‘Meet’ Jerry Apps “On the Midway” for a Taste of County Fair History

When Jerry Apps called back in 2019 to ask if I’d be interested in contributing to his next book about fairs across Wisconsin, I couldn’t wait to put pen to paper.

While I was a latecomer when it came to my 4-H membership, I had a great mentor in my future mother-in-law who, after more than 60 years, is still the general manager of our 4-H club.

For nearly 36 years, I’ve been a project manager with the 4-H club, helping members with everything from art and photography to dairy and sheep. As Jerry’s new book Meet Me On the Midway: A History of Wisconsin Fairs can attest, 4-H members and volunteers have played a vital role at county fairs throughout Wisconsin.

From the beginning

From cream puffs to blue ribbons, famed rural historian Apps explores the history of county and state fairs in Wisconsin. From their earliest incarnations as livestock exhibits to today’s multitude of exhibits and demonstrations, grandstand entertainment, games and rides and competitions of all kinds, Apps is backed by research insights and personal experience as a 4-H leader, county extension agent, fair judge, and longtime spectator to take readers back through 178 years of Wisconsin fairs history.

Like many visitors or participants, many have followed in the footsteps of their parents and siblings. Apps recalls his father’s adventures of driving his show cows to the fair, walking every step of the 8-mile journey. The elder Apps summed up his experience of rural fairs as some of the “best days of his life”.

From cream puffs to blue ribbons, famed rural historian Jerry Apps explores the history of Wisconsin county and state fairs.

Beginning with Waukesha County which held the state’s first county fair in 1842, Apps traces the history and origins of county fairs across the state. He talks about some fairs that struggled to survive during the Depression years and community leaders who kept events financially afloat until better times arrived.

A common thread over the years that has contributed to the success of the fair is the army of dedicated volunteers made up of 4-H and FFA leaders, project superintendents, community groups, fair board members , extension workers, parents, local businesses and more.

In this 228-pound book, Apps covers everything from horse-drawing and calf-showing contests to flower arranging judging by the roar of gas engines powering the midway rides. The Waushara County native conjures up the sights and sounds of fairs through the ages while digging into the political and social forces that have made the fair an icon of our rural heritage.

Throughout his book, Apps weaves the voices of onlookers who share insights into everything from rigged carnival games to runaway steers on the Midway, the nervousness of stepping into the ring to hatch the relationships that changed lives. lives.

Judges evaluate vegetable entries at the Waushara County Fair.

Apps’ latest literary effort is peppered with countless fascinating facts about Wisconsin fairs:

  • Many fairs featured hot air balloon rides, tightrope walkers, parachute jumps, ostrich races as well as a greased pig chase or two.
  • Electricity was a big attraction at many fairs, including a country house lit by new technology in 1912.
  • During the World Wars many fairgrounds were used as training sites with buildings converted into barracks. Some fairgrounds even housed prisoners of war.
  • Several fairs were dubbed the “Childless Fair”, when families were advised to keep youngsters at home during polio outbreaks.
  • During the Great Depression, many fairs struggled to survive. However, some took advantage of this as WPA workers were hired to build grandstands and livestock buildings.
  • During these lean times, some fairs created entries to reflect the times, including prizes for “Best Patched Garment” or “Best Darn on a Sock”.

Illustrated with vintage and modern photos and featuring the voices of exhibitors, judges, volunteers and visitors, Meet Me on the Midway vividly captures the thrills and treasured memories of these beloved annual gatherings.

About the Author

Jerry Apps is a former county extension worker and professor emeritus in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He exhibited livestock and other projects at county fairs as a 4-H member and later served as a county fair judge. Today he works as a rural historian, full-time writer and creative writing teacher.

Book launch and signings

Applications will be signing books at the Waushara County Fair on August 20. Other virtual events are planned across the state, including book launch events on August 11 hosted by the River Falls Public Library and August 16 hosted by the Patterson Memorial Library in Wild Rose, Jerry’s hometown. . . Get details and find more events in our calendar at www.wisconsinhistory.org/whspress.

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