The late billionaire Malcolm Forbes was a prolific collector of many rare and valuable objects, but perhaps his most unusual collection was his cache of nearly 200 trophies that had been awarded to winners of contests for tent-pegging, fence-weaving, rutabaga-growing and other arcane talents.
Forbes dubbed his collection “Mortality of Immortality”, because he was fascinated by how each trophy represented a highlight of someone’s life, yet was often discarded or sold after the winner died.
Although it’s doubtful that Forbes owned the silver cup that Gatling gun inventor R.J. Gatling won at the 1855 Indiana State Fair for his essay on “ditching and draining”, or the silver tea spoons that Miss Alice Williams took back to Muncie for her prize-winning “tippets”, silver premiums from the State Fair are highly sought after by collectors and would not have been out of place in Forbes’ collection.
Since its inception in 1852, premiums have been a critical component of the Indiana State Fair, which was established to help encourage improvements in agriculture, stock production and farm machinery through the award of prizes. By 1855, the categories had expanded to include furniture-making, paintings and drawings, as well as “useful and ornamental” items such as chair tidies, ottoman covers and toilet cushions. Prizes ranged from coin silver pitchers to paper diplomas, with silver cups awarded as the highest prize in most categories. Although each cup included space for engraving the winner’s name, premiums that identify the winner such as the one below are rare.
Nathaniel Kemp was a prominent farmer and county commissioner from Randolph County when he won the premium for the best bushel of wheat in 1856. By the 1880s, however, Kemp had fallen on hard times, and according to a history of Randolph County published in 1882:
Mr. Kemp is now in feeble health, and is no longer affluent: his first wife died, and his second marriage was ill-advised and unfortunate, and a divorce was obtained; his property has been scattered, and he now finds himself in his old age a poor man.
Despite his dwindling fortune, Kemp apparently cherished his State Fair premium too much to sell it for the value of the silver. When collector David Yount acquired the cup a few years ago, it came with the note below outlining Kemp’s accomplishment and stating that the cup had been in the family for at least two more generations after Kemp died in 1883. Today Kemp rests in a quiet Randolph County cemetery alongside his first wife, Margaret.
Although engraved premiums help preserve a winner’s place in history, the mere fact that an item has been displayed at the State Fair often preserves it for posterity. As shown below, June Woodworth won a 2nd Premium with her cover art for the 1929 Christmas issue of the Echo, the daily newspaper for Shortridge High School. E. J. Mousley exhibited his pencil drawing of a Second Empire house at the 1937 State Fair. Mousley lived at 2921 N. Pennsylvania, but it’s likely that the long-gone house in the drawing was located south of 16th Street. Both Woodworth’s painting and Mousley’s sketch are interesting pieces of Indianapolis’ past that may not have survived but for their State Fair connection.
Winners will often go to great lengths to preserve their prize-winning item. Indianapolis attorney John Keeler currently has this giant ear of corn in safekeeping for his children, who inherited it through their maternal grandparents. Although no one in the family can recall the exact year when the corn was exhibited at the State Fair, its custom-made glass display case has protected it from the perils that typically befall extremely large vegetables and has ensured its survival for future generations.
As the State Fair gained in popularity as a tourist attraction, the State Board of Agriculture hired architect Edwin May (who later designed the Statehouse) to design an enormous Exposition Building that opened in 1873 on the corner of 19th and Alabama Streets. These stereographs of the 1873 fossil and art exhibits were eagerly snatched up collectors a few years ago when they were offered on ebay.
Posters are one of the most elusive State Fair collectibles. Too large to be saved in a scrapbook and too flimsy to survive without framing, most State Fair posters ended up in the trash when the event concluded. David Yount had searched unsuccessfully for a number of years until the posters below surfaced at an auction this spring. Although two of the posters have staining and paper loss, they are still prized because of their rarity.
Thanks to their small size, State Fair ribbons were more likely to survive the years, tucked away with other easily stored mementos. The ribbon on the far left is from the second State Fair, which was held in Lafayette in 1853. The 1856 ribbon would have been worn by a member of the State Agricultural Society, and the 1878 ribbon by a member of the press. Ribbons for the State Fair and other events can sometimes be found in old books because they made convenient bookmarks.
State Fair tokens featuring the Exposition Building were produced during the years when the event was held in Herron-Morton. Tiffany Benedict-Berkson has assembled a small collection of these tokens, a couple of which had been drilled by former owners for use as a charm.
Souvenirs were also available for purchase at the State Fair. A fairgoer in the 1920s or ’30s would likely have paid a fraction of the $20 I paid when I found this pennant at an antique mall in Salem last month. Although I do not collect State Fair items, the pennant is a fun addition to my collection of Statehouse images.
There’s no doubt, however, that the hottest ticket in State Fair collectibles is a ticket to the Beatles concert in 1964. The Fab Four held two shows in Indianapolis. Although ticket stubs crop up from time to time, David Yount has managed to track down some of the really scarce items, such as the invitation to the Beatles’ press conference.
State Fair collectibles are fascinating because they are as varied and diverse as the people who have participated in the 160-year-old tradition. Whether it’s an ear of corn raised during the Depression on an Indiana farm or a note on a ticket stub reminiscing about the night an Indiana teenager was mistaken for Ringo Starr, there’s a State Fair collectible out there for every Hoosier because the Indiana State Fair is OUR state fair.