The first Washington County Fair was held in 1858 at the Courthouse Square in West Bend. At lot has changed in the last 150 years. Today, The Washington County Fair Park & Conference Center is not only the home to The Washington County Fair, but also hosts over 350 events of all types and sizes year round. The state of the art facilities on 133 acres of beautiful grounds make The Washington County Fair Park & Conference Center the premier event site in Washington County.
Enriching life with educational, cultural, economic and social opportunities
How Fair Park accomplishes its mission:
Educational – Fair Park is the host of health fairs, cooking schools, and senior conferences meant to inform. In addition, Fair Park and 4-H are intertwined in missions and history. As an educational youth program, 4-H generates leaders and builds productive, talented future adults. The majority of 4-H activities are held on Fair Park grounds. If you are interested in becoming part of 4-H they can be contacted at (262) 335-4478.
Cultural – Craft fairs, pet expos, or sports, fashion and antiques shows are only a few of the cultural events Fair Park hosts every year. Fair Park is a great place to expose Washington County artisans.
Economic – With over 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, Fair Park is the home of numerous trade shows, conventions and meetings promoting the welfare of Washington County and the surrounding region.
Social – Fair Park is also the place for concerts and spiritual performances, as well as banquets, weddings, and family gatherings.
History of the Washington County Fair Park
In November of 1855, an ad hoc committee gathered in Hartford to take the first steps toward organizing an agricultural society. Approximately one year later a meeting was held at the Courthouse in West Bend where a constitution and bylaws were adopted. A full board of officers was selected, thereby creating the “Washington County Agricultural and Industrial Society.” The society’s mission was to promote and improve the condition of agriculture, horticulture, mechanical manufacturing and household arts within Washington County.
The Civil War prevented the holding of Fair in the early 1860s. However, the Fair resumed in 1865 and was held in Hartford. In 1867, land, purchased for $65 an acre, accommodated a half-mile track on the north end of the 25-acre site. It cost $400 to develop the track. The Fair was held for three days in September each year. Approximately 10,000 people attended the Fair annually. A total of $192.75 was paid in premiums; expenses for the Fair were $19.19 and State Aid was $100. Admission to the Fair was 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children, 25 cents for a one horse carriage and 50 cents for a two horse carriage.
A new secretary was hired in 1873. In 1876, $200 was appropriated to build an art gallery on the fairgrounds. Racing continued to be a popular entertainment attraction at the Fair.
The Fair went through hard times during the 1920’s. Washington County supplemented the Society with $4,000. In 1929, no money was received. By the late 1920’s, the Fair was not profitable.
In 1937, the Society and Washington County worked out an arrangement whereby the county would take over the operation of the Fair. The 1937 County Fair, the last Fair to be held in West Bend, was held August 13-15 and considered by many to have been one of the most successful Fairs. In October, the buildings and grounds were sold and in May of 1938, the Society dissolved turning all assets over to the County Board. The County Board, under the direction of a Fair Committee, began to sponsor the Fair. The Washington County Fair Committee held the first Fair at the County Highway Grounds in Slinger on August 9-10, 1938. It was called the Washington County 4-H Fair. Attendance ranged between 40,000 and 60,000 annually over the decade.
The 1943 Fair was called the Washington County Victory Fair. Washington County understood the limitation of the Slinger site, and in the late 40’s, it was noted that one of the major problems confronting the management of the Fair was the inadequate parking space for cars. Many exhibits had to be placed in tents due to lack of space. Due to the increased costs of running a free Fair, additional county aid was being requested. Requests were made for office space, exhibit buildings, band stands, as well as adequate electrical connections.
The 1945 Fair marked the first Fair held in July and it has continued to be held on the last full weekend of the month of July. The dates were set for the last week of July because of the timing of the spring planting season and the fact they were able to book an attractive midway.
1958 marked the Centennial Fair. This was the accumulation of many years of progress wrapped into one big Fair. It was an opportunity for those people concerned to recall the items, the people and the events that helped develop the present state of progress.
The Washington County Board made funds available for a new water main in 1961. Barns were painted for $440. The Slinger Fire Department erected a permanent beverage stand. Fifty park benches were purchased for $297.
In 1978, serious consideration was given to the idea of moving the Fair to the Gundrum Farm located near Highways E and J, south of Slinger. Plans were developed for the site, but due to budget constrictions, the county did not complete the plans.
In the early 90’s, the State Health Department mandated that Washington County upgrade or move the Fair. In 1993, the Washington County Development Committee began work on the plans for a future site of Fair Park. Various sites in the county were considered and after a lengthy planning process, the decision was made by the Washington County Board to purchase the property where the present Fair Park is located.
The 1999 Washington County Fair was held July 23-27 at the newly developed Fair Park. The Fair facility increased from a 13-acre parcel in the Village of Slinger to a 133-acre parcel in the Town of Polk. The 24,000 sq. ft. air conditioned Pavilion Building housed approximately 4,650 junior class, open class and senior citizen exhibits. Four new livestock barns and a milking facility were built at the corners of the livestock complex and were complimented in the middle by a livestock show arena. A seasonal toilet was erected at the north end of the livestock complex and housed a shower facility for exhibitors. Two wash racks were built which enabled 40 animals to be washed at a single time.
For the first time, national entertainment was offered to fairgoers at no additional charge. Visitors were treated to the rock group “Styx” and country acts “Trace Adkins” and “The Oak Ridge Boys.”
An admission fee of $5 for adults and $3 for youth was charged. Children 8 and under were free. In spite of Fair officials dealing with 5 inches of rain the evening before opening day, a record attendance was set at 75,000 people.
The 2000 Fair, held July 24-28, was a great success. Fairgoers returned for a second year, commenting they felt they were attending the Fair for the first time as the grounds had improved tremendously from the previous year. The Pavilion Building was once again filled with 630 junior exhibitors and 478 open class exhibitors showing a total of 4,448 junior exhibits and 2,214 open class exhibits. A tent was erected for llamas and the goats were housed under the overhangs of the Sheep/Swine barn.
A draft horse barn and a pleasure horse barn were added to the complex. Entrance signs were installed off of the main roadways as well as additional asphalt paving, way finding signs, street signs and plantings and trees throughout the Park. WTKM Radio, Hartford, erected a “polka pavilion” and the Richfield Lions/Lioness Clubs donated a shelter area. Portable lights were rented to provide better lighting in the parking lots and new identifying signs were put in place with alphabetic and numerical markings to help fairgoers find their vehicles.
Admission fees remained at $3 for youth, however adult fees were $5 before 4 p.m. and increased to $7 after 4 p.m. Entertainment was in abundance with a variety of musical acts, from country, to rock, to polka, to bluegrass. National entertainment included the rock group “Cheap Trick” and country acts “Willie Nelson” and “Pam Tillis.”
Attendance at the 2000 fair was 109,000 people.
Facility enhancements were made for the 2001 Fair, held July 25-29. Electrical updates were made along with the installation of an overall facility paging system. In-kind donations were received, enabling the commercial tent flooring area to be paved as well as the construction of the entertainment stage area. Additional work on parking areas was done to allow the maximum numbers of cars to be parked on the grounds. A spoilage pile of dirt at the north end of the grounds was removed which enabled parking for an additional 500 cars. Various landscaping improvements were made including grass seeding of areas, tiling of wet areas, and the planting of numerous donated trees.
The Pavilion building held over 5600 displays of arts, crafts, foods and agriculture. Barns were filled with livestock exhibits and once again a llama tent was erected along with an additional goat tent. Cats and dogs were judged and then returned home with exhibitors.
Admission fees remained at $3 for youth, however adult fees were $5 before 4 p.m. and increased to $8 after 4 p.m. National entertainment included the rock group “REO Speedwagon” and country acts “Tanya Tucker” and “Sammy Kershaw”.
The record attendance of 120,000 fairgoers was set.
In 2008, Fair Park celebrated 150 years of the Fair with fireworks and a display from the Historical Society. The 26,000-square-foot Ziegler Family Exposition Center, opened and was the new home for Commercial Vendors at The Fair. A new and improved Motor coach park opened at Fair Park to accommodate vendors and event goers. “Styx,” “Boston,” “Live,” “Collective Soul,” “Blues Traveler” and “Phil Vassar” headlined The Fair.
In 2009, Fair Park celebrated 10 years on the new grounds by honoring those who spearheaded the project in the 1990s. In the midst of the “Great Recession,” the Fair brought in over 90,000 people and included headliners “The Steve Miller Band” and American Idol’s “David Cook.”
The Agricultural and Industrial Society, the non-profit charged with operating The Fair and hosting over 350 events at Fair Park every year, started a new chapter in 2010. Rich in assets but strapped for cash, AIS turned over Fair Park buildings and assets to Washington County to alleviate construction debts.
AIS continues its mission to enrich life in Washington County and the surrounding region by promoting educational, cultural, economic and social opportunities.