Sideshows have become institutions at most fairs–so much so that it just wouldn’t seem like the fair without “the amazing two-headed calf.” A hundred years ago, when Nebraska county fairs were brand new, sideshows weren’t a given. In fact, the question, “What are legitimate features of the fair?” received serious consideration, as this special Knox County Fair issue of the Creighton Pioneer (1885) attests.
“What may with propriety be properly admitted to the fair grounds, and on the other hand, what should be excluded? We do not introduce this topic with the idea by so doing we can in any sense settle a vexed question, or even that any opinion expressed will have special weight with the reader. This is a subject on which people are inclined to think very differently, and it is difficult even in the small number of men belonging to a fair board to find unanimity on this point. The legitimate features of a fair, as all will admit, include–First. The exhibition of livestock, farm implements and machinery, farm products, household manufactures and the prosecution of such ordinary business as may really belong to the interests of agriculture. Second. Such institutions as may contribute to the physical comfort and pleasure of the crowds in attendance, and Third. Such entertainments and innocent and harmless amusements as may serve to vary the monotony of an exhibition and furnish the young with sufficiency of spice to season what to them are the less attractive portions of the fair.
There is but little difficulty, generally, in arranging the two first points, from a moral standpoint; but it is the latter that discrimination becomes a matter difficult of adjustment. There are somethings, however, which should without question be shut out of the fair grounds of agricultural exhibitions. One is gambling and intoxicating drinks. Many would stop just here and say admit everything else. But as we view this question, side-shows of every description, and the lesser catch-penny schemes of whatever kind should follow the beer stand and gamblers beyond the gates. We anticipate your argument–‘We cannot afford,’ many fair managers would say,’to throw away such a source of revenue.’
“While we must admit that there are fair associations having attained a high financial standing that threw open their gates to everything, we believe it was done at the sacrifice of the general financial and society interests of those neighborhoods. The line must be drawn somewhere between the legitimate and illegitimate features of a fair, and where shall it be drawn?”