 1883, more than one million dollars were spent developing the fairgrounds as an attraction with an international reputation.
|Bird Cage at Fairground Park. Photograph by Robert Benecke, 1870s. MHS Photographs and Prints.|
George B. Berrell, a prolific journalist, gives a first-hand account of the visitor experience at the Fair:
I might fill this book in describing all I saw there and then not do justice to the subject. I particularly noticed some very fine displays of surgical and mathematical instruments, dentistry hardware, opera glasses and jewelry, crockery and china ware, fire arms . . . but derived more satisfaction from the collection of beasts and birds. Foremost among these were two superb specimens of sea lions, several lions, tigers, hyenas, leopards, kangaroos, tapir, prairie dogs, various kinds of squirrels, a couple of deodorized pole cats, foxes, opossum, raccoon, different species of the monkey tribe, quite a number of black bears, several grizzly bears, deer, elk, a South American ostrich, a fine collection of birds and many other specimens of the animal kingdom. During our stay we had the good fortune to witness a very fine drill by Chickasaw Guards, of Memphis. We left the grounds about six o’clock, and only by a little sharp practice could we obtain seats in the cars, so great was the number of people returning homeward.
The crowds on the streetcar reflected the popularity of the fair during its heyday in the 1870s when it received international recognition for combining agricultural displays with a celebration of modern urban life. The fair was considered significant enough for visits from three presidents—Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, and William Henry Harrison. In 1883, average daily attendance was 40,000, and “Big Thursday” during the week of the fair was a public holiday in the city of St. Louis when as many as 80,000 people entered the fairgrounds.
Although George Berrell does not mention it in his catalogue of wonders at the fair, a newspaper story on July 1, 1877, announced a new attraction—horse racing:
The newly-formed St. Louis Jockey Club, made up of a group of prominent businessmen, purchased an 85-acre tract at the western edge of the city for the site of a first-class racetrack. The city at one time had several tracks, but there was none now, interest in the sport having languished when “rings of crooked jockeys and horse sharks” got control of the tracks.
The new track seemed safe from the seamy side of the sport with membership in the Jockey Club limited to 300 of the city’s leading citizens who enjoyed the amenities of the club house—a three-story structure in high Victorian style, with a high-peaked slate roof, gables, towers, cupola, and gentlemen’s amenities like a bowling alley and billiard room. Elegantly appointed, with paneled walls, stained glass, ornamental urns, and oriental rugs, the Jockey Club was considered one of the finest buildings of its type in the country. While members could watch the races from the club’s viewing deck, grandstand seating was available for other racing fans, who enjoyed the sight of elephants pulling sledges to smooth the track. The track's finest hour occurred in 1886 when St. Louis hosted the National Derby.
|Crowd at the Jockey Club in Fairground Park watching the St. Louis Derby in 1896. Halftone. MHS Photographs and Prints.|
What became of the racetrack, the splendid Jockey Club, the exotic zoo, the amphitheater, and the fair itself? It is hard to believe that in 1908, when the city purchased the land, everything but the façade of the bear pits and the amphitheater was destroyed. To a certain degree, the racetrack stands at the center of the story of the fair’s decline. The crowd that came to enjoy the races was not the same as the earlier audience that rode the streetcar with George Berrell. The elite racing fans were not interested in the agricultural and mechanical exhibitions, and the business that these displays generated declined. The addition of the Veiled Prophet events to the fair celebration further fragmented the audience and diffused the focus of the fair. In the 1890s, when interest in horse racing as a sport began to decline, it was revitalized briefly by the opportunity to bet. But in 1905, Joseph A. Folk campaigned for governor on a platform for abolishing betting, and his election delivered a deathblow to horse racing. That same year the Jockey Club closed its track, and the clubhouse and the grandstand were demolished.
The fair’s board of directors worked valiantly to keep their event alive. In 1892 they thrilled the public with the ascension of a hot air balloon, and in 1893 the grounds were wired for electricity, allowing for evening events and the public spectacle of electric lights. A theater and summer gardens were added. In 1902 St. Louis enjoyed yet another first at the fairgrounds with an automobile race where the winner reached the lightning speed of 38 miles per hour. But the fair ended its long run that same year as all eyes turned to Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, which was slated to become the new stage where St. Louis would show the world that it stood in “the advance guard of progress in all that pertains to the elevation of mankind.”
After the last fair in 1902, the grounds lay abandoned until 1908 when the city purchased the land for a park. The annual report for the parks department in 1909 acknowledges the involvement of Rolla Wells, mayor of St. Louis, and James Y. Player, comptroller, in the purchase of “the old Fair Grounds.” Keen negotiation by these community leaders, the report suggests, brought the asking price from $1,700,000 to an affordable $700,000 for 128.94 acres. The park department approved the name “Fairground Park,” removed the fair’s structures except for the bear pits and the amphitheater, and prepared for a dedication ceremony. This event, introducing a new chapter in the proud history of the fairgrounds, framed the importance of place in the context of time, much as Helen Kahl had done. The celebration was grounded in history, and the speaker’s message encompassed past, present, and future.
|Crowd gathered for the dedication of Fairground Park on October 9, 1909. Photograph by William Burton. MHS Photographs and Prints.|
The dedication took place as part of a weeklong centennial celebration of the incorporation of St. Louis. The specific date, October 9, was dubbed “St. Louis Day,” when 25,000 people attended the ceremony, which included a grand parade. A contemporary description notes that the “reviewing stand was located on the spot where the Prince of Wales entered the now historic amphitheater in 1860—the amphitheater where every prominent person who visited St. Louis during the Fair Week of old was entertained.”
Thus the greatness of the past added significance to the events of the present, which had been planned by the North St. Louis Fairground Park Patrons’ Association. Among the dignitaries on the stand were Col. John McFall and Maj. Joseph A. McWherry, whose presence commemorated the role the grounds had played in the Civil War, when the former commanded the Twenty-sixth Missouri Infantry and the latter served in the Missouri Regiment.
The speaker at the event, General John W. Noble, who also knew the space during its Benton Barracks days, seized upon “instruction” as a theme to give coherence to the history of the place:
Instruction has been the very root of this soil from the days O’Fallon gave money to build an agricultural and mechanical institute. . . . Here the seeds of industry were planted, and progress made and studied in every direction.
Even during the Civil War, he noted, it was a place where soldiers received instruction. Then Noble shifted his attention to the 500 school children who had performed at the ceremony, marching onto the field in six columns, dressed in white and navy, and performing calisthenics. Concluding his speech, he dedicated the park to the future embodied in the children: “Here the future of the United States may play and learn of nature and nature’s God.”
Since that time Fairground Park has served the recreational needs of the neighborhood that shares its name. While it never again enjoyed its former status as the park in St. Louis, Fairground continued to bring some “firsts” to the area. In October 1911, for example, the first airmail in the world was flown to Fairground Park from Kinloch. In 1912 work began on the city’s first municipal swimming pool, built at the site of the old amphitheater, and, like its predecessor, it was distinguished by its size. At 440 feet in diameter, it qualified as the largest swimming pool in the world, and reports indicate that 10,000 to 12,000 swimmers enjoyed the pool each day, depending on the weather.
An article in the St. Louis Republican under the byline of Richard G. Tindall celebrates the pool as a “big factor in moral renovation and building up health of thousands.” Tindall is hyperbolic in his description:
Fairground Park pool shortly after its opening. Photograph, ca. 1915. MHS Photographs and Prints.
As a swimming pool, it’s the biggest of its kind in the world. As an instantaneous sixty-ice-power cooler-off of the young and old afflicted with malevolent meltingitis, it is 100 per cent efficient. And as a civic institution, automatically making bad citizens good and good citizens better, it’s a bird.
Given that Tindall’s words appear under an elaborate drawing of the pool filled with swimmers giving their opinions in cartoon balloons, we wonder if his tongue is not in his cheek. But a citation from Park Commissioner Dwight F. Davis seems to indicate otherwise:
There is nothing in the same line that makes for better citizenship. I believe a clean man is better than a dirty man. He has more self-respect. The pool certainly makes our citizens healthier. . . . Anyone will agree it is better to have boys indulging in healthful exercise in good surroundings than for them to be loitering around saloons and poolrooms all the time, and developing into our very toughest gangsters.
Tindall concludes his article with a reference to the park’s illustrious past, recalling the “annual fair” as “a thing of beauty and a joy to thousands.” With the “mammoth swimming pool, where thousands splash and sputter joyously,” he writes, “St. Louis is getting even more fun than ever out of the Fairground.”
|An unidentified young man being beaten during the riot over the Fairground Pool desegregation. Photograph © 1949 by Buel White of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.|
In the next chapter of the history of Fairground Park, this swimming pool, touted for its capacity to develop citizenship, served as the site for a civics lesson. On June 21, 1949, a race riot took place when, for the first time, African Americans were permitted to enjoy the pool. The violence occurred against a background of inconsistency when public practice in St. Louis had not caught up with federal laws related to desegregation. While the Municipal Opera, area ballparks, and public transportation were open to all, theaters, restaurants, and hotels were segregated. The Missouri Constitution required that “Negro and white children must learn separately,” but Catholic schools educated all students regardless of race. The Division of Parks and Recreation operated under a deliberately vague policy in relation to its facilities. While the Social Service Directory indicated that all facilities were open to all people, the Commissioner, Palmer B. Baumers, admitted that they were, in fact, restricted. When pushed about the issue, he said, “I inherited this. We just try to please everybody.”
In 1949 the city provided seven indoor swimming pools, four for whites and three for African Americans. The two outdoor pools in city parks were for whites only. The day before the pools were scheduled to open in 1949, a reporter from the long-defunct St. Louis Star-Times asked the city’s welfare director, John J. O'Toole, “whether Negroes could be allowed to swim in all the city’s public pools,” as “there was no law saying they couldn’t.” O’Toole replied: “If the colored people apply for admittance, my order is to admit them. I am not going to be a party to an unlawful gentleman’s agreement.” He used the phrase, gentleman’s agreement, to describe the tradition of segregation that the commissioner seemed to endorse.
When the pool opened on the June 21, the crowd was much smaller than usual. But several hundred boys lined up, with about thirty of them African American; the girls, who were much fewer in number, were all white. While reports suggest that some whites returned to the locker area and left “when the first Negroes splashed into the outdoor pool,” there was no violence within the confines of the pool itself. However, a large crowd of rowdy white youth gathered outside the enclosure, calling names and making threats. Police arrived to escort the African American swimmers from the pool area as closing time approached. Although some onlookers believed the police showed a bit too much sympathy for the gathering mob, the children all reached home safely.
But trouble persisted throughout the evening hours. A Time magazine article, illustrated with a picture of an African American being kicked by whites, described the ugly scene that ensued for a national audience:
. . . all that afternoon, fist fights blazed up; Negro boys were chased and beaten by white gangs. In the gathering dusk, one grown-up rabble-rouser spoke out. “Want to know how to take care of those niggers?” he shouted. “Get bricks. Smash their
heads. . . .”
The crowd cornered two terror-stricken Negro boys against a fence. Under a volley of fists, clubs and stones, the boys went down—but not before one of them had whipped out a knife and stabbed one of his attackers. In the surge of fury the nearest whites kicked and pummeled the two prostrate bodies, turned angrily on rescuing police with shouts of “nigger-lover.”
It took more than 150 police officers until the early morning hours to dispel the crowd of 5,000. When the streets finally cleared, ten African Americans and five whites had been hospitalized.
The next day Mayor Joseph M. Darst ordered both of the outdoor pools closed and announced that the city would return to its practice of segregation. While admitting that O’Toole was “on sound legal ground” in integrating the pools, the Major argued that segregation was right for St. Louis:
. . . there has existed for many years in St. Louis a community policy with respect to public swimming pools, voluntarily complied with by both white and colored citizens. Our white citizens have customarily used the pools conveniently located to them, while the colored citizens have patronized the pools in their neighborhoods.
This practice has worked well. St. Louis has become noted for its tolerance and its progress in the field of amicable race relations.
In the months that followed, the newly formed St. Louis Council on Human Relations commissioned a report, “The Fairgrounds Park Incident,” which was prepared by George Schermer, director of the mayor’s inter-racial committee in Detroit. While the ostensible purpose of the study was to find solutions and not to lay blame, the newspaper article that describes its release makes other implications: “Responsibility for the racial disturbance at Fairgrounds Park June 21 must be shared by many people—public officials, civic, religious, business and labor leaders—and by Missouri’s segregated school system, an investigator, George Schermer, said today.” Schermer cited “the failure of community leadership to prepare St. Louisans for the adjustments which changing population, economic, and social conditions are forcing upon the community.” The report concluded with 22 recommendations; foremost among them was the statement that “the exclusion of any citizen from municipally-operated public facilities because of his race is a violation of that person’s civil rights and contrary to law.” Schermer also recommended a city-wide educational program to “cultivate respect for individual civil rights and an expansion in the public schools of education in democratic human relations. . . .”
The next year U.S. District Judge Rubey M. Hulen ordered the City of St. Louis to open all city-owned and operated outdoor swimming pools to all citizens, and Major Darst urged the public to comply:
The federal court has construed the Constitution of the United Sates to require that all persons regardless of race shall be allowed to use our public outdoor pools. Our military forces are fighting today 5,000 miles from our shores to establish and protect the doctrine of the “dignity of man.” Our country is girding itself for a wartime economy. Sacrifice is the order of the day.
Under such circumstances, we cannot afford the luxury of prejudice. We must not allow disrespect for the Constitution and the courts.
With these grudging words, the pool at Fairground Park was opened to all, and the story of the riot seemed to disappear from local memory. From the start, there was a tendency to minimize. Schermer noted that some city officials saw an injustice in calling the episode a “race riot,” as it involved only a “small number of persons of the ‘hoodlum’ type.” Others, like Eddie Silva, writing in the Riverfront Times in 2002, see an example of the cultivated complacency that allows St. Louis to ignore a persistent history of racism. In acknowledging this chapter in the history of Fairground Park, we can profit from the conclusions in Schermer’s little-known report. It is still a good idea to engage in citywide dialogue that cultivates respect for human rights.
|The façade of the bear pits, at the main entrance to Fairground Park, is the lone structure that remains of the original park. Photograph, 2002. Courtesy of the St. Louis Parks Department.|
Today, according to the website for the city’s parks department, “the façade of the old bear pits still guards” the main entrance to Fairground Park, standing “like a medieval castle” and serving as a “reminder of the glory days of the popular St. Louis Fair.” The park has much to offer to residents of the largely African American neighborhoods that surround it. As a main attraction, the nine-acre lake—the “very lake” that Helen Kahl mentions to her fellow students—is stocked for fishing. The swimming pool, replaced in 1958, still provides a cool place on a sweltering summer day—but we won’t boast of its capacity to save young men from hooliganism.
|The nine-acre lake as it looks today. Photograph, 2002. Courtesy of the St. Louis Parks Department.|
For winter sports, the park offers a skating rink. As is fitting, the place where Arthur Ashe played tennis boasts eight lighted tennis courts. Site of the first baseball game in St. Louis and neighbor to old Sportsman’s Park, home of the St. Louis Browns and later the Cardinals, Fairground Park provides five baseball diamonds along with facilities for soccer and basketball.
In 2007, the Missouri Historical Society joined with the Whitaker Foundation to invite area residents to follow Helen Kahl’s advice and take a new look at a “familiar spot.” On four days during the summer, thanks to this partnership, the atmosphere of the fair returned to the place where the castle-like façade recalls a former glory. Moving outside the confines of the History Museum in Forest Park, the Missouri Historical Society is providing family-friendly, arts-based activities at Fairground Park using funds from the Whitaker Foundation, a private foundation with goals to enhance lives through the arts and preserve and encourage use of urban parks. The events, called commUNITY Days at Fairground Park, are designed to build community by cultivating the pride of place that can come with knowledge of the past. In the true spirit of community, many partners joined us in our efforts, including Operation Brightside, the St. Louis Public Library, the Fairground Park Neighborhood Association, the St. Louis Parks and Recreation Department, and the St. Louis Police Department.
Face painting at Fairground Park commUNITY Days. Photograph © 2007, Missouri Historical Society.
On a perfect Saturday in May, 400 people enjoyed the first of the commUNITY Days with “Plays in the Park,” featuring storytelling and special performances by the Black Rep. In June, “Sounds in the Park,” a combined celebration of Juneteenth and Father’s Day, brought out the crowds for the sounds of jazz and gospel and a performance by the Fabulous Motown Revue. July brings “Games in the Park,” featuring a tennis tournament, corkball games, and double-dutch demonstrations, with a focus on games from the past to connect the generations. In August, a “Back-to-School in the Park” event includes the distribution of books from a summer-long book drive, Disney activities, and a kids’ concert. Each event, throughout the summer, includes crafts, face painting, a “mini-museum” and other activities that create festivity and fun against the background of history.
While visitors will not find their way home from the old fairgrounds on the crowded street car described by George Berrell, they just may feel something of his sense of wonder as they learn about the history of the place where they live—the place that is Fairground Park.