The first Fair on record in Dickinson County was held October 18 & 19, 1870, in the James Bell meadow immediately south of the old Abilene City Dump.
In 1879 the directors of the Dickinson County Agriculture Society purchased approximately 40 acres from Eliphak Barber located just north of the old city Dump. A stock shed and racetrack were built and fairs of 1879 & 1880 featured horse racing.
By 1881, the Agriculture Society evidently fell upon hard times and had to mortgage their property in order to pay taxes. No Fair was held that year. Newspaper reports indicate that the Fair held in September 1882 had 26 classes of entries, 12 horse races, 2 bicycle races and 2-foot races. In November 1886 the Agriculture and Industrial Association of Dickinson County sold the Fairgrounds to J. S. Drake.
In the fall of 1887, the Central Kansas Free Fair Association held a Fair in Hope. The Santa Fe Railroad ran trains from Abilene to Hope for 85 cents per round trip. The Fair was held in Hope again in September 1890. Abilene held a Fair in the fall of 1891.
No Fairs were held in the County from 1892 until 1906, except for a big corn carnival held in Abilene on October 12, 1899 and sponsored by the merchants of Abilene. In February 1906 the Dickinson County Fair Association purchased 30 acres from Josiah Snyder. This is where the Fairgrounds and the Eisenhower park are now located (see #17 in the 1909 Grant Township Plat). The “Agriculture Hall” was built and located west of where the swimming pool is now located. A 1500 capacity stadium was built where the current one is now located.
The first Fair at the new fairgrounds was held October 2-5, 1906. It featured Trotting Ostrich, Horse Racing, and Balloon Ascension. It was the first real Fair in Abilene for 15 years. The Fairs of 1907-1911 featured public weddings, baby showers, and horse racing. Buick’s were winning all the auto races. The City of Abilene purchased the Fairgrounds and converted the property into the City Park and Fairgrounds. Numerous buildings had already been constructed. Starting October 29, 1925, a 3-day livestock show was held. General Booth was to speak, but had to go to Washington, D.C. for the court martial of Col. Billy Mitchell. The Stock Show of October 6, 1927 had horse and auto races.
The Central Kansas Free Fair as it is known today was organized in 1924 and was incorporated on January 14, 1928. The first Central Kansas Free Fair under new incorporation was held in September 1928. The Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) replaced the old Grandstand in 1938. Sterl Hall was completed in March of 1951 although it was used for the 1950 Fair. Sterl Hall was completely renovated in 1996 and is probably the most used building in Dickinson County.
Through the years, livestock facilities have been built as the Fair has grown. A new Swine Show Barn was built in 1990. In 1998, a large 40 stall horse barn was built in part with Memorial Funds of Jesse Karl, son of Steve & Jacque Karl, and brother to Cody, along with funds earned by the Dickinson County 4-H Horse Club and other memorials.
With many hours and community support, the new showers and restrooms at the north end of Barn #9 were finished in time for the 2000 fair to be used by many of the exhibitors, rodeo contestants, and vendors. With the County Commissioners approval and support, we installed the new stoves, convection ovens and hand sinks in the Sterl Hall kitchen. This was a much needed improvement for convenience and safety.
In 2001, the Poultry Department upgraded the Poultry Coops and the Quilting Department made new quilt display racks. Starting in 2002 the open class exhibits were open to the State of Kansas. In 2003, the Rabbit Department built new pens, made more room for educational displays, and replaced the electrical outlets. Once again working with the City of Abilene and the Dickinson County Commissioners in 2007, 32 new electrical pedestals were installed along the south grass of Sterl Hall to allow RV camper hookups during the off season when events are going on at Sterl Hall. 2010 brought a much needed electrical upgrade to Room #10 with support of the Dale Sterner Memorial.
In 2006, the Combine Demolition Derby and Compact Figure 8 Race was added as Grandstand Entertainment. Then in 2008, they added Team Demolition Derby on Tuesday night to challenge the Bill Markley family. At this time, the Entertainment Committee brought chain saw artist Gary Keenan to show chain saw skills and auction off items he made to support the Free Stage activities.
2008 brought new changes to the landscape in front of Sterl Hall with the Richard and Delores Rider Memorial bench placed by the flag pole. In 2009, the Willowdale 4-H Club added two memorial benches, one for Lyman Schultes and the other for John & Ellen Meuli and Ed & Buelah Shouse. They also placed a horse shoe shape flower bed around the flag pole. 2010 brought the Dorothy, Virgil and Mark Derrick memorial bench south of Sterl Hall.
The Rodeo Committee has improved the rodeo facilities to include new fence, over-the-chutes seating, restroom/rodeo office, concession stand, and electrical hookups for campers and trailers. In 2001, once again, the Rodeo Committee improved the facilities by splitting the bucking chute to include a center ally and rebuilding the catch pens behind the chutes. In 2003, they added the new press stand between the east bleachers and built portable pens on the west side of the catch pens. In 2004 the committee moved and replaced the calf chute. In 2007, the arena was upgraded with a new electrical system including separate arena lighting and separate parking lights, with each pole on it’s own breaker. In 2008, a permanent hospitality shelter was constructed north of the rodeo horse barn. In 2011, the concession received new siding.
The Rodeo was voted one of the top 5 small outdoor rodeos in the nation in 1995 and 2001, and one of the top 5 large outdoor rodeos in the nation for 2002 and 2010, and still maintains that status. The first rodeo was held in 1946.
Today, the Fair is one of the largest in Kansas and the format remains the same – an educational and entertaining event for the public.