The Prime Beef Festival and Wyatt Earp

by William Urban

The first of the street festivals was held in 1902 in the downtown business district. Known variously as “street fair”, “corn fair” and “fall festival”, it was a popular event, all the more so because the long-established county fair was held in Roseville after the First World War. It took on new vigor as a “welcome home” celebration for returning veterans in 1946 that was so successful that it was repeated the next year.

Present at the planning sessions at this time was Bud Barnes, later a well-known grocer and genealogical society stalwart. In 1999, he reminisced:

There were five men instrumental in starting the Monmouth Businessmen’s Association. I not knowing what I was to do, listened as “Olie” Kiester, “Doc” Sterret, John Hillen, Joe Thornburg, and Mayor Guy Pearson sat pondering what they were to do. There was no secretary and one was needed immediately. At the next meeting they reported a secretary had been hired—he was a returning veteran by the name of Bob Albert. He was a dandy and energy flowed through him into the whole town. He took charge of the festival. It needed a new name and some one came up with “Prime Beef Center of the World.” Could we use it? Bob called the stockyards in Chicago and they sent positive proof, that in 1948, more prime beef came from Warren County, Illinois, than from any other place.[1]

The first Prime Beef Festival was held in the Public Square. By the time Bob Albert left in 1955 to accept the position of executive secretary of the Sagninaw, Michigan Chamber of Commerce he had increased membership from 160 to 500. Jeff Rankin, who summarized 90 years of Monmouth Area Chamber of Commerce history in 2003, reported:

Albert was known for his promotional ideas, including finding popular radio comedian Col. Jack Major from Paducah, Kentucky, a Chester White boar, which was flown by private plane to Kentucky by Albert and then Chamber president Oly Keister in 1949. Also on the list of stunts was the practice of freezing merchandise in large blocks of ice with residents to guess the weight after the piece sat outside the participating business all day.[2]

The most memorable publicity stunt of the festival, however, was to locate the birthplace of Wyatt Earp. This was not planned, perhaps, as much as it just grew out of the popularity of the television show, which had prompted people from out of town to inquire about the Earp family farm and home. Before February of 1956 was over several homes had been named as candidates. Then a slack period set in that ended in June with a flurry of articles centering on a house at 406 South Third Street.[3] This continued through August, when a monument was dedicated at the Park, where the Festival was held, and not at any of the houses claimed by various individuals. No reason was given for not selecting a site in town; the article was essentially little more than an extended listing of the individuals in the celebratory photo. Prominently mentioned were Mrs. Fleming Long, president of the park board, Miss Helen Estes, author of “the Saga of Wyatt Earp”, Miss Camille Radmacher, Warren County Librarian, and Walter Durard, acting agent of the M&St.L railroad which donated the commemorative stone; also Ralph Killey, president of the 1956 festival, Robert Miller, Robert McLoskey, the state representative who obtained the plaque from the state, Marion Beal of the park board, Edward Duggan, who drew the picture of Wyatt Earp that was on the cover of “the Saga of Wyatt Earp”, and nine-year-old Wyatt Earp, a descendant of Wyatt’s uncle Josiah.[4]

One claimant who owned a birthplace site did not give up: William Stratton told reporter Charles Hallam that “Old newspaper clippings and records in the Warren County Courthouse show that Wyatt Earp was born in the house at 406 S. 3rd Street.”[5] This claim was untrue. No such records or clippings exist.

This is not surprising. In 2001 William Urban, professor of history at Monmouth College, and the birthplace association agreed to publish simultaneously arguments for and against that house being the birthplace; the birthplace association’s author withdrew her article before publication. Urban’s article demonstrated that the key letter in the June 28, 1956 article was in all likelihood a hoax, and tied it to a similar hoax regarding Wyatt Earp’s tombstone that was perpetrated in 1957.[6]

The Chamber of Commerce’s interest in publicity was not just to get the town’s name recognized; it was to attract industry, which would provide jobs and customers. Publicity was merely the essential first step in a campaign. Albert and his associates had been successful in bringing some industry (he was not lured away to a new job because his new employers considered his work in Monmouth unsatisfactory), but there was a slight decline in retail sales between 1955 and 1961 that caused the Chamber of Commerce members to believe that a more aggressive industrial plan was needed.[7] Presumably this meant also a more aggressive publicity campaign. The Wyatt Earp craze may have simply been a heaven-sent opportunity for attracting wider notice for the community.

It is still unclear who was behind the publicity stunt of 1956. Ralph Eckley, the long-time reporter for the Daily Review Atlas, did not know (or did not tell), but his original enthusiasm for the 406 S. 3rd site suddenly vanished in July of that year and he never took the arguments seriously after that. William Stratton clearly enjoyed the publicity, but he had no public connection to the Prime Beef Festival. Also, Monmouth has its share of humorists who love to pull people’s chains. Most likely, it grew out of the spirit of Bob Albert, who seldom missed an opportunity to garner publicity for the festival, and thus for the community. Thus in 1956 a combination of boosterism, practical jokers and individuals who wished to believe in one version of the family stories seems to have created a local controversy which is unlikely to be resolved to universal satisfaction.

William Urban, January 24, 2003

[1] Verne Barnes, talk given to the Chamber of Commerce, 12 February 1999. Copy given to author by Bud January 2003.

[2] Monmouth Daily Review Atlas (Jan. 20, 2003), 1, 10.

[3] First was “Stratton House on South Third Linked with Earp,” The Daily Review Atlas (June 28, 1956), 3.

[4] The Daily Review Atlas (August 18, 1956).

[5] Charles Hallam, “Historical Marker Will be Dedicated at House in Monmouth Where Famous Wyatt Earp Was Born,” Quad Cities Argus (probably July of 1956). Clipping in Ralph Eckley files.

[6] contains all the articles that Urban has written on Wyatt Earp.

[7] Monmouth Daily Review Atlas (Jan. 20, 2003), 10.


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