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An eye-witness account of Hannibal’s 1878 Fair

This is an illustration titled “Brittingham Park,” shows the location of the Hannibal Fair Grounds in 1878. The road marked “Gravel Road” is now Market Street. A portion of the New London gravel road still exists today. The fairgrounds, consisting of 52 acres, were located to the south of the railroad tracks. Bear Creek was to the south of the fair grounds. Illustration from the 1878 Ralls County atlas, accessed online. An illustrated historical atlas of Ralls County, Missouri, 1878.


Imagine in an earlier era, riding in a buggy pulled by a little brown mare named “Bessie.” This mental exercise will take you along the several miles of rough wagon roadway, pocketed between the southern shadows of towering bluffs and the meandering and unpredictable flow of Bear Creek. This early trail transports you not only in time, but location as well, from the emerging town of Hannibal, Missouri, to the fledgling neighborhood to the west known as Tilden in Oakwood.

At the reins of the buggy is 34-year-old Charles H. Carnahan Esq., an agent of the Wabash Railroad with offices on the levee at the foot of Hill Street. He and his wife, Clara, parents of five young children, lived at the time in the 200 block Hill Street. Carnahan's intent on this day is to show off aspects of the fair - Hannibal’s fall festival - which is sponsored by the members of the newly reorganized Hannibal Fair Association.

The year is 1878. The passenger inside the buggy is a writer for the Canton (Missouri) Press newspaper, owned by Jesse W. Barrett (1822-1886, who established the Canton Press in 1862) and his son, C.W. Barrett (1849-1928). Enticed by fair board member Benton Coontz’s offer of a free pass to the fair in exchange for (hopefully) positive newspaper publicity, one or both of the Barretts likely traveled to Hannibal to spend a day at the fair.

A subsequent story, published in the Oct. 11, 1878, edition of the Canton Press, offered first-person intricacies of the fair and its environs, as only an eye-witness could relate.

Hannibal’s previous fair had closed three years prior, following a fire at its amphitheater. Subsequently, the land upon which the fairgrounds were located reverted back to its original owner.

A new fair committee, led by elected president Cornelius Voorhees, purchased the old fairground buildings and 52 acres in the Ralls County bottom land, south of the railroad tracks and north of Bear Creek. Within two months’ time, the land had been cleaned of overgrown weeds and brush, and construction authorized for a new 300-foot-long grandstand intended to overlook a half-mile track and the exhibition ring.

There were plenty of shade trees, the Canton reporter mentioned, and on the southern border of the flat land, there was a “splendid stream of water (Bear Creek) and then the hills rise up covered with a perfect forest.”


Charles Carnahan’s interests in hosting the newspaper reporter were financial, of course, as the three railroads in proximity to the fairgrounds ( Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, Missouri Kansas and Texas Railroad and the St. Louis and Hannibal Railroad) stood to reap the rewards of expanded travel. Regardless, Mr. Carnahan was a charitable host, showing off to his passenger aboard the buggy the best of what Hannibal’s fair had to offer.

Newspaper advertisements for passenger travel enticed riders to the fair, from Macon and Shelbina all the way to Kansas City.

Discounted fairs were offered for round-trip tickets, encompassing the fair’s dates of Oct. 1-5.

The fair’s average daily attendance was 3,000.

Among the fair participants from afar, as gleaned from Missouri newspapers:

Mrs. A.B. Berry of Shelbina took two premiums on knitting at the Hannibal Fair.

Thomas A. Short and daughter, of Jefferson Township, Shelby County, attended the fair.

1878 Fair board

J.L. Van Every was superintendent of the association. Born in Canada circa 1850, by 1880 Van Every was an ice dealer in Hannibal. The Canton newspaper said this of Mr. Van Every, following the reporter’s visit to the Hannibal fair: “We had the pleasure of meeting J.L. Van Every, and found him to be a perfect gentleman in every respect and in every way worthy the responsible office he fills. He took pleasure in giving desired information.”

Cornelius Voorhees, (also spelled Voorhis) president. Col. Voorhees was born in 1827 and died in 1918. A dry goods merchant in Hannibal, he was appointed collector of Internal Revenue for the Fourth District of Missouri in 1885. In the early 1900s, he served on the Hannibal City Council, representing the 2nd Ward. He was the father of Mrs. R.H. (Louise) Stillwell and Mrs. C.T. Lamb. He was the grandfather of Walter Stillwell, who was a noted Hannibal attorney.

Jas. V. Rogers, vice president of the fair board. Mr. Rogers was born in 1831, and spent all but a few years of his life in Marion County. He was an extensive land holder in both Marion and Carroll counties in Missouri, and was prominent in county affairs. He died in September 1907.

Benton Coontz, secretary. During his lifetime, Coontz wore many leadership hats within Marion County and Hannibal. In the “local notes” column of the Palmyra Spectator, July 14, 1876, the newspaper described Coontz as “Our good-natured and good-looking County Collector.” He is perhaps best remembered by historians as the father of Admiral Robert E. Coontz, who served as Chief of Operations, the highest office of the United States Navy.

In the spring of 1878, Coontz served as Hannibal’s mayor. That same year he went into the newspaper business, consolidating two Hannibal newspapers into one: The Clipper-Herald, of which S.D. Rich had been editor, was merged with the Hannibal Herald, to form the Clipper-Herald. Mr. Rich retired from the business. Mr. Coontz also launched, with three other partners, (C.N. Armstrong, John L. Van Every and Wm. Van Every) the Hannibal Street Railway.

Andrew J. Settles, treasurer. Born in Marion County in 1827, Mr. Settles operated a clothing business in Hannibal. He served on both the Hannibal City Council and in the Missouri legislature. Mr. Settles died in January 1902.

Fair observations

The Canton newspaper, in its Oct. 11, 1878 edition, offered the following glimpses into Hannibal’s fair:

“There were Machinery and Floral Halls, a neat gothic cottage for the ladies, and other buildings.

“The Hannibal Meat Co., made a large display of their canned goods.

“The large police force succeeded in keeping surprisingly good order considering the immense crowd.

“As usual at such places, there was a great many ways for the visitor to lose his money. Licensing these gambling gambling and dinking institutions, places lots of money in the treasury of the association and of course they want all they can get, but we hardly think the end justifies the means.

“The Hannibal band discoursed sweet music during the week and proved to be the “Boss.”

“There are a great many burglars and other petty thieves in town this week.

“Seemingly there was (sic) wagon loads of quilts and spreads and tidies, mats, wreaths, hair feather wax and shell work, painting, drawing, penmanship and everything one ever finds at a fair. A case of photographs was particularly noticeable, also case of fine (in every respect) shells and other minerals. Display of jellies was especially fine and quite large. Considerable butter was on exhibition that looked really good enough to eat and the cases were the same in this respect.”

Note: The Canton Press article was accessed via

Thanks to Steve Chou and Archie Hayden, who contributed to the research for this article.

Archie Hayden confirms that the Wabash Railroad used the Katy Railroad tracks. Also, the Short Line Railroad was called the St. Louis Hannibal and Keokuk until 1885, when they reorganized as St. Louis and Hannibal Railroad.

Benton Coontz, pictured in the 1875 Marion County Atlas (author’s collection) served as secretary of the Hannibal Fair Association in 1878.

Cornelius Voorhees, (also spelled Voorhis) was president of the president of the Hannibal Fair Association in 1878. Photo: Mirror of Hannibal.

This photo of an oak tree in Oakwood is supplied by Steve Chou, Hannibal historian. It is a stereoscopic view published by C. Jackson at the Old Reliable Gallery, 105 N. Main St., Hannibal. Handwritten on the back of the card is: “Oak of Oakwood,” suggesting the photo is an oak tree in Oakwood. Chou is unsure of the exact date, or of the identities of the people who are pictured. Calvin Jackson was a photographer in Hannibal during the 1880s.

Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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