'Meet' Jerry Apps "On the Midway" for a taste of county fair history

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Three 4-H members display their cows at the Iron County Fair in 1935.

When Jerry Apps called back in 2019 asking if I'd be interested in contributing to his upcoming book about fairs across Wisconsin, I couldn't wait to put pen to paper.

While I was a late-bloomer as far as my membership in 4-H goes, I did have a good mentor in my future mother-in-law who after 60 plus years still serves as our 4-H club's general leader.

For nearly 36 years, I served as a project leader in the 4-H club, helping members in everything to art and photography to dairy and sheep. As Jerry's new book Meet Me On the Midway: A History of Wisconsin Fairs can attest, 4-H members and the cast of volunteers played a critical part in county fairs all across Wisconsin.

From the beginning

From cream puffs to blue ribbons, celebrated rural historian  Apps explores the history of county and state fairs in Wisconsin. From their earliest incarnations as livestock exhibitions to today’s multitude of exhibits and demonstrations, grandstand entertainment, games and rides, and competitions of all sorts, Apps draws on extensive research and his personal experience as a 4-H leader, county extension agent, fair judge, and lifelong fairgoer to take readers back through 178 years of Wisconsin fair history.

Like many fairgoers or participants, many followed in the footsteps of their parents and siblings. Apps recalls his father's adventures of herding his show cows to the fair, walking every step of the 8-mile journey. The elder Apps summed up his experience rural fair experiences as some of the "best days of his life".

From cream puffs to blue ribbons, celebrated rural historian Jerry Apps explores the history of county and state fairs in Wisconsin.

Beginning with Waukesha County who held the state's first county fair in 1842, Apps traces the history and origins of county fairs across the state. He tells of some fairs that struggled to survive during the Depression years, and of community leaders who kept the events afloat financially until better times came along.

A common thread throughout the years which contributed to the success of the fair is the dedicated army of volunteers made up of 4-H and FFA leaders, project superintendents, community groups, fair board members, Extension agents, parents, local businesses and more. 

In this 228 book, Apps covers everything from horse-pulling and calf-showing contests to flower arrangement judging to the roar of gasoline engines powering the midway rides. The Waushara County native evokes the sights and sounds of fairs through the ages while digging in to the political and social forces that shaped the fair into an icon of our rural heritage.

Throughout his book, Apps weaves in the voices of fairgoers who share their insights on everything from rigged carnival games to runaway steers on the Midway, the jitters of entering the showring to budding the relationships that changed lives.

Judges evaluate vegetable entries at the Waushara County Fair.

Apps' latest literary effort is peppered with countless fascinating factoids about fairs in Wisconsin:

  • Many fairs featured hot air balloon ascensions, tightrope walkers, parachute jumpers, ostrich racing as well as a greased pig chase or two.
  • Electricity was a big attraction for many fairs, including a country home illuminated by the new technology in 1912.
  • During the World Wars, many fairgrounds were used as training sites with buildings converted into barracks. Some fairgrounds even housed POWs.
  • Several fairs were dubbed the "Fair Without Children", when families were advised to keep youngsters home during the polio outbreaks.
  • During the Great Depression, many fairs struggled to survive. However, some benefitted as workers from the WPA were engaged to build grandstands and livestock buildings.
  • During those lean times, some fairs created entries to reflect the times including prizes for "Best patched garment" or "Best darning on a sock".

Illustrated with vintage and modern photos and featuring the voices of exhibitors, judges, volunteers, and visitors, Meet Me on the Midway vividly captures the thrills and cherished memories of these beloved annual gatherings.

About the author

Jerry Apps is a former county extension agent and professor emeritus for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He exhibited cattle and other projects at county fairs as a 4-H member and later served as a county fair judge. Today he works as a rural historian, full-time writer, and creative writing instructor.

Book launch and signings

Apps will be signing books at the Waushara County Fair, Aug. 20.  Additional virtual events are planned statewide, including book launch events Aug. 11 hosted by River Falls Public Library and Aug. 16 hosted by Patterson Memorial Library in Wild Rose, Jerry's hometown. Get details and find more events in our calendar at www.wisconsinhistory.org/whspress .