Kansas City's Fairmount Park

by John M. Olinskey & Debra Topi

Chapter 3:  1894
Kansas City's Fairmount Park ~ Kansas City History, Sugar Creek History, Independence, Missouri History, and more
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Fairmount Park, from Independence Avenue
Fairmount Park, from Independence Avenue

The third season of Fairmount Park began on Sunday, May 6, 1894.  The mirrors in the Crystal Maze had been rearranged "making it more puzzling than ever."  The cafe was also open this year under the management of Mrs. George McClean, a well known caterer.  The Third Regiment Band was again at the park and gave concerts every day and twice on Sunday.  Fifty acres of picnic and timber land were added to the park.  The boats this year were under the command of the Thompson brothers and the bathing beach was opened and was advertised as being the "best in the west," and probably was.

The seventh season of Washington Park was the first one with a lot of money spent on improvements.  Until then, it was like a 400 acre zoo with a lake, but in 1894 things changed.  The cars going to Fairmount Park went by Washington Park and Fairmount Park drew more patrons.  A bathing beach and bath house were built costing $10,000 and a restaurant was also added.  A wild beast show appeared in June.  Sir Charles Wombell of London brought his performing leopards, and Miss Mili Nana and her hypnotic lions thrilled the people as she entered the cage blindfolded.  A parachute leap was also on the agenda, where a lady, in full evening attire, jumped 5,000 feet from a helium balloon.  Washington Park also emulated Fairmount Park in that the water from the spring in Washington Park was sold as Bethsaida Spring Water.  It was delivered in a 400 gallon horse-drawn wagon and sold door to door.  "For a free sample call 2536."  In addition, the park also featured Shetland ponies, boats, swings, a bowling alley and a shooting gallery.  It was 15 cents round trip on the Dummy Line.

The latest style in ladies' beach wear was very important.  Mohair was the popular material of the season, replacing flannel, which could drag a small lady in a big suit under.  A rainbow of colors was now more popular, replacing the traditional blue of previous summers.  Only the face and the arms, just below the elbows, were exposed to the sun, long stockings covered the legs and of course they were color coordinated.  Ruffles were in, and the cap just had to have a bow in front.  Sandals were also a good idea.

Fairmount Park surged ahead.  In early June and going into July, "the greatest balloon exhibition ever witnessed" was booked.  Two hot air balloons carried a large cannon to an altitude of 5,000 feet and blasted an aeronaut into mid-air, where he descended to the lake with the help of a specially designed parachute.  Chicko, the Brazilian flying man who acted like a monkey, worked the trapeze gig, while Professor Kearney P. Speedy, tied in a gunny sack, jumped off or was pushed into a tank 70 feet below, with only 6 inches of water to slow him down.

The parks, at that time, were the lungs of the city.  People came to breathe the fresh air and a cop never awoke a sleeping patron.  They were a melting pot, where the rich and poor came and mingled.  Boys flirted with girls and girls could flirt with boys.  Some came to eat the park food and many brought their lunches in a picnic basket.  Bachelors would wander about the park looking for a friendly face in hopes of getting some home cooking.  The most common sight would have been the family group:  mom and dad, with a youngster or two (later to become our great-grandparents).  

There was also the crime element.  Juvenile delinquents strolled in groups, smoking cigarettes, with their collars turned up and wearing yachting caps, making grandstand remarks for the pretty girls to hear.  There was park statuary, too.  People stretched out on the grass or on a park bench away from the crowds.  The young lady with a book who came to the park early in the afternoon and read until dark hoping to meet Prince Charming.  The old man who sits all day thinking about the time he shot a prairie chicken where the lake is now located.  Young boys, in dog drawn carts noisily crisscrossing the park, and couples in love strolled everywhere, hand in hand.

The 4th of July was better than any celebration in town.  Fairmount Park was really neat and many new attractions greeted the thousands that attended.  The Toboggan Slide had just opened to the public and a trapshooting park opened just north of the springs; all day, 7 days a week, with guns, shells, and targets all furnished.  The people with the cannon were there again.  Speedy jumped into the lake from a height of 100 feet, a world's record, and a young lady dove 85 feet into the lake.  The Obertie Brothers were a new act and worked with a burning ladder.  At 9:00 P.M. a tremendous fireworks display, costing $1,000, took off and the evening ended with a bang!

Washington Park also had unique attractions.  A troupe of seven juggling Japanese were there and the lions and leopards were still there.  In the afternoon, two members of the gun club had a match, using 50 live birds, with 25 targets a piece (Society for the Protection of Animals, where were you?)

At 4:00 P.M. on Sunday, July 14th, "As You Like It," Shakespeare's popular comedy, was presented at Fairmount Park's new open air theater, by the Kemper Stock Company.  A new bridge had been built across the ravine, located where Northern Blvd. is now (at Hink Drive), leading north to the newly acquired 50 acres, expanding the park to Kentucky Avenue and Appleton.

In the shade of the oak trees, the "Theater in the Woods" made its debut, with room for 5,000 spectators.  Although interrupted by rain on the first day, the play was a huge success.

After arriving at the depot, passengers would detrain and step onto a wooden platform that was open to the air and roofed over.  It was a two city block walk to the bridge over the ravine, the lake being on the right, the cafe and the Crystal Maze on the left.  The pretty white cement bridge over the ravine led north and on the left was the recently opened shooting range.  The path headed down to where the tickets were accepted; $1.50 got you a chair on the front couple of rows, $1 was a bench right behind them, 50 and 75 cents was general admission, standing room only.  Over the entrance was printed, "The entire world's a stage".  Two tents were set up for the cast as dressing rooms and the stage was grass, with the trees as the scenery.

There were 75 players in the Kemper group.  Some were local actors, but many had performed at the Chicago World's Fair in '93.  The costumes were from Hermann's Emporium in New York City and cost over $2,000.  The Third Regiment Band performed instrumental music, while an octet from the Apollo Vocal Club added a bit of charm to the performance.  Underbrush was cleared away and what was left was used by the actors to make their entrances.  The play, written in 1599, was described as a "rustic comedy"  The original script was set in the woods, so the forest probably saved some money on back drops.  Several cloudbursts interrupted the performance, but the show must go on, and it did.  Hundreds of umbrellas popped open and "your umbrella, please," was repeated many times as they obscured the view.  The play ran one week and was very popular, but there were no more outdoor productions that year at Fairmount Park.  Washington Park, true to form, put on a Gilbert & Sullivan production in its own outdoor theater.  

In August, the action at Fairmount park shifted to the new athletic field (now R. J. Roper Stadium) northeast of the lake.  On Saturday the 4th, the Kansas City Athletic Club met for their monthly meet.  The number of contestants was small, but the events were exciting.  Among the events were the 100 yard dash, 12 lb. shot-put, pole vault, hammer throw, 440 yard dash, and 120 yard hurdle.  Bicycle races were also held; one to ten miles on a 1/4 mile track.

A second rail depot was opened at 2nd and Walnut to help handle the masses.  Special trains were to run daily, for Dr. W. F. Carver was coming to town.  Champion shot of the world, decorated by emperors, kings and presidents.  He would perform daily with a rifle, from horseback and on foot.  His high-diving horse amazed the crowds, jumping from a height of 30 feet into the lake.  She swam like a duck and ate sugar out of ladies' hands.  Beginning on the 26th, a $20,000 wild west show was presented by Dr. Carver; 200 cowboys and Sioux Indians filled the new field.  New bleachers were built and the athletic field has been in service for over 100 years.

"Methods of attack and warfare as practiced by the Indians, the circle of death, the attack ion stage coaches, burning of the settlers' cabins, rescue by Dr. Carver and his cowboys, sports on the plains roping and riding wild broncos and steers, trick and fancy riding by the greatest horseman on earth, the cowboy camp and village..."

The show was held every afternoon at 3 and every evening at 8:00, with a magnificent grandstand seating thousands of people.  Box seats were $1.00, three reserve rows were 75 cents, grandstand 50 cents, and 25 cents for general admission.  

The Fairmount and Washington Parks competitive wars began in earnest in '94, fueled by money from the Holmes family, Washington Park's new owners.  Kansas City's Labor Day Parade, which was a huge attraction, conveniently ended at 2nd and Wyandotte at 10:00 A.M., where rail cars were boarded for Fairmount Park and thousands spent the day.  Dr. Carver's show was still there and everything was free... from boating to bowling and swimming, for the laboring man and his family.

Next year, 1895, would begin the first of two golden eras for Fairmount Park.  

Copyright 2005 John M. Olinskey


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