The Washington County Fair Through the Decades
Blue Ribbons. Cotton Candy. Amusement Rides. Summer Heat.
The Washington County Fair is a not-to-be-missed summer hoopla of vast cultural, educational, social, and economic importance. Hosted annually at the Washington County Fairgrounds, this tradition draws crowds by the thousands. From agriculture expos to concerts, races, and rides, the county fair boasts an unparalleled assembly of events.
Early on, the fair began as an event to reignite the Washington County Agricultural Society. Over the years, it’s faced the turn of two centuries, several wars, countless economic depressions, and extraordinary technological advancements. So how is it that the fair has continued to triumph decade after decade?
1850 – 1890
The Washington County Fair took seed in 1857 when The Washington County Agricultural Society – on the verge of ending – sought a way to support its mission in the community. The society rallied behind the idea of a county fair, where the community could learn about best agricultural practices, see new equipment, and partake in some friendly competition. This new piece of legislature reignited their cause:
‘Article V1. – The Society shall hold an annual show or fair of agricultural and horticultural products; of agricultural and mechanical implements; of domestic manufactures and domestic animals at such time and place the executive committee shall designate.’
Enter the Washington County Fair. At the courthouse square in West Bend, in December of 1858, the first county fair was held. It was immensely successful and the winners received premiums of up to $81.00. But for these folks, it seems the real prize was the respect earned. According to Carl Quickert, a local writer, ‘A prouder set of contestants never bore off the prizes from the Olympian games, than those men who won them at the first fair held in Washington County.’
Now that the county fair was in full swing, The Agricultural Society was on the hunt for a suitable property for it to be hosted permanently. In 1867, the society purchased 20 acres of land from H.J. Wiel in West Bend for $1500. The first fair held there was on October 1st through the 3rd in 1867.
The county fair proved to be a conspicuous resource for the region. It presented essential factors in developing agriculture, implementing new farming practices, and informing the public.
1900 – 1910
By the early 1900s, the county fair was held annually on a large tract of land. It was 25 acres in size in the northeastern part of West Bend. The grounds were elevated and level, with a high board fence enclosing the property.
To enter, you had to come through the southern-facing side. The buildings are located on the eastern portion and include an art gallery, horticulture and agricultural dedicated buildings, along with buildings for poultry, hogs, and sheep. Journeying toward the center of the fairgrounds, was an open-air exhibition of farm machinery, vehicles, and the rest. One of the favored portions of this area was the horse race track, which was extended in 1912. Horses and cattle were exhibited in open sheds that ran their way along the Southern and Western fence line jutting up to the grandstand. To the north, was a baseball diamond and another grandstand. Further down was a dining hall near the gate.
The fair of 1911 lasted for three days and was visited by close to 10,000 people. Premiums to the amount of $16,000 were awarded. The county fair had become a commingling of entertainment and education. While locals learned about contemporary gardening practices and observed livestock, they could also enjoy basketball games, races, organ music, and puppet tents. The fair always featured riveting acts, whether it be performances by acrobats or aeronauts – in hot air balloons or other flying contraptions – and so much more!
1920 – 1930
Hard times faced the Washington County Agricultural Society in the 1920s. By 1937, they had no option but to hand over the operation to the County. That year, the last fair was hosted in West Bend on August 13th-15th. It had been one of the most successful fairs yet.
As the county began sponsoring the fair, it was relocated to the county highway grounds in Slinger. It became known as the Washington County 4-H fair, and attendance ranged from 40,000 – 60,000 annually.
1940 – 1950
The Washington County Fair was changing with the times. In 1943, in honor of WWII efforts, the fair was proclaimed, ‘The Washington County Victory Fair.’
Parking space proved to be an arising dilemma. Several exhibits had to close to account for vehicle space.
1958 marked the centennial fair. It was a grand celebration of the fair’s beginnings, and how it had grown since.
1960 – 1970
Updates were made to the fairgrounds in the 60s and 70s, including; benches, a new water main, repainted barns, and a permanent beverage stand built by The Slinger Fire Department.
1980 – 1990
In 1993, the Washington County Development Committee made plans to construct larger, permanent fairgrounds. They transitioned from 13 acres in Slinger to 133 acres in the Town of Polk. These fairgrounds are the same ones we continue to use today.
By 1999, the first fair was held on the newly appointed grounds on July 23rd – 27th. There was a record attendance of 75,000 despite the 5 inches of rain the night before.
2000 – 2010
In 2000, the Washington County Fair featured 630 junior exhibitors for a total of 4,448 exhibits and 478 open-class exhibitors, for a total of 2,214 exhibits. The 2000 fair broke record attendance once again, with a total of 109,000 fairgoers. The trend continued in 2001, with 120,000 visitors.
In those lazy-hazy-crazy days of summer, there’s nothing quite as nostalgic as The Washington County Fair. This summer, we look forward to the 165th annual fair. The Washington County Fair has evolved throughout the years but unquestionably remains a culturally significant event of the county that is sure to last for decades to come.
“About.” Washington County Fair Park and Conference Center. Accessed 13 April 2023.
Grensavitch, Krista. Washington County. Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. Accessed 13 April 2023.
Quickert, Carl. “Husbandry.” In Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present, 139-141. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2008. Previously published as “Husbandry,” in Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present (1912): 139-141.
Quickert, Carl. “Organizations.” In Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present, 159-162. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2008. Previously published as “Organizations,” in Washington County, Wisconsin: Past and Present (1912): 159-162.
All photos are sourced from the Washington County Historical Society’s Research Center
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