Taxi, right here, taxi to the fair grounds,


The Davenport Democrat and Leader reported "at least a million leather lunged taxi drivers comprised the choice chorus that announced that their car was the right one to take to the Mississippi Valley Fair and Exposition as the machines started on their initial trip this morning."

It was Aug. 16, 1920. The Mississippi Valley Fair and Exposition was celebrating the grand opening of its new $300,000 fairgrounds on West Locust Street.

As the fairgrounds prepares for a visit Monday by President Bush, let's journey back to its inauguration more than 80 years ago.

The fair's grand opening garnered front page coverage in the Democrat. The newspaper carried stories and advertisements in the days leading up to the grand opening and throughout opening week.

"Don't Miss the Million Dollar Livestock Exhibit " and "One Whole Day of Auto Polo and Auto Racing. Champion Dirt Track Kings," the newspaper advertised.

Other attractions included Ethel Dare, "the little 18-year-old air witch."

"This sensational bird woman jumps from plane to plane in mid air," a newspaper promotion said.

The new fairgrounds promised more than fun, games and a showcase of agricultural excellence. The site offered a lesson in what public-spirited citizens could do, the newspaper said.

"In the short space of three months, the plans of the fair association, carried out by the Walsh construction company, have transformed an 85-acre tract with a few old buildings into a beautiful modern exposition park, thoroughly equipped, conveniently arranged, supplied with city water, ablaze with a flood of electric lights at night and covered with permanent and scientifically planned exposition buildings— a white-walled show city of great beauty."

The achievement, the newspaper said, was testament to American spirit and ingenuity.

"It is a wonderful accomplishment, as amazing as many of America's amazing accomplishments during the World war. It shows what American genius and American energy can do when put to a hard task."

The first problem tackled by the Fair Association after it purchased the site that winter was the old Mile Track, the newspaper reported. The Fair Association decided to replace it with a new half-mile track in order to allow more room for parking.

"The great demand in a fairgrounds today is for auto parking," the newspaper said. "The old track took up so much room that if it had been kept the internal space would have had to be used for an auto park."

Using the interior for parking, the newspaper said, would have blocked views of the track. In addition, such parking would have interfered with the racing program since the races would have to be halted to allow cars to drive in and out.

Mindful that the automobile had come of age, the Fair Association made sure that the new fairgrounds had plenty of parking, 35 acres to be exact.

"This is one of the largest auto parks in the country. Many fair grounds contain but 35 acres. But the big auto park here will be none too large. Every inch will be needed. Nowhere in the United States is there a greater number of automobiles per capita than around the Tri-Cities."

Landscape architect for the fairgrounds was Leondias W. Ramsey. "No better recommendation of Mr. Ramsey's work is needed than the comment of experts … It is their universal verdict that it is the best planned and best laid out fairgrounds in the entire West."

Davenport architect Arthur E. Ebeling designed the buildings, which, the Democrat said, "speak well of his skill and genius." He demonstrated his forward thinking by flaring the grandstand roof upward to allow unobstructed views of air shows. The 6,000-seat grandstand later was replaced.

One of his buildings that survived became the fairgrounds' signature — the twin-towered structure that originally did double duty as an administration building and gateway to the grounds. The newspaper noted that the gate had 12 ticket windows, "showing that immense crowds can be handled with great ease."

Indeed, grand opening week attracted huge crowds. During the first four days, 103,000 people passed through the gate to behold what the Democrat said "is not a county fair plant, not a district fair lay-out, but a state fair on a slightly smaller scale."

(The Mississippi Valley Fair provided research assistance for this story.)

John Willard can be contacted at (563) 383-2314 or