The 80-acre site in the center of Topeka now known as Stormont Vail Events Center as of June 2019, formerly known as the Kansas Expocentre, has a long history of use for activities related to agriculture, farming, exhibitions, education and entertainment.
The earliest recorded event on this site dates back to 1871. A small, local fair quickly grew to be the largest in the state. Just nine years after its inception it became known as the Kansas State Fair, featuring a wide variety of exhibitions. Fairgoers saw the newest farm equipment and the best agricultural exhibits in the state, as well as the finest livestock. The fair included a variety of entertainment, ranging from horse races and saloons to opera houses and fine arts displays. In 1879, some of the fair buildings were used to house hundreds of ex-slaves during the "Exoduster" movement westward through Topeka.
During the last decades of the 19th century the original grandstand was erected. However, it was not until 1909 that funds were appropriated for the building of permanent structures.
In 1913 a political battle erupted which resulted in the transfer of the official state fair to Hutchinson. Undaunted, members of the fair board proposed that Topeka sponsor a new exhibition called the Kansas Free Fair, which opened in 1915. By 1917 the free fair was operating at a profit and was able to erect a new grandstand, permanent livestock buildings and pony barns.
In 1931, the Kansas Free Fair went bankrupt, but was able to recover under the guidance of Topeka businessman Maurice Jencks. Within a year the fair was once again profitable and back to constructing new buildings. The late '30s were record-breaking years for the Kansas Free Fair. Booming attendance, extravagant exhibitions and construction of new facilities continued until World War II. The fair survived a few lean years then picked up where it left off a decade earlier by completing an ultra-modern Appliance Hall in 1948 and an impressive Exhibit Hall in 1950. By then, the Kansas Free Fair was one of the nation's largest and modern facilities. It was a source of pride to Topeka, Shawnee County and the entire state of Kansas.
In 1958 the fair board announced a new name for Topeka's annual exposition: The Mid-America Fair. The new name marked the start of a projected multi-million dollar expansion and coincided with the reinstatement of a gate charge. The free fair was no more, yet fairgoers set a new attendance record in 1959, exceeding 410,000 people. Even then, suggestions were being made to find year-round uses for the land in order to serve more county residents.
By 1974, the luster was gone from the Mid-America Fair. That year, the Shawnee County Commissioners sought and accomplished a termination of the lease with the fair board, citing the deterioration of buildings and grounds. They also felt the land was not being used to its fullest potential. For the next few years, while the community deliberated over the question of what to do with the fairgrounds, the fair reappeared under a new name: the Sunflower State Expo.
Formal planning began in 1978 for a new "Shawnee Expo Complex", and on April 5, 1983, the community passed a 19.7 million bond issue to build the Kansas Expocentre. Five months later the buildings on the fairgrounds were closed in preparation for the project. By mid-year 1984, Agricultural Hall, Heritage Hall, Livestock Pavilion and Exposition Hall (now known as Maner Conference Center) had been remodeled while adjacent property along 17th street was acquired, demolished, and converted into parking space. Construction of the new exhibit hall and arena was completed in 1987. To tie the old buildings to the new facilities, an indoor passageway was constructed between the conference center and exhibit hall.
Landon Arena - named for Kansas' elder statesman, Governor Alfred M. Landon (1887-1987) - hosted the first Expocentre event with nearly 9,000 people attending a Topeka Sizzlers basketball game. The Grand Opening of the Kansas Expocentre was on April 17, 1987 with a sold-out concert featuring Kenny Rogers, T. Graham Brown and Ronnie Milsap.
A five acre site had been reserved on the Expo grounds for the location of a privately built hotel, and in 1998 the Capitol Plaza Hotel opened for business. A John Q. Hammons property, the hotel has 224 rooms, restaurant, lounge, pool, fitness center, ballroom, and a climate-controlled walkway connecting to the Expocentre. Maner Conference Center is now operated by the hotel.
Well over a century has passed since the first exposition was held at this location, yet the old fairgrounds continue to attract hundreds of thousands of people each year. The Kansas Expocentre is home to the Topeka RoadRunners of the North American Hockey League, the United Rodeo Association Finals, and - appropriately - it's home to the Shawnee County Fair. Our visitors enjoy concerts, family shows, trade shows, consumer shows, horse shows, dog shows and all kinds of exhibitions. The community utilizes the smaller halls for wedding receptions, parties, galas and dances.
Gone are the days when the fairgrounds sat idle for most of the year. It's not unusual for six events to be hosted simultaneously in our facilities, and we typically book over 600 event days annually. The staff of the Kansas Expocentre is proud to carry on the tradition of bringing people together at this location for entertainment, education and celebration.
The original text of this article was written by Joyce Townsend in 1990 and updated by Phil Thompson in 2008.
Research sources: Kansas Historical Society, The Topeka Capital-Journal, Shawnee County Clerk's office, Shawnee County Election Office, Expocentre employees.