Memories of the fair
By Marv Kohlbeck
Community, county, or state fairs are not just for children. Adults enjoy them too, not only for the varied food aromas and tastes, nor the carnivals or grandstand shows, but exhibits as well.
Basically, fairs are for youth involved in project work. Fairs allow them to show off the efforts of their learning experiences, meet new friends, and have a good time. For some, missing school is an added bonus.
In my youthful days I recall exhibiting cattle and poultry at the Manitowoc County Fair as a 4-H member. My big scary step was showing a calf at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1948. For a 17-year-old country boy, the sight of so many people and exhibits was simply overwhelming, but the experience left an indelible mark as I have always enjoyed fairs.
One sidelight of the 1948 State Fair that sticks out in my mind was my attraction to the wrestling hawkers that knew how to attract a crowd. They would challenge anyone from the crowd to enter the ring for a “buck a minute.” Little did I realize that the guy dressed in bib overalls and chewing on a strand of hay billed as “Haystacks Calhoun” and another wrestler named Jimmy Demetral were professional wrestlers. They played their role to the hilt and took advantage of gullible fairgoers, like myself, by losing early but winning when the purse was greatly enlarged.
I have been attending Central Wisconsin State Fairs in Marshfield since 1956. We have all seen new faces, gradual improvements of the fairgrounds, and varying changes in grandstand entertainment.
In my early years of extension work, I am not sure that supervising bed check would be considered a good experience, but years ago children could sleep in the 4-H building sleeping quarters if they were exhibitors. Heck, I never liked to be in bed early at a fair when I was young. That cut into our time of chasing girls and spending money on the midway. It was tough not allowing other youngsters to stay up and do the same.
One scary experience I had was at the 1962 Marshfield fair when the evening grandstand show featured an ostrich race as a side attraction. I was assigned to represent the Wood County Extension office to compete against three other fair contestants. The trainer informed the four of us that we would have to ride in a two-wheeled sulky bike with the ostrich harnessed to it, and we were given a broom with which to steer. Because an ostrich has eyes on the sides of its head, we were told that the broom had to be placed by one eye in order to get the bird to go in the opposite direction. Not even a crash course training session with a trial run was allowed. Just a race to the first turn and the race would end, but one person was to make believe the ostrich would run away. Guess who was chosen. Lucky me.
Everything went fine to the first turn, but once I was alone on the track with an ostrich running at probably its top speed of 40 miles per hour, a broom instead of reins for steering made for a wild ride. Stock car drivers have crash helmets, gloves, and heavy clothing. I had a broom, an ostrich, and two wheels. Luckily, we made the complete circle of the track to the crowd’s satisfaction, but I vowed I would never volunteer for that type of excitement again.