Members of the Peabody Fourth Fest committee think that Peabody’s population will swell by 3,000 to 5,000 by the time the lights at Peabody City Park are turned off July 4th and the 93rd annual fireworks show begins.
A crowd that size will comfortably fill the viewing area normally occupied by the football field, stone bleachers, and grassy area inside the park’s sports complex.
While attendance has grown slowly during the past two decades, crowds still are much smaller than in the late 1960s and 1970s, when estimates put the numbers close to 20,000, sometimes more.
The event was billed as the “largest free fireworks show in the state.” No admission was charged, but donations were taken at the gate. Keeping track of the number of visitors was guesswork at best.
The fireworks show at Peabody and all that accompanied it was one of only a few in the state in those years. Today most communities have some sort of celebration for Independence Day. From Ramona to Wichita, there are celebrations all over.
However, Peabody City Park has a long history of attracting visitors, and not just to the annual fireworks show.
Peabody was founded in 1871 and according to Peabody Historical Society information, the Marion County Agricultural Society was established in 1873. It began sponsoring annual fairs each fall. The county fair board owned the area that is now Peabody City Park and in September 1885, it was the site of the Kansas State Fair.
A grandstand to seat 2,000 was built at the park for horse races, with additional seating space on the grass for tens of thousands more. A large dining hall was erected to serve up to 5,000 visitors daily. Hotels and rooming houses were full. Trains brought thousands of visitors.
While the 1885 State Fair in Peabody was a success, by 1895 the Marion County Agricultural Society quit sponsoring fairs and in 1902 sold the park to the city for $1,500.
Horseracing continued for many years on a half-mile dirt track built for the fairs.
Peabody became widely known as the home of one of the world’s fastest trotters, Joe Young. Joe Young sired Joe Patchen, who in turn sired Dan Patch, whose 1:55 time for a quarter-mile remained unbeaten for 30 years. Joe Young was the only one of the three to race in Peabody, but hundreds came just to see him run.
Competition between fire departments from neighboring towns also drew crowds. Firemen often pulled horse-drawn equipment themselves to earn bragging rights for their fire company and community.
Chautauquas were another popular event at the park from the turn of the century to the late 1920s. The book Peabody, The First 100 Years notes: “… that people sat on benches under a large tent and listened to bands, choirs, magicians, debates, and politicians.”
Baseball was played at the park in the early 1900s, but improvements to the baseball diamond and construction of the football field and bleachers as well as picnic tables and fire places scattered throughout the park were all part of a Works Progress Administration project in the late 1930s.
Sporting events continue to draw people during baseball, football, and swimming seasons. Numbers no longer swell to the thousands that attended the 1885 State Fair, an Anti-Horse Thief Association rally, horse races, or Chautauqua entertainment — except on the Fourth of July!
Peabody is proud of its park. The area is on the national and state historic registries because of activities decades ago.
When the population of Peabody grows by several thousand on Independence Day for the 93rd annual celebration, it will be just another day for this corner of the community that has seen huge crowds come and go for more than 100 years.