MONMOUTH, Ill. — The 1920s were the heyday for daredevils, stunt artists and magicians. It is small surprise, then, that when the Monmouth Chamber of Commerce decided to revamp the local “Fall Festival” in 1921, the headliner had to be a crowd-pleasing acrobat. The performer hired that fall — Oscar Babcock, who rode a bicycle on a two-story loop-the-loop — would not only please the crowd, but would also marry a local girl and become a lifelong resident of Monmouth. His story is the topic of a future column.
The idea to expand the festival, which had previously focused largely on judging of produce, canned and baked goods, came after the 1921 Fourth of July celebration netted excess profits of almost $800 from a dance, ball game and Ford car raffle. The Chamber debated how to invest the funds and a fall festival was the unanimous choice. Scheduled for the third week in September (after the merchants had received their fall shipments), the four-day festival would be centered around the Public Square and South Main Street — a format that would continue through the founding of the Prime Beef Festival following World War II.
Large tents, housing industrial and agriculture exhibits, and rides were erected on the Square; businesses ran special sales and promotions; and the 200 block of South Main became an outdoor stage for public spectacle.
After a highly successful inaugural festival, the 1922 committee expanded the second festival to five nights, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 19. That year’s headliner was daredevil and magician Harry Rich, a Nebraska performer who rivaled Harry Houdini for his diversity of talents. Billed as “Demon of the Air,” the 34-year-old wonder got his start parachuting from a balloon, but moved on to high-wire acts and even airplane wing-walking.
Twice a day at the Monmouth Fall Festival, Rich performed on a trapeze, high atop the C.E. Hogue Furniture building, which stood between the current MC Sport and Rivoli Theatre buildings. He would swing out over the crowd, performing various feats for a half hour — the climax coming when he would pretend to lose his grip and catch the bar with his feet.
After that performance, he would head over to the courthouse to perform his famous “Slide for Life.” A cable was strung from the courthouse tower to the ground, which he slid down, aided by a pulley, while balanced on his back.
Various versions of this entertainment occurred during the week, but Rich was especially busy on Saturday, which was Kids Day. That afternoon, he performed an airplane act, which he began by dropping a live goose from the plane. Little Miss Dorothy Smith captured the bird when it alighted on the lawn of Mrs. Minnie Webster on West Broadway. For this she was given a sweater by the Schloss Brothers clothing store.
Next, Rich walked on the airplane wings, then hung by his teeth from the landing gear, while performing various stunts. (Rich must have had exceptional teeth, as he had also been known to pull three automobiles using his teeth alone.) He did his Slide for Life at 8:30 and a grand finale trapeze act at 10:45, wrapping up another highly successful festival, which had an estimated crowd of 5,000 on its final day alone.
Although he maintained a hectic travel schedule during the warm months, Rich continued to work during the winter, moving indoors. He was back in the Maple City for three days that October, performing magic at the Family Theatre, on the west side of South Main.
Sadly, Rich’s Slide for Life would become his “slide for death,” just 32 months later at Milwaukee’s State Fair Park. On July 1, 1925, having arrived from an appearance in Houston, Texas, he spent part of the day doing a splice repair on the wire.
With a crowd of more than 3,000 and his newlywed bride watching, Rich slid down the cable. Thirty feet from the ground, the cable snapped, hurtling the aerialist to the ground. He landed on his left side, breaking his left arm and leg and suffering a fractured skull. He died four hours later in a Milwaukee hospital.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.