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County fairs: Making memories and remembering

July 8, 2014 | 0 comments

"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 eighty or so, with the first one already held at Elroy from June 26-29 and the last at Viroqua on September 10-14 (Go to www.wifairs.com and 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, 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.

Fairs are old, very old

You should know that fairs have been around almost forever beginning when 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 172nd anniversary July 16-20, and many others are well over the 100-year-old mark.

Fortunately, county fairs have retained many of the features that they started with: livestock, vegetable, crop, craft, 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 the animal (with other ideas) to a judge who is walking around the show ring, you really haven't experienced life.

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.

89th Stoughton Fair

Of course I went to the 89th edition of the Stoughton Fair last week — 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 (between normal farm work) each summer.

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. Maybe it's 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 it's city folk who may be seeing a Jersey calf for the first time ever, leading anxious youngsters to pet a "cowie" or carrying babies wondering what those big things are.

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 their questions might be "dumb."

Fair exhibitors never even think about such things; they are eager to tell about their Holstein calf (or chicken, pig, goat, dress, woodwork or cake project), especially when they know the question is serious. What 12- or 18-year-old doesn't like to give answers to 20-, 40-, 60- or 80-year-old adults? That's part of the reason they work so hard to exhibit at the fair in the first place.

A Korean couple and their year-and-a-half old youngster looked a bit lost in the dairy barn but said they were really enjoying their tour. David (an economics doctorate student),Yena Nam and son Ian had looked on the Internet for something interesting to do on Saturday. They found the Stoughton Fair website, came to the fair — their first such experience — and they were loving it!

New attractions: a cow and a kiln

A 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 immediately being replaced by a boy cow milker.

No, it wasn't an actual cow; it was a full-size fiber glass model that didn't kick or move but could be milked.

Friend Jerry Wendt, longtime agriculture instructor at Stoughton, explained that the cow was making her first appearance at the fair and was a indeed a big attraction.

"The twelve 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 said.

"We are aiming at educating nonfarmers about farming with the cow as an attraction and a video explaining modern dairying," he added. "We hope other organizations will want to rent her for their own programs." (Contact Jerry at 608-345-9203 or Jerry.wendt@stoughton.k12.wi.us for info.)

Jerry also showed me another project the Stoughton FFA Alumni, city of Stoughton and Cummins Filtration jointly developed, that the FFA chapter is ready to put into use — a solar drying kiln that will dry lumber from city trees (ash and others) to be used by ag classes and possibly retired senior citizens to make useful wooden items.

Market animal sale a big success

For the first time, the Stoughton Fair hosted a market animal livestock auction that proved to be a hit among sellers and buyers.

"We had thought about this for some years, " said fair board director Rob White. "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.

"All the animals were bought locally, at two to three times market price, and none went to Equity. It was a huge success!"

Unlike the 2012 Stoughton Fair when temperatures were in the high 90s, the weather was perfect for this year's event and fair goers enjoyed the exhibits, tractor pulls, deep-fried oreos, cream puffs and people. Interestingly, this fair, unlike those listed on the Wisconsin Association of Fairs website — through a sort of 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; or super farmer Olympics or comedy hypnotists.

As a young business woman at the Stoughton Fair summed it up: "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 is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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