Fair History

Monroe County Fair has a long history
First fair was held in Sparta in 1858
Article from Tomah Monitor-Herald, July 27, 2009

The Monroe County Agricultural Society came about at the suggestion of Robert E. Gillett, the founder of Tomah.  The first fair was held in 1858 in Sparta.

The organization was succeeded by the Sparta Driving and Agricultural Association and then by the Sparta Fair Association.  Interest in the fair waned and then was revived several times over a 70-year period.  Some years no fair was held at all.  The last of the Sparta fairs was held in the 1930s.

Meanwhile in Tomah an organization called the Eastern Monroe County Agricultural Society was established in 1869.  The group held its first fair in 1873 and annual fairs have been held here since that year.

In 1895 the Eastern Monroe County Fair was held three days, Sept. 22-24.  Rough weather, high winds and a cold wave reduced attendance the final day, a Thursday.  There was a good field of horses for trotting and running events making the races very interesting, according to a story in the Tomah Journal.  A half-mile bicycle race was also held.  The bicycle craze was sweeping the nation and five riders entered the fair competition.  Simon Bailey won, covering the distance in a minute, 25 seconds.

1907 fair goers were offered a money back guarantee if they didn’t thoroughly enjoy the extensive program which included Kates Brothers funny knock-about act, the largest midway in the history of the fair association comprising of Elma, the 17-year-old girl weighing 721 pounds, the Monarch Electric Show, the Kansas Cyclone Cremation illusion show, a dog and pony show, vaudeville, barn races with the best 20 gallopers in the North West and Madam Smith, the Palmist.

In 1921 the Tomah fair was advertised as the Monroe County Fair rather than the Eastern Monroe County Fair.

A pageant with crowning of a harvest queen were highlights of the 1925 fair. The pageant program featured colorful dance drills and songs.  Ruth Gerke won the queen contest, receiving 429,000 votes.  She was one of 19 contestants who sold tickets to amass votes; the winner was based on the highest vote total.  As winner she received a diamond ring.

Gigantic corn and other grains along with fruits and vegetables filled the main exhibit hall and the midway was crowded with sales stands, shows, a merry-go-round and ferris wheel.

The 1932 fair, held in August, was favored by exceptional fine weather and judged financially self-sustaining despite existing economic conditions and many competitive events.

The country was three years in the grip of a national Depression which was being felt locally.  The carnival, which had been booked for the fair, went broke shortly before the opening date and left the fair management without a planned attraction.

Even though World War II was still going on, the 1945 fair was judged the most successful in history with a record paid attendance of 11,000.  Harness races, running events and horse pulling were popular features for the end of July fair.  An accident during one of the races Sunday afternoon which killed a horse and injured a rider marred an otherwise exceptional event.

Men’s and women’s wrestling was one of the top draws for the 1957 fair.  The four-day event was held the first week in August.  Over 1,100 persons showed 4,500 entries, ranging from handcrafts to livestock, at the fair.  Fine weather brought 16,000 for the fair.

Twenty-five years ago fair grandstand show admissions ranged from $1.50 to $2.  Stage show highlights of the 1972 fair included Jean Shepherd’s two shows on Thursday evening, horse pulling on Friday night, the Rotroff All-Girl Auto Daredevils show on Saturday night, tractor pulling on Sunday afternoon and Mark Azzolinas United Singer shows at 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday.

The 1997 fair attendance topped 45,000 and 11,000 season tickets were sold.  Attendance was down eight percent from the 1996 fair.  The most popular grandstand show featured Martina McBride and the Bellamy Brothers which drew 2,200.  Merle Haggard had been booked for the fair but cancelled due to open heart surgery.  Weird Al Yankovic and his Bad Hair Band drew 1,000 spectators Saturday night.

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