The Wisconsin Association of Fairs teamed up with the Mid-West Farm Report to capture fair memories across generations and across the state this past year. The effort honors the “Every Person Has a Fair Story” contest which was started by the great Bob Williams, former fairs coordinator for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection more than seven years ago.
Forty fair stories were received this year. Thank you to everyone who submitted their fair story.
Melanie Zuehls won Grand Champion and $500. Her story, “Grandpa Donation,” is attached below.
Linda Degner was named Reserve Grand Champion and won a $250 cash prize for her story, “Shenanigans.”
Also listed in the top five were Barbie Howard with “Chubby Farm Gal,” Lawrence Gaffey with “Military Wedding,” and Linda Degner with “A Slice of Heaven from WI.”
“A great story from the Marquette County Fair! The following was written by Olivia Zuehls, who sold her steer at the fair auction.
I have no words…..This year for the auction I decided to donate 25% of my profits to Budda Box of Marquette County in memory of my grandfather Phil Nelson passing away earlier this year. (For those that don’t know Budda Box is an organization that helps cancer patients only in Marquette County when they are able including my own grandfather). As I was entering the auction ring of course all the nerves start to hit and then of course the halter falls off my steer somehow. (Might have been me that put it on wrong) Luckily everyone came together and helped me out and just before I got situated a man told me “Don’t worry this will be your good luck charm” He was definitely right about that. The lady announced that I would be donating the money and everyone clapped for me and then they started the bids. The bid started to get to about 10 dollars a pound. I look over at my dad and he’s just shaking his head thinking the same thing as I am, that this is absolutely insane. It started to hit $12.00 that’s when the water works kicked in. It made me so emotional because I was doing this for Grandpa. It got higher and as I was looking around people stood up clapped and cheered but then I look straight ahead and see my grandma just balling her eyes out. Now that’s when I couldn’t control myself. Now keep this in mind I never told her this plan. When they finally closed the bid at $20.25 a pound as I was looking in the crowd I don’t know if I saw one person that wasn’t teary eyed. This all hit everyone a little differently. Our small little Marquette County Fair brought this many supporters. All of these business came together to support me and my mission to help other cancer patients. I just couldn’t believe that many people has that big of heart. It comes to show that there is so much love left in this world still. I took the picture with the buyer and walked out of the ring and just started crying so much it was so emotional. I handed the steer off to my dad and I just remember seeing my grandma walking towards me with tears down her face. I gave her the longest hug anyone could ever imagine. The feeling of I did something good just is the best feeling ever. After attempting to control myself I went to go thank other bidders or tried to anyway, with all of the hugs and comforting words everyone was giving me it was a little tricky. I kept asking people, who all bid on my steer? The only answer everyone gave me was “the entire crowd”. So I just decided to give a little speech over the microphone. I tried to thank as many people as I could before that night was over I even literally chased down a few. I remember talking to a bidder and I saw my buyer walking off so I quite literally ran as fast as my legs could carry me. He turned around just when he heard me to give me a hug. I said exactly this “ I don’t have much words because I’m still in shock but you have no idea how much this means to me”. He just smiled and hugged me again. He said “ I’m so happy to be a part of this and knowing that some of this will be donated is truly an honor to be a part of”. I couldn’t stop crying. He knew how much this all meant to me. The thing that got me the most was later into the night I had a few past cancer patients that were crying hugging me saying you have no idea how much this means to me. They were all supported by Budda Box. It truly is an amazing organization. Now my speech is getting a little long so let me just end it with this: Do some good in this world, we all need it. The amazing feeling you get after doing something good is absolutely amazing. It changes you forever and makes you wanna keep doing it. Also never stop working hard. I think all Marquette county fair exhibitors can agree our summer doesn’t start till the day after the fair. I spent my entire June working with these animals, helping dad with the hay, and working my job in town. My schedule was packed. I never had any free time. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world because all that work I put in it all paid off. It all worked out in the end. Thank you LnL Propane for purchasing my steer you have changed my life forever. You really truly have. I’m still crying about it. Thanks to all family members who helped me on Friday with not only the auction but the show also. I will be giving away $6,000 to Budda Box because this is the 25%. The rest is going away for college funding. Again thank you to anyone I missed on Friday night I spent half the night trying to collect myself. Everyone make sure to support your local business. They truly can make a tremendous impact in your life.”
Shenanigans: Linda Degner
I had heard about the shenanigans but had never been a target before. Strange and suspicious items would show up in various departments. Once, a tattered fur coat was hung in the clothing department exhibit with a very talented seamstress’ name on the tag. A jar of canned lint or air mysteriously sat in the canning display with the name of a beginning foods preservation exhibitor. Odd judges’ comments about needing to have your beans in alphabetical order or taking them by the tail were written on entry tags. I had heard the stories and seen the activity with my own eyes but never had my entries been in the cross hairs until the day I received a text…It read, “You need to stop at the small animal barn to check on your exhibit. I think it’s dead.” What? I didn’t have an entry in the small animal barn. In fact, in all my years of showing at the Washburn County Fair I had never shown in the small animal barn. Totally confused, my mind flashed back to the year when our fair had the biggest pig contest and the pig died. Oh my, I truly hoped that there was not another dead animal on the grounds. I made a bee line to the small animal barn to find a large group standing around a chicken cage smack dab in the middle of the barn. Some people were laughing and pointing. I skirted the outside perimeter to sneak a peek when the bodies blocking my viewmoved. It was dead and defeathered, lying flat out in the bottom of the cage. The entry tag had my name on it. At first my heart sank and then I pretended that it wasn’t mine. Those people didn’t know me, so I laughed along with them. I laughed mostly because the chicken was made of rubber, and it did look quite hilarious in the cage. As I left the building a thought came to mind. Why not play along and have some fun. After all, most fair exhibitors are overachievers and a tish on the competitive side. So, I went home and wrote a poem and laminated it so it would stand up. I put together a bouquet of silk flowers and grabbed a pretty table runner. I believe the poem went something like this…Here lies a chicken of rubber. There is no reason to blubber. For he was a mighty cock, that took care of his flock. His feathers are missing but he gave his best. Now the hens can finally get some rest. Rest in peace my fine featherless friend. All day my “friends” were offering their condolences and I humbly took them. Another opportunity arose when I heard the announcement for the talent contest. Why not have his funeral at the contest? I got to work. The next day I arrived wearing bib overalls, a flannel shirt, an old straw hat and my hair put up in pigtails. I had brought a washtub to use as my alter. When my turn came, I kicked off my shoes and rolled up my pants legs. Carrying my washtub, rubber chicken and accessories I walked across that hot stage. I could hear people in the audience snickering, but I was laughing too. I tipped the washtub upside down, laid the table runner across it and gently placed the deceased on top of it. My flowers sat nicely in front of the washtub. As seriously as I could, I began a very nice tribute to this rubber chicken that was never mine to begin with. I read my poem and thanked everyone for coming. There was much whooping and hollering, probably the shenanigans. But who got the last laugh? I did. I won first place and walked away with seventy-five dollars and a purple ribbon.
Military Wedding: Larry Gaffey, General Manager Walworth County Fair
Many county fair managers would tell you that the most intense moments of the year are the day before and the first day of the annual fair. On the first day of the fair in 2021, I counted my inbound and outbound mobile phone calls at 3:00 pm, and they totaled259, and there were 8 hours to go. I am not sure how many radio calls transpired, but it was many. This is normal. But one call from Quantico, VA, stood out among all the others. My son Max Gaffey, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, would soon be given orders to ship out from Quantico, VA, to Japan. His fiancé, also a Lieutenant in the Marines, expected new orders anytime. They would likely be stationed apart.
Max: “Dad, I’m being sent to Japan for three years; Iris (fiancé) and I want to make sure we are stationed together, so we need to get married right away.
“Me: “I understand, and congratulations, I wish I could be there.
“Max: “We want to come home and do the ceremony this Sunday.
“Me: “Oh, Max, that’s wonderful, but I will not be able to break away because our fair is going on. The only way I could attend is if you trust me and let me arrange the wedding and reception here during the county fair.
“Max: “Iris, are you okay with having the wedding at the Walworth County Fair”? I could hear him ask Iris this in the background. “If you can pull it off, we’ll see you Sunday at 7:00 am”.
Oh boy, I had three days to figure this out. They needed a photographer, a minister, a ceremony and reception area, flowers, reception food, entertainment, a cake, and all the other trimmings. And I needed to get some family to attend who live in a neighboring state. With some help from friends and a generous Board of Directors, here are the results:
Sunday, September 5, 2021
Wedding photos: 7:00 am taken on the fairgrounds neighboring property owned by the school and donated by our fair photographer who came in early.
Wedding ceremony: 8:30 am Fair Park Gazebo
Minister: Onsite Radio DJ (my wife)Reception: 10:30 am Sponsor tent by the main grandstand stage
Flowers: Rushed by a former Fair Board Member and discounted.
Entertainment: Donated by a fair entertainer with an acoustic guitar
Reception food: (all delivered to the sponsor tent by generous, fair food vendors) Corn Dogs, Candy Apples, Cheese Curds, Buckets of Fries, and Smoked Whole Prime Rib, which our Fair Board President prepared
Cake: Funnel Cakes for the guests, a small cake from the local grocer for the happy couple
Family: Grandmas, Grandpas, Some Aunts, and Uncles, Parents and Friends
More Entertainment: Free carnival rides for the wedding party
Result: The most beautiful wedding I have ever witnessed. There is not enough gratitude to express to our Fair Family, including food vendors, Board Members, carnival company, volunteers, and staff. My son and his wife are now stationed together in Okinawa, Japan.
Chubby Farm Gal, Barbie Howard
Greetings… My Fair Story comes to you from the Racine County Fair in Union Grove, Wisconsin… Back in 1989 I decided to run for the Racine County Fair Queen, know mind you, I was and still am that Chubby Farm Gal… but I still got the job done on the Family’s Farm. I decided to enter the contest DEFINITELY not knowing what to expect, I didn’t wear dresses very often or makeup ,and usually a hat on my head doing chores, no trips to the Beauty Shop for this gal.. but I entered and there were 12 other Gals running for the Title… I didn’t have a Chance…Well… after interviews I was surprised to find out that I was in the Top 3 Finalists… I was so happy to be in the Top 3, that was enough for me… besides the other two Gals were older, more experienced and had run before for Fair Queen… I didn’t have a chance… but Top 3 was good enough for me…Well the First night of the Fair at the intermission of the Truck and Tractor Pulls they would Crown the Fair Queen, I was wearing a borrowed Dress and a friend of mine helped do my makeup and hair… Well low and behold I won the Title of Racine County Fair Queen… I was floored!!! But off I went as my Journey began…I was showing my Fair projects, changing and then handing out ribbons and running around the Fair, where ever I needed to be, I wasn’t afraid to get dirty or Dusty or rained on… it was great!! Well on Saturday of the Fair our stage headliner was Roy Clark… I was so excited to see His Concert and maybe meet Him after the Show… I think my eyes were as big as Saucers…Of course as the Concert begins, it starts raining… but He played on, and we wear able to watch under a small covered building up behind the stage… like an announcing booth… well He played Two Songs and He starts talking to the audience about a Special Gal, whose Birthday it was… and low and behold Roy Clark and His whole Band turned around with thier backs to the Audience and serenaded me for My Birthday that Day… It was and still is one of the MOST SPECIAL MOMENTS IN MY LIFE… things like this just don’t happen to some Chubby Farm gal from Wisconsin… The Racine County Fair played a huge part in my Life for Years, and now my Nieces and Nephew’s enjoy it, I hope, just as much as I did.
A Slice of Heaven from Wisconsin. Linda Degner
6:00am and I am out of bed. Today will be the start of a new adventure that will take me out of my comfort zone. I head to the kitchen and grab my old, more than well used recipe book. I have the recipe memorized and yet I feel the need to have my old friend with me for support. I have made this pie crust several hundred times and today it feels like I’m making it for the first time. I glance at the directions just to make sure nothing has changed, it hasn’t. Like a carpenter I measure twice and dump once. Why am I so nervous? It may have something to do with the fact that this pie will be making a 320-mile trek to the Wisconsin State Fair to compete in the County Fair Pie Classic. This pie competition focuses on Wisconsin products and being a berry grower, I want to feature our blueberries! I have taken snippets from four different recipes to make this pie and it will be where the dairy meets the berry! Berry season is over, but I have a well-stocked freezer that will supply my needs. Blueberries from the farm and raspberries from a neighbor will be layered into this very patriotic looking pie. I will take two pie crusts and make both pies this evening. Having a backup is always a good idea plus we will have one to eat! The frozen berries are carefully placed in a freezer bag wrapped in newspaper and stowed in the downstairs freezer until it is time to go. The whipping cream and cream cheese are placed in another insulated bag in preparation for the trip. A milk crate of sorts is filled with miscellaneous items that I will need to complete the pie making process including my well-worn cookbook. Alyssa (my daughter) and I pack the car and we head out. I can’t help but think of Caroline Ingles from Little House on the Prairie when she took her fresh baked pie to the fair. She wrapped her creation in a clean dish towel and placed it in a basket for safekeeping and delivery. Thankfully we are not traveling with a horse drawn wagon and thankfully she did not have 320-miles to travel! With an audio book playing, my mind relaxes, and I slowly begin to process all that will happen in the next couple of days. I review my recipe and realize that I never grabbed the fruit out of the freezer! The blueberries and raspberries are both snug in the freezer bag, in the basement, at my house. We turn around and head back. What’s an extra 50-miles added to our trip? Thankfully we have allowed plenty of time for travel and we are determined to make this adventure fun! I wonder if Caroline ever forgot anything on her way to the fair. The filling and assembling of the pie will take place near Madison so the morning commute will not take half the night. I am blessed to have the support of my family on this venture. I practiced taking my pie on trips before this just to see how well it will travel and how much time I will have before the crust is soggy. Working with frozen berries always adds moisture to the pie fillings. Judges do not like soggy bottoms. I will wait until later in the evening to start making my pies. As I begin, I find I am struggling with an unfamiliar kitchen and a different layout. After completing the first pie the second one comes easy. By 10:30pm I am finishing the dishes and ready to climb the stairs to bed. The house is quiet, but my mind is awake with excitement making it hard to sleep. In the morning I still need to put the finishing touches on my pies and choose the one that will make the final leg of the journey. It is 6:00am again and I’m up and ready to check on my pies in the fridge. Both look great from the top but as I peer through the glass pie plate, I can see that the raspberry juice has already soaked into the crust of my first pie. I hold my breath as I lift the second pie above my head to examine the crust. No red juice! The winner is pie number 2. I get to work piping a border and stars. My young raspberry plants at home had six lonely raspberries on them. Three of them will now be the garnish. The night before we tasted each component of the pie, making sure that it was delicious. If all the parts taste great, why wouldn’t the whole pie be awesome? The pie looks very patriotic and tasty. Recipe? Check. State fair form and passes? Check. Is the pie inside the pie carrier stabilized with a clean dish towel (just like Caroline) nestled in the bottom of an insulated bag with ice packs? Check. Breakfast eaten and family in the car? Check. We are off to the Wisconsin State Fair! Only once did we fear for the life of the pie when a construction site with little warning catches us by surprise, we hit the brakes, but the pie holds its own as we continue. Soon gate 1 is within sight. Finding a parking spot is easy when the fairgrounds is not officially open. I spy the shuttle waiting for us and we gather our items for a quick ride to Grand Champion Hall. The driver stops in front of a very colorful, beautifully landscaped building where another staff member greets us. It is cool in the hall, and I feel a nervous twinge as we walk to the registration table. Two smiling faces greet me as I unwrap my pie so it can be taken to the refrigerator until judging time. I am handed a first-time exhibitor’s ribbon and a cookie cutter in the shape of a milk can. There; it is out of my control. My creation has been birthed and I have done everything in my power to make it the best it can be. The registration staff said I am already a winner. I’m sure every contestant is a winner in their eyes just for entering. The greatest challenge isn’t the judging, it is the journey. I did exactly that by traveling 370 miles (320 plus the 50 because I forgot the fruit),making and delivering a beautiful pie! Judging will not begin for a couple of hours, so we are free to explore the fair. To the animal barns we go. In the coliseum, beef cattle are being judged so we sit and watch. Memories of 40 plus years ago come rushing back to me of leading a Holstein heifer calf around this very ring. I watch and smile as a young mother helps her very young daughter show a yearling Angus heifer. Yes, this is where it begins.11:30am and we are back at Grand Champion Hall joining all the other contestants and fairgoers. I am a little nervous now and think of Caroline. I am wondering if there is a Harriett Olson in the crowd today. I am hoping to be as cool and collected as Caroline was. We find a spot to sit as the judging begins. They introduce the judges along with our Fairest of the Fair and Alice in Dairyland. As I watch the judge cut into the first pie, I feel my heart begin to race as my stomach tightens. Instantly I know that I will not be able to sit through the judging. I escape my bench seat to look at all the amazing exhibits in this building. Just like me, all these exhibitors have done their best and put it all out there for the world to see. The more I look, the more I find that the ribbon placings are less important, and the creativity and intricacies are inspiring. Photography, mural like quilts, cakes that look like a stack of pancakes or a stump with mushrooms growing on it, gladiolus tall and straight picked at the peak of perfection. The hours and energy spent on each exhibit regardless of the sticker it wears is showing through. My family keeps checking on me and I am doing just fine. The judges have finished tasting all the pies and return to some for another taste. It feels like forever and yet only an hour has passed. The judges will now give their description of each pie. One combination grabs my attention: rhubarb, cranberry, and cottage cheese. Wow, the creativity is wild. I did not name my pie. My focus was about the flavor not about what it is called. On my recipe I typed a note to the judges that said, “Enjoy a slice of heaven from Wisconsin!” The judges are now calling my pie, “A Slice of Heaven from Wisconsin.” Perfect, I like it! They talk about my glass pie plate showing the flakiness of the crust, creaminess of the filling, and the deliciousness of the fruit. The presentation is beautiful and she even comments on my three lonely raspberries as garnish! Four pies are now being pulled forward and one of the four is mine. Both Alyssa and I hold our breath because what does this mean?? The Fairest of the Fair and Alice in Dairyland pick out their favorite pies based on appearance. The time has finally come, and I must tell myself to breath because I am holding my breathe. In fourth place is the peach and blueberry pie. In third place is the Wisconsin barn quilt apple pie. In second place is the Dairy State Apple Pie with cheddar cheese crust. In first place and best of show is……A Slice of Heaven from Wisconsin pie!! (I really like the name)I am in shock. There is much clapping and whooping (family support) while my mind just spins. A gentleman comes up to me and asks if that is my pie? I cannot even speak so I nod my head. I feel pats on my back and hugs from my kids. I’m not the composed Caroline Ingles and I raise my hands in the air and let out a whoop! This is crazy. I put myself and my pie out there for all to judge hoping for the best but tempering it with reality checks for the possibility of not placing. I did it! Pictures were taken and ribbons gathered before we left Grand Champion Hall. One more stop before we leave and that is for one of the best cream puffs in the world because it is a must have when you visit the Wisconsin State Fair. As we head home I can’t help but wonder if Caroline was as tired as I am after the pie judging. Time for a nap!