History of The Fair

Fair (according to the Webster's New World Dictionary), derived from the Latin feria, festival, and akin to festial, feast, 1. a gathering of people held at regular intervals for barter and sale of goods 2. a festival or carnival where there is entertainment and things sold, often for charity bazaar 3. an exhibition of often competitive, of farm, household, and manufactured products, or of international displays, usually with various amusement facilities and educational displays; exposition. 

Fair (according to Vernon County citizens), 1. the best in the state 2. great food 3. family picnics and prize-winning exhibits 4. numerous people sacrificing time and talents to make it possible 5. lots of fun and fond memories 6. harness racing and exciting time. 

All of these are accurate of the Vernon County Fair, one of the oldest county fairs in the state. However, you cannot get the full scope of the event until you delve into the long and varied history of the 165-year old extravaganza. 

One September day in 1856 a group of pioneers held the first fair in Viroqua's main street. Their goals was to exhibit the agricultural opportunities here, thereby drawing new business and commerce into the area. Little did they know their idea would blossom into a five-day spectacular that would eventually draw over 6,000 exhibitors and upwards of 25,000 spectators! 

The "grounds" were on a vacant lot, now the site of Felix's clothing store, adjacent to the court house. Here were shown 2 stallions, 3 bulls and 2 cows, while inside the courthouse were displays featuring 3 woven rugs, some patchwork quilts, and a few jars of home-churned butter and sorghum and maple syrup. Visitors to the one-day fair enjoyed two events: a morning plowing match on the field of Moses Decker, Viroqua's founding citizen, and an afternoon speech by school teacher Hartwell Allen. Between events people could enjoy lemonade and stick candy, the only concessions sold. 

On April 11 of the following year, the nation's first Agricultural Society was founded in Viroqua and the fair began to grow by leaps and bounds. 

In 1858 a 10-acre plot just west of what is now Eckhart Park was purchased as the new fairgrounds. The land. bought complete with 10-foot high fence around the perimeter, a 1/2-mile race track and money to build a floral hall, cost the society $800.00. That year horse racing was introduced, spurred on by F.M. Minshall, who lost to Annias Smith. The third horse and jockey conceded the race to Smith and Minshall, remaining on the sidelines after the first round. 

The races, however, were banned in 1888 until the Ag Society found itself $6,800 in debt by 1890, due to poor attendance during three race less years. 

In 1891 Minshall became president of the society and promptly reinstated the sorely missed races. They have been run every year since. Minshall's new Kentucky Trotter, "Vernon", who could run a 30-second 1/4-mile, debuted that year, Vernon raced for 11 years. After that he was annually trotted around the fairgrounds to the cheers of fairgoers, until his death at the ripe age of 33. A 10-cent bus ride took you from the Hotel Fortney to the 1891 fair at its new and present location. The 22 1/2-ace site was purchased from Col. C. M. Butt for $100 per acre. The first buildings to be erected were an art hall, the grandstand and cattle barns. Fair admission was 10 cents and taking one's girl on the bus to the north fairgrounds became the mark of a true gentleman. 

1897 - The fair was extended to four days.

The fair of 1900 was marked by novelty and innovation sponsored by Viroqua business community. Outstanding amongst the attractions was the wedding of Oscalia Kjelhung to Albert Thrune (both of Coon Valley). The ceremony, performed on the platform in front of the grandstands and presided over by Rev. John Steman, was witnessed by nearly 3,000 onlookers. Among the gifts the Viroqua businesses furnished were wedding attire for the bride, groom and attendants; a bridal procession carriage and band; house wares; a 10-pound pail of lard; a box of Even Change cigars; one-day's entertainment at the Hotel Fortney; and a trip to Chicago. Other contests that year were: Biggest shoe size (Thomas Silbaugh, Avalanche - size 11); smallest shoe size (J.W.Potts,Viola - size 1 1/2); largest family in attendance (Simon Mockrud, Westby - 118 members); and outstanding farmer (Henry Hopp). Margaret Morse was voted "prettiest girl," a precursor to The Fairest Of The Fair, which didn't become an official contest until 1973. 

These early fairs were characterized by other featured events such as bicycle races, foot races, farmer wrestling matches, and such exotic attractions as Japanese acrobats, elephant rides, balloonist and circus acts. Baseball games were always an integral part of the festivities with teams participating from towns all over the county and surrounding areas, including La Crosse and Onalaska. Cash awards always drew stiff competition. Speeches were also a very popular attraction. In fact there was a premium given to the best orator. In those days the premiums were distributed at the close of the fair, when the secretary would stand on a platform and call out the names of the winners, handing them their awards from the fair proceeds. 

In 1903 the Open Class Exhibition Hall, which housed all the open class exhibits and the fair office, was erected. It was built at a cost of $1698.40. In honor of Fred Rogers, a long-time advocate of the fair and former secretary of the Board of Directors. The Open Class Exhibition Hall was renamed the Roger Building in 1985.

1906 - The half century of the fair was celebrated.  Persons who attended all 50 years received a ribbon stating that.  The fair was held 5 days.

The fair of 1911 saw some excitement when an "airplane flight" was scheduled on Thursday. The big attraction brought hundreds to the fair. On the pilot's second attempt the fly machine rose to a dizzying height of 25 feet, and on its premature descent got its wing caught on cart and flipped over. It remained nose-to-the-ground for the remainder of the weekend. An additional ball game was quickly put together to take the place of the attraction-gone-bad. In 1911 fairgoers were privileged to partake of the giant barbecue. A 1,150 pound ox was cooked, yielding more than, 1,000 pieces of well-seasoned meat that were handed out as sandwiches for a nominal charge.

1915 - The first "night fair" was introduced.

The first 4-H livestock show as initiated in 1921 by agricultural teacher Richard A. Power. Beginning with 3 calves at the first exhibit, the 4-H division has become a veritable fair-within-a-fair with 5,522 exhibitors this year.

1950 - The Junior Dairy Barn was enlarged by 60 feet.

1952 - There was a new hog barn, but the state imposed a ban on public showing of hogs.

The hundredth anniversary of the Vernon County Fair came in 1956. With it came approximately 10,000 attendees. "Women's group from 11 communities constructed replicas of homes and shops that had existed in Vernon County 100 years earlier." says a later Broadcaster-Censor article. The "Centennial Street" was coordinated by chairman Mrs. Halvor Allness.

In 1962 a new cattle barn, 234 x 60 feet for a cost of $15,000.00 was built.  It featured skylights.

In 1966 the largest crowd yet of 22,000 attended the fair.  The 1,222 pound Hereford steer owned by Mike McClurg was purchased by Super Valu for 56 cents.

The John Krause Memorial Building was constructed in 1967 and dedicated in September in memory of the long standing 4-H leader.

Mary Vangen of DeSoto was named "Vernon County's First Fair Queen" for the 1973 fair.  A new Youth Arena was constructed (Now the Hansen Arena).

In 1973 three pole barns where built side by side west of the New Youth Arena.  They were put up by Brickl Construction of Onalaska for a cost of $15,000.00.

The beginning of 1975 began the fundraising campaign to raise money for a new 120' x 72, $152,000 building.

1976 and 1977 saw the erection of two new buildings between the Kruse Building and the dairy barns.  And the fair office was moved to the old milk house next to the Education Building.  Later an addition was added in 1982.

The first Super King and Queen were chosen in 1981.  Bernice Quinn and Earl Robinson of Hillsboro.

The Youth Activities building was constructed in 1983.

An estimated 30,000 attended the fair in 1989.

At the ripe age of 87, the Rogers Exhibition Hall at the center of the Vernon County Fair is beginning to show it age according to the article in the Broadcast-Censor, June 1990. After more than eight decades of Wisconsin winters, the pounding of millions of feet, and the weight of thousands of displays, the old stone foundation is beginning to crumble. A crumbling foundation spells ruin for the historical wood structure and the Vernon County Ag Society intends to halt the toll time and use has taken. At a estimated cost of $15, 000.00, to jack up the building, one wing at a time, replacing the foundation and putting in a new floor. "We can't sit by and let this wonderful old building go," says Helen Hornby, director of the Ag Society. A fund drive is currently under way to raise $15, 000.00 needed to do the job and a letter of appeal has gone out friends of the 125 year old Vernon County Fair. " To recognize all those who will contribute to the preservation of this practical piece of Vernon County history, the Ag Society plans a Wall of Fame in the Rogers Exhibition Hall," according to Harold Hanson, president of the Vernon County Ag Society.  A new parking area was added with the gate at the southwest corner behind the Sherry Butt House.  The Little Britches Show was new this year.

Oscar the largest living steer was shown in 1991, with a charge of $1.00 to see him.  He lived in Pine Island, MN, weighs 4,000 lbs, 12 feet long and 6 feet tall.

1993 a 12' x 35' addition was put on the Senior Citizen Building.

1996 saw a new Meat Animal sale arena, 72' x 84' was built by Swiggum Brothers for $ 50,000.00.  The money came from the Fairboard, Vernon County Cattleman, The Meat Sale Commission and individuals.

The Fair book was dedicated to three long time Fairboard members who died in 2001, Peter "Bud" Solverson, Harold A. Hanson, and Robert Fredrick.  Around 200 people gathered for a 15 minute sign of respect to honor the people who died on September 11, 2001 in the terrorist attack of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  Displays were closed and the rides were shut down.

Vernon County Fair celebrated it's 150th fair in 2006 with the Medallion Hunt in August.  Three granite blocks were donated by Elegant Stone with the 150th Fair Logo engraved on the face and were hidden in a public servant spot somewhere in Vernon County.   Michael Marten Murphey started the Pre-Celebration with a concert on Sunday before the fair started.  Other special events held during the 150th was a Fairest of the Fair Reunion, Orion Samuelson, Meyers Farm 10-Horse Pyramid Hitch Presentation and the Cows on Parade.

April 30, 2008 - Ground was broke on a 13,000 square foot commercial building that will replace an existing 7,000 square foot building and two tents that were erected every September at fair time.  The new commercial building will also include restrooms and showers.  The commercial building was inspired by former board member Bob Fredrick.  The building was completed in 2009.  On September 19, 2012 a ribbon cutting ceremony was held to remain the new commercial building to the Vernon Memorial Healthcare Expo.

The Crops Building was renamed the Helen Hornby Crops Building in honor of long time advocate for the fair, superintendents, former fair board member and 4-H alumni Helen Hornby.

In January 2011, Vernon Counties Fairest of the Fair Alexis Nickelotti, was named State Fairest of the Fair.  This is the second time Vernon Counties Fairest of the Fair has won.

In the summer of 2011, the Senior Building received a new concrete floor and was painted.

2018 - Vernon County Flood Relief Fund
In 2018, the Vernon County Fair due to its supporters added charitable giving for Vernon County flood victims as another way it gives back to the community.

Thanks to Fair supporters and the generosity of organizations, events, and activities at the Vernon County Fair $28,000 was generated for flood relief. The donations were given by the following:

On Wednesday and Sunday, the Vernon County Fair Board made the giving decision to offer free admittance to the fair. This opportunity was to invite everyone in the community, especially those families that were impacted by the flood and those that helped flood victims to enjoy some free, fair fun as a way to step away from the challenges faced. This was a $6,000 in-kind donation due to reduced fair admissions. This in-kind donation is not included in the $28,000 total.

Karly Anderson the daughter of Rob and Kari Anderson, Westby, WI showed a Holstein dairy heifer at the fair that survived the flood in Timber Coulee. The heifer was found I .5 miles downstream from her original pasture location. It was her father Rob's idea for Karly to "present" the animal at the close of the Dairy Ribbon Sale on Saturday night which generated $20,000 due to the generosity of businesses and individuals. As the bidding for the flood relief continued, the generosity of these businesses and individuals' stacked up to reach $20,000.

- One percent of the gross sale dollars from Saturday night's Meat Animal Sale went to flood relief.
- The Viroqua Lions donated I% of their food stand sales during the entire fair to flood relief.
- The offering at the Sunday church service held on the fairgrounds totaled $907.00, and the Fair Board matched that and rounded up the donation to $2,000.00.

The $28,000 in donations were taken to The Bethel Buttik in Westby where a farm supply and a general public account were established as well as to Vernon County banks set up for flood relief donations. The Vernon County Fair Board is grateful toward the multitude of contributions toward the $28,000 for flood relief.

Vernon County has much to be proud. Since 1856, all that time, despite wars, drought, snow and rain, the Agricultural Society has never failed to hold an annual event. There has never been any great tragedies (with the possible exception of the 1911 plane mishap, though no one was seriously hurt), attendance continues to grow as the result of long hours and hard work by those who are committed to making the event the highlight of the year - year after year. The Vernon County Fair is now acclaimed as one of the oldest county fairs in Wisconsin. 

Who can say what spectacles await us this year as we continue to make history at the best fair in the state. 

Come join us and "experience" a truly Great County Fair. 


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