State Fair Park hosts 125 years of Wisconsin cows, carnies and cream puffs

Wisconsin State Farmer

WEST ALLIS - State Fair Park is where the Packers played and a Wright brothers plane flew.

It's where harness racing gave way to auto racing, where Wisconsin soldiers trained for the Spanish-American War and German POWs unloaded vegetables in the barns.

And for 125 years, it's been the permanent home of the Wisconsin State Fair, the asphalt-paved playground filled with prize-winning livestock, bacon-wrapped fried food and stomach-churning amusement park rides.

The 166th State Fair opens Thursday for its 11-day run, marking an annual summer rite at a site that over the years has become Wisconsin's crossroads.

A collection of past Wisconsin State Fair entry tickets are on display as historic memorabilia.

The State Fair made its debut in 1851 and over the decades bounced between Janesville, Milwaukee, Watertown, Fond du Lac and Madison. It needed a permanent home.

The perfect spot turned out to be a 120-acre farm owned by the Stevens family and purchased for $850 an acre by the Agricultural Society.

The first time State Fair was held on the site was in 1892.

And over the years, it has grown and grown and grown again, now luring one million spectators annually.

Wisconsin State Fair Historian Jerry Zimmerman holds an assortment of past Wisconsin State Fair programs as he sits in front of a display of Wisconsin State Fair historic memorabilia inside the Exploratory Park at State Fair Park in West Allis.

"To get a million people in there, I don't care who you are, you'll find something you like," said State Fair Park Historian Jerry Zimmerman.

It's a mix of rural and urban that keeps people coming back, Zimmerman said, farm animals and pop music, tractors and amusement park rides.

If Summerfest had livestock, Zimmerman said, he's sure it would top a million fans annually, too.

Zimmerman, 89, grew up four blocks from the fairgrounds, attended his first fair as a months-old baby in diapers carried by his mother, and figures he has missed only two State Fairs in his lifetime.

As a kid, he helped set up circus tents and worked as a carny on the midway. He and his friends used to play on a hill on the spot where the speed-skating rink was put in. From the front porch of his home, he would watch fireworks and later, head inside and go to sleep listening to the sounds of the State Fair.

"I think we lived in the magic age of seeing it grow to where it is today," he said.

Fair needed permanent home

When fair organizers looked for a permanent spot, Zimmerman said a lot of people wanted the State Fair to be in Madison in the area that is now the site of Camp Randall Stadium.

"I often wonder if they had had the fair there what would have happened to the stadium," he said.

But the revenue from the Milwaukee area was hard to overlook, he said.

In 1892, Zimmerman said the old Stevens farm was "way out in the country so it wouldn't interfere with anything, but close enough so the public could still attend."

The original fairgrounds featured a 6,000-seat grandstand, a race track and exhibition buildings. An estimated 60,000 people attended the 1892 fair.

"The sweet thing about the State Fair is it changes, but doesn't change," Zimmerman said.

A collection of items are on display as historic memorabilia inside the Exploratory Park at State Fair Park.

A streetcar line was extended from Milwaukee to the fairgrounds in 1894, and a decade later electric lights illuminated the grounds for the first time.

"The Wright brothers brought their plane here in 1910," Zimmerman said. "Their pilot was Arch Hoxsey. They landed on the track. They took off from the track."

Zimmerman said Hoxsey almost landed the plane into the grandstand and "he was reprimanded by the Wright brothers."

Cream puffs were first sold at the fair in 1924.

Site hosted prisoners, then Packers

Ask Zimmerman to tick off State Fair Park milestones, and the first thing he mentions is World War II, "when German prisoners were barracked at Mitchell Field.

"They would bring them to State Fair Park at harvest time and they would bring in truckloads of carrots and beets and these prisoners would bag them to get them ready for shipping," Zimmerman said. "The thing that still blows my mind is us neighborhood kids were able to walk down to the park, go into the barns and visit with them. It was an enlightening moment for me and other youngsters."

The old State Fair midway built in the 1920s "was Disneyland before Disneyland," open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Zimmernan said. The midway was anchored by what was reputed to be the largest ballroom in the world.

"It had a great roller coaster that ran from the front of where the Expo hall is now down to Greenfield Avenue. There was a Ferris wheel, the bug, the hammer, the whip, the octopus, the electric scooter and the old mill that was a tunnel of love, and a great penny arcade," Zimmerman said. "It lasted until 1960. It closed because people weren't going to it after the war."

The Green Bay Packers even played games at the park beginning in 1934, with the first field laid out inside a quarter-mile race track and in front of the grandstand.

Over the years, State Fair Park has been made and remade, original wood buildings giving way to brick, the harness-racing dirt track paved over for cars.

History remains. But what sustains the State Fair, Zimmerman said, is that organizers are constantly looking to the future.

What appealed to older generations might not appeal to newer ones. And that's just fine with Zimmerman, who said, "When you take a kid here today, that's what they're going to remember until they have children and grandchildren."