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A century ago: The 1919 Iowa State 'Victory Fair'

By Chris Rasmussen
via the Des Moines Register newspaper (IA) web site

In August 1919, Iowans streamed through the State Fair gates in record-breaking numbers to attend the “Victory Fair,” which celebrated World War I’s end.

Iowa State Fair 1919 Chateau ThierryAn ad for the spectacle of Chateau Thierry from the Des Moines Register, Aug. 15, 1919. (Photo: The Register)Still reeling from the war’s carnage, they were hopeful that an era of peace and prosperity was dawning. Crop prices were high, farmers were buying automobiles, and improved roads enabled people to drive to the fair instead of taking a train. Happy to glimpse the return of peace, Iowans were eager to put the war behind them, turn to the future, and go to the fair.

But the war was seemingly everywhere on the fairgrounds. The main exhibit of the Victory Fair’s daytime program was the War Department’s display of weapons and trophies from the Western front. Iowans marveled at a 35-ton tank (a new weapon in WWI), artillery, and machine guns. The exhibit saluted Allied victory and allowed fairgoers to see the technology that had transformed warfare, just as tractors, automobiles and household appliances had remade farm life.

In the evening, the fair’s grandstand show, “The Grand, Scenic Military Spectacle, The Battle of Chateau Thierry,” re-enacted the battle in France that turned the tide of the war against Germany in 1918. Enormously popular with fairgoers, disaster spectacles headlined the fair’s entertainment from the 1890s into the 1930s. Thousands of spectators gaped as a cast of 300 portrayed American, French and German troops and clashed before the grandstand, culminating with a fireworks barrage that leveled the 450-foot wide set. A crew of 50 workers scrambled to rebuild the set in time for the next evening’s performance.

The fair’s advertisements stated that the spectacle was “under the direction of military experts” and presented a realistic view of warfare, but it was principally an eye-popping extravaganza to entertain viewers.

Veterans doubtless found it less than realistic. Register reporter Sue McNamara observed that a billboard for “Chateau Thierry” elicited nothing but “grins and groans” from a trainload of veterans returning home from the war in 1919.

The actual Battle of Chateau Thierry was a bloody fight, and Iowans were in the thick of it. American troops went “over the top,” leaving their trenches to assault the enemy lines and defeat some of Germany’s most battle-hardened troops. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was there, stated that the 167th Alabama and 168th Iowa displayed “gallantry I do not believe has been surpassed in military history” at Chateau Thierry.

Allied victory came at a price: The U.S. suffered 1,900 casualties, and 227 Iowans from the 168th gave their lives at Chateau Thierry and lie buried there. The 168th fought in some of the war’s toughest battles, suffering a total of 677 soldiers killed and 3,100 wounded in the war.

A few veterans of the 168th, along with the regiment’s chaplain, Des Moines pastor Winfred Robb, attended the 1919 fair. The 168th Infantry had trained on the fairgrounds in 1917 and received an emotional sendoff from thousands of well-wishers as their train departed from the fairgrounds and the regiment headed for France in early September. Two years later, the 168th pitched a tent on the grounds, in which Chaplain Robb met with grieving families and shared reminiscences of the young Iowans buried so far from home. As the Register’s Sue McNamara observed, the tent was a hushed, somber shrine, jarringly at odds with the fair’s festivity.

Determined that the heroism of the 168th not be forgotten, Chaplain Robb published a book, “The Price of Our Heritage; in Memory of the Heroic Dead of the 168 Infantry,” in 1919. Filled with photographs and testimonials to the soldiers’ bravery and sacrifice, Robb’s book is as inspiring and heartrending as any war memorial:

Read the entire article on the Des Moines Register web site here:

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