Nothing like a fair

John Oncken
Now Media Group

The 2016 fair season started a couple of weeks ago (in Elroy), and, of course, I attended the second fair of the season — the Stoughton Fair.

You won't find it on the state's official list of fairs because is just one of a very few non-state aid fairs. In other words, it is operated on its own without any state money.

I try to always attend the Stoughton Fair; it'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 got us out of hoeing tobacco for a few days).

In those days, the Stoughton Fair was also the Dane County Fair because the county was so short of funds it couldn't afford to run a fair, so Stoughton took over for about 15 years.

It's the memories

Fairs are where memories are made and can be relived forever — your first foray into carrying a project (from a calf to a wooden doorstop to a cake) from start to finish and hearing a judge tell you what you did right or wrong. Fairs might be where you learned about Ferris wheels and tilt-a-whirls and if you could ride them without getting sick (I couldn't, so didn't).

Fairs are where you learned that experience counts, so you listened (for the first time) to the older kids who had been through exhibiting their projects before and who taught you the ins and outs.

Fairs don't change much

My visit (parts of two days) to the Stoughton Fair again reminded me that

Most things haven't changed much over the decades since I was a 4-Her and FFAer. The exhibitors still spend a lot of time hanging around the livestock barns even after their animals were judged, and playing cards, talking and giggling are still what young people do much of the time — when not feeding, washing and otherwise carrying for their animals.

Oh yes, they still eagerly jump up and answer questions that city folks might ask, and yes, most city folks are still too bashful to really ask a 10-year-old a question, but sometimes their youngsters aren't and do, so everyone learns.

Adults still oversee the livestock barns, not because there is a list but just to make sure everything is going well. Mostly they are parents who hang out with the young people who welcome their presence to help keep things going smoothly.

Adults do help

Eric and Angie Olstad, Stoughton, were in one end of the dairy barn keeping an eye on things during my Friday visit. They live in town but own cattle that are housed in a friend's barn and exhibited by daughters Emma and Molly. Although Eric is well known in dairy circles — many years with Select Sires and now a dairy specialist with Zoetis — he and Angie, a reading specialist at the Edgerton Schools, do not live on a farm.

'I'd guess that 90 percent of the cattle shown at this and other fairs are shown by non-farm kids,' Eric said. 'There are so few dairy farms (and kids) these days and lots of city kids that want to work with animals, so the farmers provide animals to the city kids on a managerial basis, and everyone gains.'

Note: the oldest Olstad daughter, Emma, will be a freshman at UW-Madison this fall majoring in, guess what, dairy science, of course.

Olstad remarked that it was interesting that the kids he grew up with and got to know at the Stoughton Fair are still at the same fair with their kids. 'We have been supervising in the dairy barn for nine years,' Eric said. 'Why? Because we love it, and our two girls love it.'

Managing and learning

Karen Stenjum was sitting on a show box in the dairy barn surrounded by a host of teenage girls sitting on hay bales and lawn chairs.

'These girls are all showing managerial animals for us,' Stenjum said. 'My husband, Dale, and I milk 130 cows near Cambridge, and the three city girls are really dedicated to working with the calves.'

The threesome — Kendra Spier, Sophie Griesen and Karn Vethe — agreed that they have learned from the Stenjum family. 'Their experience and help taught us so much,' the girls (all FFA members) said.

As for Stenjum, she said, 'We feel we are offering them an opportunity to learn about work, responsibility and life.'

As for the responsibility of having the girls working with the calves at the farm, Stenjum said, 'We're willing to take the risk.'

Eleven-year-old Lee Jorgenson was in the poultry barn seeing to it that his chickens were taken care of for the night. How many chickens, I asked? 'Fourteen,' he replied. 'My sister has 16, We have 15 different breeds.'

His parents Perry and Laura have a small hobby farm. 'We don't have room for bigger livestock, ' Laura said. 'But, plenty of room for chickens that we bring to the fair.

Puffs and curds

One of the big attraction at the fair is the Stoughton FFA Alumni trailer, where fairgoers go to get cream puffs and cheese curds. The group makes four events each year: The Stoughton Fair, Dane County Fair, the Utica Fest and Syttende Mai to raise money for the Stoughton FFA.

John Elvekrog, chairman of the project explained, 'We provide things the FFA needs that aren't in the school budget, plus some scholarships. We also sponsor events at the Stoughton Fair and provide $3,000 to $4,000 for fair operations. We have 30 to 40 active members who meet monthly. We are an active group.'

It works

How is the Stoughton Fair financed without state help? Fair Board President Luther Sperle answered, 'We depend on income from the fair, such as food and entertainment concessions, grandstand shows, a fish fry, a barbecue and sponsors.

'Yes the elimination of the popular pig wrestling event left us with no grandstand show on Thursday night, but the city will compensate us for this year's financial loss. Over the seven years of pig wrestling, we never injured a pig, but some of the competitors got banged up a little. Last year, we had 20 youth and 10 adult teams of four members each.

'Once the animal cruelty complaint was made by the one person, we got emails from all across the country,' he continued. 'We just didn't want to fight it; we'll find something new for next year.'

Loving the fair

The fair board is made up of 17 members, 11 who work without pay.

'The main qualification to be a fair board member is to love the fair,' Sperle said. 'When we find someone who dearly loves this fair, we put them on the board.'

I'm always happy to see the big 'Triangle Troopers 4-H' club sign hanging high in the dairy barn. The 80-member 4-H club had its start about 70 years when three small, rural school 4-H clubs, Starr, Flint and Hilcrest, merged (my mother was the leader of the Flint School club).

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. There are still some 75 fairs yet to be held across the state.

Renew your memories of past days, and make some new ones.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at