There's nothing quite like fair season

John Oncken
One calf wants to talk, but the other wants to rest.

The 2021 fair season started a couple of weeks ago (June 23-27 at Elroy), and of course I attended the second fair of the season – my favorite fair of all – the Stoughton Fair (June 30-July 4). Would you believe Wisconsin is home to more than 75 county fairs, three district fairs, and of course the Wisconsin State Fair?

The fans were hard at work in the cattle barn at the Stoughton Fair.

My favorite fair

I try to always attend the Stoughton Fair – that’s where us three Oncken kids (me, brother Don and sister Audrey) always exhibited a host of projects over four or five days each summer. Our parents, John and Melva, who provided our project basics from calves to wood, were 4-H leaders.

In those days, the Stoughton Fair was also the Dane County Fair because the Dane County Fair had gone bankrupt and Stoughton took over hosting the event for about 15 years.

When was the last time you attended a fair? If it’s been a long time, boo you. Fairs are fun events where memories are made and can be relived forever, but you have to be there to make them.

A boy leans on a counter, looking closely at rabbit judging 40 years ago. Today he is CEO of eight John Deere stores. Who is he?
Youngsters learning about pigs from Mom and Dad.

A place to make memories

Fairs are where you really learned how to lead a calf after weeks or months of training at home. That first time in the show ring can be humbling when the animal gets a pink ribbon rather than a blue or red. It’s the same for the beginning 4-Hers with their woodworking, photography, sewing or other non-livestock projects: it’s probably their first foray into carrying a project from start to finish and then hearing a judge tell them what they did wrong or right. The more experienced exhibitors probably won the blue ribbons, but you vowed to do better next year. That is called learning, and it will serve them the next year and in years to come.

Exhibitors and visitors alike all have cell phones at the ready.

For parents and grandparents, fairs are a time to watch youngsters compete at a low level, but by themselves and alone in a show ring with their calf, pig, sheep, dog or  other livestock. Or watch their dress, cake or photography pass under the eyes of a critical judge and hear their opinion, good or bad. Whatever the results, another memory is made to be cherished.

Fairs might be where you learned about Ferris wheels and tilt-a-whirls and whether or not you could ride them without getting sick. (I couldn’t, so I didn’t and don’t.) And, they are non-discriminatory, meaning you are never too old to ride. Fairs are also where those great showmen you see at World Dairy Expo probably began their showmanship careers.

Swine can’t take the heat.
Chickens don’t seem to mind the heat.

Things don't change much

My visit to the Stoughton Fair this year was rather brief – blame that on a couple of bad knees – but I was again reminded that most things haven’t changed much over the decades since I was a 4-Her and FFA member. The youth exhibitors still spend a lot of time hanging around the livestock barns even after their animals were judged. Playing cards, talking and giggling are still what young people do much of the time when not feeding, washing and otherwise caring for their animals.

The biggest change is that nowadays everyone has a cell phone in hand for the constant flow of important messages – coming from where? But 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.

The dairy show results at the 2021 Stoughton Fair.

Young families looking

A walk through the hog barn found a good many young family groups looking at the pigs, almost all of which were lying flat on their sides trying to keep cool. Several had signs posted thanking the buyers who had bought them the day before at the meat animal auction. Some were not sold but would be shown at the State Fair in August.  

It’s safe to say that most of the pigs were bought as “show pigs” earlier this year from swine breeders and fed and grown specifically for the fair and auction. There are very few hog farms in Wisconsin these days, and lots of city kids that want to work with animals, so the farmers sell animals to the city kids on a managerial basis who raise them on a relative's farm and sell them at auction – so everyone gains something.

Cream puffs and fried curds are a crowd favorite.
The concession lines were busy at the Stoughton Fair.

Crowds were "fantastic"

One of the big attractions at the fair was the Stoughton FFA Alumni trailer where fairgoers go to get cream puffs and cheese curds.

My question is, how were the crowds after a year of no fair? Luther Sperle, long time member of the fair board, said, “Fantastic – long lines at the food stands, same for the rides. I think people wanted to get out again."

There are still 74 county fairs to go, so make plans to attend, take a day off, enjoy, be young again and come to the fair. Renew your memories of past days and make some new ones. 

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at