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State Fair memories
JOHN GIBBS is a resident of Gays Mills, Wisconsin. He is an award-winning weekly columnist for the Crawford County Independent newspaper in Gays Mills, Wisconsin.

GAYS MILLS - The Wisconsin State Fair is usually going on right now–early to mid-August. Among so many other major events, the state fair has been cancelled this year. Thinking about the fair brings back many pleasant memories to me. 

It’s about 180 miles from the hills of Crawford County to the site of the fair, West Allis, near the east coast of the state. The distance to that major cultural event seems to put it outside the pull of gravity for most people here to attend. It would make a long day indeed to drive to the western suburbs of Milwaukee, walk around the fair all day, and then drive back home again, into the setting sun to boot. I’m sure a more central location in the state for the fair would make it easier for people to attend, but that’s not bound to happen anytime soon.

Mention ‘Midwest fair’ and most people think immediately of agriculture. And it’s true, fairs were based on agricultural things at first and still are, somewhat. People still show livestock, crops,  canned and baked goods to compete for ribbons, prize money, and bragging rights on their pigs, pumpkins, pickles, and pies.  

However, the Wisconsin State Fair seems to me to be much more of an urban affair. Our annual Farm Technology Days, formerly known as Farm Progress Days, another event cancelled for 2020, is a true agricultural event. FTD rotates locations around the state, is always held on a large farm or on multiple farms, and showcases agricultural equipment and innovations. For another purely agricultural event, also cancelled for 2020, we also have the World Dairy Expo in Madison every October; the name says it all.

I used to take groups of agriculture students to the state fair every year. It seemed like something they should experience. What we did was volunteer to work at the Wisconsin Poultry Association food booth in the Agricultural Products Building.  Over a period of three days we would work several six-hour shifts preparing and selling food and stay in the youth dorms right there on the fairgrounds.  This gave the students some work experience, the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and a chance to see the fair at length during their off hours.  We were also invited to eat whatever we wanted from the booth and the poultry association made a healthy donation to the FFA treasury for our ‘volunteer’ work.  It was win-win-win-win situation.

A word to the wise: the best food, and the best deals on food, at the fair, are when you buy from producers’ groups. Roast beef, pork sandwiches, baked potatoes, and of course the egg omelets and duck fajitas the poultry booth sell are all fairly priced and outstanding.  

Traditional fair food, or fair fare, shall we say, is famous for being greasy and over-the-top fattening and frivolous (deep fried Snickers bar? Chocolate-covered bacon on a stick? I kid you not). Most people say, what the heck, it’s the fair, and splurge on the special junk food available. But if you want to eat good, and well, at the fair, buy from someone who had a hand in producing the food–end of sermon.

I asked my students to do three things while they were at the fair, besides working hard and staying out of trouble. 1.)  I asked them to visit the commercial building and watch several gadget salesmen/saleswomen ply their wares. These are the notoriously fast-talking, hard-driving, and usually witty and humorous people demonstrating and trying to sell knives, blenders, and super mops ‘that you just have to have. 2.)   I asked them to visit the Pettit Ice Arena which is just outside the fairgrounds. West Allis in August is always hot and muggy. A literal stone’s throw from the sweltering masses thronging the fair is a huge, hanger-like building that is about 50 degrees and virtually empty.  It is free to visit and  a great cooling off place. And 3.) I asked them to buy a  State Fair Cream Puff. These famous, scrumptious cream puffs have been nominated as the official dessert of Wisconsin and have been popular at the fair for 80 years or more. Wonderful and fattening I’m sure but, ‘What the heck, it’s the fair.’