(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;
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
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
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
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
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
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
1993 a 12' x 35' addition was put on the Senior
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
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
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
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
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.