Come to the fair: there are 78 of them

John Oncken
Melissa Sprecher, Sauk City and her Grand Champion hog that sold for $7.50 per pound.

When was the last time you attended a county Fair? Ten years ago? Thirty years ago? Not since you were a 4-Her, showing a calf? Never? 

Shame on you. You have been missing one of life’s truly enjoyable experiences.  A fair is where you get to greet old friends and meet new ones; see pigs, sheep, cattle, rabbits, chickens and a host of other youth project animals up close and meet the young people who so proudly raised them and are more than willing to tell you how they did it. 

Seeing it happen

A fair is where you will see things actually happening, not on a smartphone, I-pad or computer. Things like livestock competition where youngsters exhibit their dairy and beef cattle with a firm grip on the halter strap before an all-seeing judge, or trying to maneuver a 150 pound pig with the aid of a show stick (cane) in a small show ring along with a dozen or two other pigs, none of which want to pose for the judge or maybe get a close up of a chicken as the judge holds it firmly to get a close look-see and feel.

Fair Intern Megan Moll with Fair president, Terry Quam.

There are 78 fairs listed on the Wisconsin Association of Fairs website: three have been held, Elroy, Stoughton and Lodi meaning there are 75 to go, take your pick. A suggestion: The more rural counties, Clark, Iowa, Richland, Lafayette among them emphasize youth and local entertainment (demo derbies, horse and tractor pulls) while the more urban fairs like Walworth, Sheboygan, Marshfield, Dane are sort of mini state fairs with national entertainment and big names.  

Take a day off

Take a look and take your pick. Create a day off, leave your smart phone and I-pad at home (there was life before social media you may remember) and enjoy a day devoted to fun.

RELATED:County fairs, Wisconsin's hidden gems

152 years

I made the short trip to Lodi last Saturday to attend the152nd edition of the Lodi Agricultural Fair. I figured that would be a sort of dead spot on the fair schedule and parking would be easy. Wrong. The closeby lots were jammed and until a kind lady hailed me down and said there was an empty space “down that row” I  probably would have parked a lot further away, not so good for my gimpy knees.
My first stop was at the outdoor dairy show ring where the showmanship contests were in progress. For the non cattle people, showmanship is where the leadsman is judged (not the calf) on his/her ability to present and pose the animal to be seen by the judge. 
I and Dave Endres, longtime dairy superintendent at the fair said “Hello” and both realized it had been several years since we’d last talked. In the long history of this column, I think I’ve written about Dave and his wife Patty more often than any other farm family: from their days milking about 50 cows on a rented farm to their move to Lodi and the now 600 Jersey herd. (Patty had a heart transplant and died some years later.)

Long time fair board member Merton Breunig (52 years) and dairy superintendent Dave Endres and the Breunig family sponsored Dairy Showman trophy.

Yes, he was a farm boy

Dave introduced me to Merton Breunig, a Lodi fair board member of 52 years and they led me over to the show table to look at the huge “Grand Champion Dairy Showman” trophy that had 47 names engraved on it, many of them Breunig and Endres.  

“Look at this one, the first one in 1969,” Endres suggested.

I did and saw “Tom Wopat 1969.”  He answered a question I had long wondered about: Did Tom Wopat really have a farming connection, something I’d heard during his days as star of “The Dukes of Hazard.” The answer is yes and he showed dairy cattle. 

Meanwhile, judge Bryan Coyne (of East Central Breeders) had selected MiKayla Endres as top dairy showman and her name would be the 48th on the trophy.

Barn and arena

A short walk away was the new swine barn that Tom Rake, well-known Waunakee swine producer said was one of the finest in the state. Now two years old, it was built with a lot of volunteer labor and has helped increase the number of hog exhibitors at the fair. The building also has arena space for the annual market livestock auction that was just a few minutes away when I arrived.  

Pictured (from left) are Judge  Bryan Coyne, Dairy ShowmanTrophy  winner Mikayla Endres, and Lauren Breunig  and Mitch Breunig presenters.

While many county fairs I’ve attended over the years have sparse crowds on Saturday afternoons, not so at the Lodi Agricultural Fair. The many rows of bleachers were jam-packed and it was standing room only as the crowd waited for the auction to begin. 
The exhibit buildings were crowded with everything from foods, to clothing to home improvement projects. Name it and there was probably a class in which to exhibit it and win a ribbon. 

All volunteers

Tarry Quam, 15 year president of the Lodi Agricultural Fair, said there were 462 Junior exhibitors this year from about six counties.  He also said that everything is done by volunteers (300 - 400) and no one is paid.

Packed bleachers await the start of the Market Animal Sale.

“Oh yes,” he then said, “two  years ago we began offering a scholarship for an intern program aimed at mentoring a young person, but that’s not really payment for work.”  
The Columbia County Board of Supervisors met in November 1851 to organize the Columbia County Agricultural Society which began hosting county fairs in different towns in the county including Wyocena, Columbus, Cambria, Portage and, in 1863, Lodi. When the fair was held in Lodi, the attendance from other towns was small, due to travel being done in those days by horse and buggy and Lodi being located in the far southwestern part of the county.

A new fair

In 1863, a group of Lodi men, called together by James O. Eaton of Lodi, decided to organize a Lodi Union Agricultural Society to host a fair for the surrounding communities including Lodi, Dane, Vienna, Roxbury, Dekorra and Arlington townships and met to organize and establish the original Lodi Union Fair. 
Their first fair was held on Oct. 2 - 4 in 1865 on the McCloud property, which is the site of the Lodi’s First Presbyterian Church today. In 1875, the fair was relocated to the 20 acre site on Fair Street, where the Lodi Driving Park Association trained their horses. This half-mile track was known as the one of best in the state. 

A POW camp

During World War II in 1944, the Lodi Fairgrounds served as a German Prisoner of War Camp. Since many Americans left to fight the war, the prisoners were sent to the States to help with the shortage of workers.

An old Allis Chalmers and young boy are a happy pair.

Some of the first projects the prisoners completed were laying concrete flooring under the grandstand, in the Fine Arts Hall (aka the Jr. Exhibit Hall), the agriculture building, office and the chicken building along with some much needed roof repairs.  When these projects were completed, the strong fenced-in fairgrounds became home to 250 POWs in 1944 and 233 in 1945 along with the guards. 
Every fair has a history centering on community minded people who often struggled to organize and maintain a fair. Lodi did it 152 years ago and the fair is a booming success today. Mark it down for next year, and why not attend your local county fair this year. Get young again, make some memories for your children, grand children and yourself. Enjoy life again!
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at