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Demolition derbies, horse pulls, country singers direct from Nashville, free gates, chicken BBQ’s, livestock shows and auctions and carnivals appear in advertisements for the 79 county, regional and state fairs running across the state this summer.

Of course those are the headlines used to attract people to “come to the fair. That’s right, it’s fair season! Have you attended a county fair? Recently, as a kid, never? If not, you are missing one of the great summer events that offer so much enjoyment for so little cost.

You just can’t beat a county fair. Take your family, stroll the exhibits, watch the judging and don’t miss the heart and soul of most fairs — the youth exhibits from Ayrshire cattle to woodworking from angus calves to zinnia bouquets,— then  have a hot dog and cream puff, and meet new friends.  

I try to attend the Stoughton Fair annually and did so again last week on the warmish but perfect weather July 4th. The first thing I noticed was the scarcity of parking space which means a big crowd was on hand — and that’s good for this non-state financially supported fair (a long story) as are most fairs.

Back to the memories

I grew up with the Stoughton Fair, something that was always a big event for me and my family. Consider, that in those long ago days there was no TV and no social media except for the daily newspaper, radio and a party line phone that kids seldom used, so getting off the farm for a couple of days and seeing other kids at the fair was big fun.  

The Stoughton Fair: that’s where us three Oncken kids (me, brother Don and sister Audrey) and our parents John and Melva, who provided the ag products we showed at the fair and were 4-H leaders, spent four or five days each summer. (It also got us out of hoeing tobacco or making hay for a few days too.)

RELATED: Fair and Festival season is underway! Visit one near you.

The last week rush

I well remember the rush during the week before the fair when we were trying to get our craft projects finished and hogs, beef and dairy animals “fair ready.” I long ago realized why it was so difficult for me to finish the simple woodworking projects I’d entered: My talent for doing such things is minimal at best, I’m still lucky to get a light bulb screwed in properly or pound a nail straight. But, we always seemed to get things done by fair time.

I am one of those who still remember the dark days in the 1940s and 50s when the Dane County Fair at Madison was bankrupt and ceased operations and the Stoughton Fair served as the county fair.  

Then as now, the Stoughton Fair was low key as compared to many of the big county fairs It’s still heavy in kids, animals, families and friendliness and doesn’t serve beer.  

Some history

The first recorded North American fair was held in 1765 in Nova Scotia and continues today.  The first U.S. fair was held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1811 when  farmer Elijah Watson, organized the Berkshire Cattle Show in which premiums were paid for the best exhibits. 

And, on July 4th, 1842, in a grove of trees at Prairiesville in Waukesha county, the state’s first county fair was held. It featured a plowing match (with $40 in premiums) and crop exhibitions. This year the 177th edition of the Waukesha county Fair will be held July 17 - 21 at the Waukesha Exposition Center.     

They volunteer for free

Every county fair is managed by a board of volunteer directors and it’s no easy job Rob White, who has served as a Stoughton Fair director for 22 years says their 84 superintendents working with the exhibits and another 35 or so volunteers keep the fair a’going.

“Twenty-two years is a long time,” I commented. 

"My family have all been involved in the fair and the joy on the kids faces participating in the exhibits makes it worthwhile,” he says. “And, we want to keep it an agricultural oriented event.”

Board member Luther Sperle says he is a second generation member and agrees that you must love the fair and the community to keep the fair successful. 

Board members I talked with explained their real jobs: White is an insurance adjuster, Sperle, a former farmer,  works for Stoughton Schools, vice president Chris Quam “burys pipe” for Intercon, Milt Herried, is a custom hay harvester and Amber Sime, a nurse.

Board members agreed that providing entertainment is probably their biggest challenge.  People want to be entertained but we don’t want to charge high admission prices to get nationally featured entertainers, they agreed. Truck, tractor and horse pulling has been popular and is featured again this year along with a rodeo that drew a large crowd last year.  

Don’t be in a hurry

A visit to a fair is not to be rushed: Make time to talk with the youth exhibitors who have spent many hours creating and producing their clothing, photography, woodworking and other indoor projects and the livestock exhibitors who grew, trained and managed their animals for exhibition and competition at the fair. 

The youth exhibitors love to talk about their projects, especially to visitors who are unfamiliar with what goes into preparing for the fair. Visitors have often told me they were hesitant to talk with the exhibitors for fear of taking up their time. Don’t worry, the young people in the barns with animals have lots of time and love to talk and it’s a time when even a 12-year old can be the expert.

During my wandering around this year’s Stoughton Fair I was a bit surprised to see the big crowd (two bleacher sections full) watching the poultry judging. Youth exhibitors were carrying their chickens to be viewed by the judge who the placed them in cages to be reviewed again.  

The chickens were small and of black color and very unknown to me. So I asked a half dozen spectators if they knew the breed? None did. In fact each admitted they knew nothing about chickens but were there to support their children or grandchildren in their 4-H project efforts.

Learning on the run

Thursday was also dairy judging day and county fairs are where young folks get their first showing experience. This means getting the calf “show ready” and leading in the ring. In  many cases the calf will be bigger than the boy or girl at the halter. 

In a few years some of these beginners will be experienced veterans leading a cow into the State Shows and World Dairy Expo.  It’s about learning and improving for the future and a pleasure to watch — and to hear parents and grandparents talk about the youngster’s progress.

Take a day

It’s the fair season — the first was June 27 - 30 at Elroy, the final fair is Sept. 20 - 22 at Danbury in Burnett county — fairs are for all ages.

Look at the list of fairs at  www.wifairs.com and find your county fair. Get the kids off the computer, leave the cell phones at home, take a day off and come to the fair. Have some fun and make some memories. 

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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