It might have been the "hottest" fair in the long history of Wisconsin fairs as temperatures at the 87th edition of the Stoughton Fair exceeded the 90 degree mark each of the six days. Three days were over 100 degrees.
That is hot.
It is hot for the dairy and beef animals, sheep, hogs, chickens, rabbits and other FFA and 4-H animals on display. It is even hotter for the people who didn't make it to the fair because of the heat.
By and large, the animals on display were comfortable. They had fans blowing up a cooling breeze, lots of water to drink and, in the case of dairy and beef animals, cold showers at the wash racks provided by their owners.
In every case, the animals were watched closely by their owners or managers for any sign of heat distress and were housed in comfortable, airy buildings.
The Stoughton Fair, held at Mandt Park during the July 4th week, is annually the second fair held in Wisconsin (the Elroy Fair held in late June traditionally kicks off the fair season) and is one of the few bigger fairs not receiving state aid.
"We operate on a low budget with a couple hundred volunteers," fair board member Rob White says, "That's the way we think it should be."
In spite of the heat, which severely limited attendance on Thursday and Friday (July 5-6) when 103 degree temperatures kept most fair goers home, White said the tractor pull on Wednesday night, the demolition derby on Saturday evening and the pig wrestling Sunday at noon drew full grandstands.
Of the 80 fairs held across the state, all but three receive some sort of financial state aid; the Stoughton Fair is one that does not.
Bob Williams, long time overseer (now semiretired) of Wisconsin fairs, with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), explains that there are five counties with two state aid fairs: Columbia with fairs at Lodi and Portage; Marathon with Athens and Wausau fairs; Juneau County with Elroy and Mauston fairs; Grant has fairs at Bloomington and Lancaster; and Burnett County has fairs at Grantsburg and Webster.
Fairs eligible for aid stem back to a decision made years ago that fairs operating in 1950 would be considered for state aid, Williams explains.
The Stoughton Fair got its start as a harvest festival parade held in downtown Stoughton in the fall of 1925.
The event was held "to pay tribute to boys and girls who bring the finest examples of pigs, calves and other farm produce to the event," according to a 1983 story in the Stoughton Courier Hub. "Local businesses displayed pumpkins, squash and other garden products in their windows."
The second year of the event brought even greater enthusiasm. A newspaper account called it "a fall festival on a larger scale than anything ever before attempted in this vicinity, is an assured thing for Stoughton and community."
It was decided to hold the second festival on Sept. 29 "by which time tobacco harvest will be pretty well over with." A new feature was also added, the election of a Festival Queen who would receive $30 in gold as her prize.
An estimated 8,000 people attended the celebration and watched 60 floats and three bands in the parade that was marred only when, just a few minutes after her crowning, the float carrying the queen, Hazel Partis, hit a stop sign, causing her to lose her balance and fall onto the pavement.
"Spectators helped her into the High Test Filling Station where a physician was summoned. She was bruised and badly frightened and unable to continue in the parade, but later appeared on the street with her wounds bandaged," according to the story.
Both the calf club contest involving 16 purebred calves (which was considered an excellent showing) and the home economics exhibits were two of the most interesting features, according to reports.
A special poem was written to commemorate the 1926 Harvest festival:
We boost, and boost
Until our lungs and feet are sore;
We boost for the city
With the friendly open door
Where everybody's happy
And no one ever makes a fuss;
This we tell the community
Stoughton! That's us.
Three years after its start, the Stoughton Harvest Festival was moved to a former lumberyard, later renamed Mandt Park, where it has remained since.
In 1939, the Dane County Fair found itself in financial difficulty and the fair was moved to Stoughton, where it remained for 10 years.
When state financial aids became policy in 1950, the Dane County Fair returned to Madison and the Stoughton Fall Festival went its own way. (Note: The official Dane County Fair records show the fair returned to Madison in 1951, which should have put the Stoughton Fair on the state aids list.)
Over the years the Stoughton Fair has had a number of names including the Stoughton Free Festival, Stoughton Junior Fair and its current one. It is run by a 13-member board of directors headed by President Jason Kellnhofer, owner of No Shorts Electric, based in Stoughton.
Like all board members, Kellnhofer is a volunteer. This means he not only oversees the administration, but he is a laborer at the fairgrounds when work has to get done.
Stan Mabie, a Stoughton farmer, grain hauler and board member, marked his 50th year (this year) of involvement in the Stoughton Fair.
"I began showing calves as a member of the Triangle Troopers 4-H at age 10," he says. "After aging out of 4-H at 21-years-old, I began working for the grounds committee, then moved on to the fair board where I've been for many years."
4-Hers see the Stoughton Fair as often the first step into growing up as they lead their heifer calf in competition before an impartial judge, sew an apron for their clothing project or take their first ride on a ferris wheel.
The Stoughton Fair is also a time for family picnics on the grass; walking the grounds with new friends, serving food at the 4-H stand, and learning about winning and losing in project judging.
Parents like the free parking and the fair's sort of old-time atmosphere. Many mothers have told me they aren't "worrying about the kids walking alone on the grounds because of the small town, almost rural setting."
Marvin Rustad, Deerfield, at 89 years young, has seen children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren compete at the fair.
"Now I just come to see people and watch," he says from his seat in a camping chair in the dairy tent. "I can't miss the Stoughton Fair."
Neither can Dan Kelly, a Deerfield dairyman who came because the Shelley family at Deerfield asked for help in clipping their calves. He did a good job - Mara Shelley's heifer was crowned champion Holstein.
Fairs are a part of growing up for young people (and their parents) and provide experiences never to be forgotten. (I know because I still remember my years showing cattle, hogs and a plethora of other projects at the Stoughton Fair, so long ago.)
If you haven't gone to a fair recently, go this year. Renew your memories and watch new ones being made.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.