Jerry Zimmerman, 88-year-old Wisconsin State Fair historian, has witnessed many changes to the fairgrounds and its expositions during more than half the fair’s 166-year existence. He has been at 86 fairs in his 88 years, missing only the year when the fair was cancelled due to World War II and the year when he was serving his country in the Navy.
He spent every day at the fair this year as a volunteer historian, visiting with fairgoers and sharing stories.
At the Century and Sesquicentennial Farm breakfast, he visited with farmers who happily shared their own stories with him. He understands the pride they have in their farms and says it is important to preserve those memories.
A teacher by profession, he has a lifetime involvement with the fair.
“I was born near the fairgrounds in a house that is still standing," Zimmerman said. "I was just a couple months old when my mother carried me to the fair.”
Living four blocks from the park in his early youth, it became his extended playground. As a teenager, he worked in the park’s former midway selling “three balls a dime,” to knock down milk bottles and “win a prize every time.”
Zimmerman pointed out that the fair was not always in this location. Wisconsin State Fair actually began in 1851 in Janesville.
According to Zimmerman, the first fair had 13,000 to 18,000 people in attendance. Sponsored by the state’s Agricultural Society, it was held on a 6-acre plot along the banks of the Rock River. It featured a 200-pound squash and a quarter-acre plowing competition with teams of horses and oxen.
When the second fair was held in Milwaukee in 1852, fairgoers took their carriages for rides around the Cold Spring Race Course.
Abraham Lincoln was invited to give the annual oration at the fair in 1859. He spoke on the principles of free labor (farmers and their families working for themselves without the use of hired labor) and of the interconnectedness of farmers, merchants and other businesses. He advised farmers to embrace new methods of agriculture, with the goal of raising the standard of living.
The fair added new attractions each year, and in 1869, there was a fire engine demonstration where boxes, barrels and a large wooden building were set aflame. For decades, the fair moved from city to city, including Janesville, Watertown, Fond du Lac, Madison and Milwaukee, until 1892, when it was first held at its permanent and present location at Wisconsin State Fair Park.
Zimmerman has been accumulating programs, badges, fliers, pennants and postcards dating as far back as the fair's first year in 1851. Each year, different historical items are on display in the Exhibition Building, and many days visitors can find Zimmerman in the area to answer questions and reminisce.
The neat thing about the State Fair is that there's something there for everybody. If you were there as a child, some of those early things you did as a youngster with your family stick with you, Zimmerman said.
The photos and memorabilia in the display conjure up memories, but none of the events that took place over the years, according to Zimmerman, are as big a deal as the appearance of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln and the landing by fledgling flier Arch Hoxsey in an early Wright Bros. plane in 1910.
Zimmerman has been collecting reminiscent items of the fair for about 20 years, continuing a project he started with the late John Clow and Clayton Gimbler.
Even with his personal history with the fair, he found countless surprises sorting through the boxes of memorabilia that had been packed away for many years in storage.
Programs Zimmerman found and arrayed in the display cabinets tout the National Barn Dance broadcast nationwide in 1941 and the appearance of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in 1958. More than 112,000 fans turned out for their shows.
Zimmerman was also pleased to find programs from the 1939 NFL Championship Game that was played at the fairgrounds and won by the Packers, 27-0, over the New York Giants.