National Dairy Cattle Congress
When I was a kid growing up in Waterloo in the 1950s, I was a city slicker that didn’t know a darn thing about farm animals and implements. Still, other than Christmas, the most exciting time of the year for me, and most kids I knew, was opening day of the National Dairy Cattle Congress. It was a huge, weeklong show that took place on the western edge of the city, and offered attractions galore, for a very wide variety of people.
It was so much more extravagant than any local fair I had ever seen that it couldn’t even be compared. It was such a big event in the 1950s that the Waterloo schools gave all students a day off to attend it. All the previous week, it was the subject of talk among all the kids in the school I attended. We laid plans for the big day off, and how much fun we were going to have.
I don’t remember what it cost to get in but it wasn’t very much. Lots of kids devised a way to sneak in, anyway. The grounds were next to the Cedar River, which splits the city in half, and many of the boys would walk along the river bank for a short distance, climb over a tough wire fence and then creep up a gently sloping hill and quickly fade into the huge crowds.
Boys and girls arrived in large groups and made arrangements to meet and hang out. The midway, with its vast array of carnival rides and the various carnival games, was the main attraction, but the food booths were a close second.
Wow, was it special, in those days, and was it fun!
Some of the major moments of the Cattle Congress experience that stick out in my mind from the 1950s are, in no particular order:
- The appearance in 1956 of cowboy movie star Tim Holt. I had seen numerous Tim Holt movies at the local theaters and collected his comic books. When I found out he was going to attend as a celebrity guest, I could hardly believe it. I was 12 years old and to actually meet a cowboy movie star of his statue was an incredible thrill for me. I remember going into the Estel Building and following the signs that said “Tim Holt, straight ahead.” Suddenly, I came around a corner – and there he was, sitting on a table, wearing a white cowboy hat and talking to a group of fans. I got his autograph and walked away on cloud nine. And I still have the signature today, 54 years later.
- The showing of a Tucker Torpedo automobile. I remember how excited my dad was to see the machine that had captured the imagination of thousands of people around the nation. It had the engine in the trunk and was the most sleek, modernized looking vehicle of its era, the late 1940s. In 1988, a movie was made about the auto and its creator, Preston Tucker, starring Jeff Bridges.
- The boxing and wrestling tent, where tough-looking men from the carnival stood with arms folded across their chests while barkers issued challenges to the locals to come up and test them. Men who could last a few rounds with the boxer or wrestler were given a cash prize. I remember a well-known Waterloo amateur boxer by the name of Gil Martinez taking the challenge and boxing the ears off the carnival guy as the crowd cheered wildly for Gil. I have often wondered whatever happened to Gil Martinez.
- The Tom Thumb Donut making machine. I‘ve always loved donuts (of any size) and I used to stand there and watch the machine crank them out by the thousands. I wasn’t the only kid that enjoyed the spectacle – and ate little sacks full of the bite-sized donuts. The line was always very long.
- The biggest Ferris wheel I had ever seen was on the fairway of the Cattle Congress Grounds. It was huge, and to this day still sticks in my mind as the largest in the entire world, although I am sure it wasn’t even close.
- A giant python that was all curled up in a glass cage. I had never seen such a snake before and stood well back and stared at the monster from a safe distance, stunned by its size and the way it was coiled up, its sides moving in and out as it breathed. Then I noticed two little white bunnies in the cage. Shocked, I asked my dad how they could possibly have gotten in there and who was going to rescue them. When he told me they were the snake’s dinner, I ran out of the tent, horrified.
- The great livestock barns, packed full of huge animals, waiting to parade into the huge coliseum and show their stuff. After all, that’s why the National Dairy Cattle Congress was formed, in 1910 – to show off prize livestock from all around the nation.
This year, I’m excited to announce that Iowa History Journal will have a booth in that same Estel Building where Tim Holt sat over half a century ago. My wife, Bev, and I will be at the booth from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on all four days, September 16 through 19. We invite you to stop by and see our display about famous Iowans and past issues – including the premier issue with Nile Kinnick on the cover.
The Kinnick issue was completely sold out shortly after it was published in January of 2009, but we have received so many requests for it from people who want to collect all the back issues that we have re-printed a limited number.
The Kinnick issue is being sold as a collector’s item for $10 while they last – but anyone who signs up for a new subscription during our appearance at National Cattle Congress will get their choice of a free copy of the Kinnick issue, or the issue with Iowa football hero Fred Becker, or the issue with baseball superstar Bob Feller on the cover.
I hope you can swing by the Estel Building to see the Iowa History Journal booth and say “hi.”
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)