The late city historian Don Carney has written, “Perhaps there has never been a happier event that has brought city and rural dwellers together than the county fairs.”
Since we can’t attend the Barron County Fair this July due to COVID-19, I thought the next best thing would be to share highlights of its 143-year history.
Last year, at the flag raising that officially opens the 5-day event, Duke Thurs shared tidbits and trivia of the county fair since the time it was organized on June 15, 1877. To follow is a compilation of his findings and Chronotype reports.
The first Barron County Fair was held after the 1877 harvest was in, on Sept. 25-26, in Barron. In ’78, it moved to Sumner Township, before returning to Barron in ’79 and ’80. The fair took place in Chetek in ’81-’98, and in ’99 upgraded to 40 acres of leased land in Rice Lake. The land was offically purchased in 1911.
This is the third summer we have had to make do without a county fair. It was cancelled in 1932 due to the Depression and 1946 due to a polio outbreak.
While attendance fluctuated throughout the 50s, the county fair saw steady growth in the 60s—from 7,000 in 1962 to 22,000 by 1967, when the first Fairest of the Fair was crowned. The first livestock sale was held in 1966, with the amount raised by bidders increasing exponentially ever since.
The 70s, 80s, 90s and the new millennium have seen a steady progression of enhancements and expansions—livestock buildings, horse arena, the addition of llamas, camping and in-field area, 4-H exhibition, commercial and horticulture buildings, carnival games and rides, a chapel, and a gazebo that was later replaced by a stage area in memory of the late fair manager Tim Heffernan. Assistant manager Len Grygiel has been manager ever since.
One of last remaining originals at the fairgrounds is the race horse barn for harness race horses.
The Farmers Cafe, another longstanding structure, had its siding replaced before the 2019 fair. Now run by Barron Farmers Union members, its third and fourth generation servers have been providing quality food from local suppliers for at least 60 years.
Since then other food stands have joined them including the 4-H Adult Leaders, 4-H Junior Leaders with their famous “pie shakes” and Farm Bureau that features many county favorites—baked potatoes, cheese curds, bison burgers and turkey dogs.
Longer than any of those, there has been a milk booth at the fair since 1927, now overseen by the Barron County Dairy Promoters.
Former groundskeepers, like Joe Hegenbarth, used to cut the grass at the fairgrounds a week to 10 days before the fair and call it good. Now year-round upkeep is handled by Ken Kolzow and his crew with flowers added just before the fair begins by Columbia Livewires 4-Hers and Barron County Master Gardeners.
Replacing Catherine Walther, fair secretary Jacque Schaffer hires all the judges, prepares judging sheets and ribbons for each class and prints out 7,000+ tags for project entries. Approximately 65 superintendents oversee the project areas and are on hand during judging to attach ribbons and when the projects are released to the exhibitors.
Assistant treasurer Janet Pionkowski is a fourth-generation fair worker—following her mother Virginia Tronstad, who was secretary/treasurer for 42 years; her grandpa Adolph Buergi, who was fair manager for 18 years; and her great-grandpa August Buergi, who wore many hats at the fair.
Another great part of every county fair is the grandstand—a gathering place for fans of tractor and truck pulls and those who delight in demolition derbies. There is talk of a possible truck pull later this summer, so keep your ear out for that. If they get the green light to start their engines, the whole north end of the city will hear them!