County Fairs: Making memories and remembering

John Oncken
Walking the fair.

“So, what are we going to do this weekend?"

Not an uncommon question for farm and city families alike: Something that would involve the entire family, wouldn’t be too expensive and wouldn’t be a long trip.

How about a county fair? There are about 80 or so, with the first one to be held at Elroy June 22-26 and the last at Viroqua September 14-18. Visit the Wisconsin Association of Fairs website to see the entire list.

When was the last time you actually attended a county fair?

Maybe last year with your 4-H or FFA youngsters or maybe not since you were in high school and got sick riding the Tilt-A-Whirl while trying to impress a cute blonde girl.

My guess: You enjoyed the county fair but got tied up with working or school. Then it was work and family, TV, computers and commitments of one sort or another and you forgot about the county fair completely.  Or perhaps you are a teenager, young adult, millennial or baby boomer who never experienced or even heard about a county fair. 

Stoughton FFA Alumni food trailer is always busy.

Fairs are old...very old

You should know that fairs have been around since farmers brought their livestock and crops to the village square to sell and be seen by neighbors and friends. 

Waukesha County claims to be the oldest county fair in the state as it celebrates its 180th anniversary on July 20-24, 2022. Many other fair have also passed the 100 year mark.

Fortunately, county fairs have retained many of the features that they started with:  livestock, vegetables, crops, crafts, canning, clothing and dozens of other competitions for both 4-H and other youth groups, with many fairs offering competition in open classes. 

If you’ve never watched a class of market hogs being judged, as the showmen tries to present an animal (who has ideas) to a judge who is walking around the show ring, you really haven’t experienced life. 

Exhibitor and calf have different ideas.

Same for the dairy calf judging where the 10-year-old first-timer competes against the 18-year-old (almost a professional) veteran in a contest among animals and people where emotions are subdued and no one gets angry with the results, cusses out competitors or the judge and all are happy and look forward to “next time.”

Most of all, a county fair is a place to see new things, meet new people and just enjoy life without  wrecking the family budget.

Stoughton Fair June 29-July 4

 This is my favorite fair of all -  that’s where us three Oncken kids (me, brother Don and sister Audrey ), 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 – between our normal farm work – each summer.   

Barbequing steaks.

Only a couple of buildings remain (the grandstand and FFA building) from those long ago days but most everything else seems about  the same.

The dairy barn always draws visitors. Area farm families who view the cattle and talk with the boys, girls and parents preparing their animals for show day or after that event, playing cards, talking in groups or just fooling around. Or city folks who may be seeing a Jersey calf for the first time ever, youngsters anxious to pet a “cowie, or those carrying babies wondering what those big things are.  

No dumb questions

I always note how hesitant city visitors are to ask questions of the youth sitting or milling about next to their animals. It’s probably a bit of shyness, but more likely a feeling that their questions might be “dumb.” 

Watching the chicken judging.

Fair exhibitors never even think about such things, they are eager to tell about their Holstein calf (or chicken, pig, goat, dress, woodworking or cake project), especially when they know the question is serious. What 12- or 18-year-old doesn’t like to give answers to adults? That’s part of the reason they work so hard to exhibit at the Fair in the first place. 

The Korean couple and their 18-month-old youngster looked a bit lost in the dairy barn  but said they were really enjoying their tour. David (a Economics Ph.D. student at the UW) and Yena Nam and son Ian, had looked on the internet for something interesting to do on Saturday. They found the Stoughton Fair online and traveled to Stoughton to attend their first fair - and they were loving it!  

A Saturday night steak dinner at the Stoughton Fair.

Milking a cow

The little blonde girl wanted to milk the cow just a little longer but her mother was in a hurry, so off she went only to be immediately replaced by a boy cow milker.  

No, it wasn’t an actual cow, it was a full-size fiberglass model that didn’t kick or move, but could be milked. Friend Jerry Wendt, longtime agriculture instructor in the Stoughton School District explained that the cow would again be making her appearance at the Fair and was indeed a big attraction. 

“Some years ago the ag instructors in Dane County bought the $8,000 cow with the money our FFA chapters earned from serving ice cream in the GEA stand at World Dairy Expo,” Wendt says. “We are aiming to educate non-farmers about farming with the cow as an attraction and a video explaining modern dairying."

The calf and the exhibitor in perfect tune.

Market animal sale a big success

The Stoughton Fair market animal livestock auction continues to be hit among sellers and buyers. 

“We had thought about this for some years,“ a Fair Board director said. “The discovery of PEDv in the state and the state veterinarian’s recommendation that all pig shows be terminal, gave us the reason to hold a meat animal auction.”

He said all the animals were bought locally - at two to three times market price and none went to Equity. It was a huge success.

The weather is usually great because of the early date and fairgoers enjoy the exhibits, tractor pulls, deep-fried Oreos, cream puffs and meeting people. Interestingly, this fair, unlike those listed on the Wisconsin Association of Fairs website ( through a quirk in recordkeeping years ago, does not receive state aid. 

Come to the fair

Fairs are a part of growing up. A place where memories are made and can be relived forever. You are never too old to enjoy big-time Nashville entertainment or pie auctions, demo derbies or harness races, Super Farmer Olympics or comedy hypnotists.  

As a young business woman attending the Stoughton Fair summarized to me, “I get away from computers, leave my cell phone at home, eat cotton candy, look eye to eye with the chickens and rabbits, enjoy cheese curds and talk with farmers...That’s what life is really about.”  

I agree.

John F Oncken can be reached at