Some places come and go, while some places become icons. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. Join us as we revisit beloved and well-worn local staples with fresh eyes, and explore how they might figure in the city’s future.
This Thursday marks Day 1 of the 2018 Wisconsin State Fair. From August 2-12, the annual celebration of all things Wisconsin, all things deep-fried, and all things on-a-stick will take over the nearly 200-acre Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis. There will be food. There will be music. There will be livestock. There will be a temporary pause in our never-ending culture war as Wisconsinites of all stripes come together to eat some cream puffs and maybe check out a pig race. We need this. Good grief, we need this.
And we’ve always needed this. The history of the State Fair stretches back 167 years, to 1851. That year, the inaugural two-day event was held on a six-acre plot of land along the Rock River in Janesville. Highlights included the viewing of a 200-pound squash (!) and the sights and sounds of a quarter-acre plowing competition (!!). Between 13,000 and 18,000 19th-century Wisconsinites ponied up 10 cents to enjoy the festivities. It was reported to be the largest gathering in the state at the time, a record that would stand until that night Milwaukee Record sold out two screenings of Better Off Dead at the Avalon.
From there, the annual Fair jumped from city to city—Watertown, Fond du Lac, Madison, Milwaukee, etc.—before landing in West Allis in 1892. Single-day attendance reached 40,000 that year, but the next few years were rocky. The 1893 Fair was canceled because it was thought it couldn’t complete with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 1894 Fair suffered low attendance because of a smallpox scare. (The Fair had previously been canceled in 1861, 1862, and 1863; its Madison location—Camp Randall—had been used as a training camp for Civil War troops.)
Speaking of the Civil War, the Wisconsin State Fair hosted none other than Abraham Lincoln in 1859—a year before the Republican politician was elected the 16th president of the United States. The 1859 Fair was held on what is now Marquette University, near 13th and Wells. Lincoln spoke for more than an hour. His speech could charitably be called “meandering”. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel painted a picture of the rest of the action that year:
This being the fair, there was ample competition for the crowd’s attention. Plenty of good, local beer was flowing, and as the Daily Wisconsin reported, “learned monkeys, educated bears, double-headed calves…boa constrictors, wild Indians and all the class of entertainments continued to grind out their excruciating hand-organs to attract patrons. The old-man drummer who drummed in the war of 1812, and who challenged the world to beat him, continued to rub-a-dub-dub on his sheepskin.” Not so different from the state fair of today.
There are plenty more historical tidbits to be digested (cream puffs didn’t make their appearance until 1924!), but let’s get to that State Fair of today. Recent years have seen the good (record-breaking attendance), the bad (Mayor Barrett being beaten with a pipe while defending a baby and a grandmother in 2009), and the weird (two people videotaped having sex in the bleachers in 2017). Trying to sum up all of the State Fair’s events, attractions, and displays in 2018 is nearly impossible, but some of the highlights are:
• Live entertainment. There are more than 30 free stages scattered throughout Wisconsin State Fair Park, and your chances of randomly walking past one and hearing a cover of “Livin’ On A Prayer” or that one song by The Outfield are good. Alice Cooper, TLC, Reba McEntire, and some country and Christian stuff will be doing their respective things on the Main Stage this year; local favorites like Abby Jeanne and Tigernite, meanwhile, will share the Associated Bank Amphitheater with the likes of Hanson and Slaughter. There will also be bodybuilding.
• Food. Duh. More than 200 food and beverage locations will once again tempt and taunt fairgoers with deep-fried monstrosities, on-a-stick abominations, and maybe some corn on the cob. The annual Sporkies contest aims to cut through the madness and identify the eight best “unique and unusual foods” of the Fair. This year’s finalists include Deep-Fried Spinach Lasagna Bites, Pig Candy Cannoli, Saz’s Breakfast Bombs, Wisconsin Hot Chicken Bombs, S’mores Beer Float, French Onion Soup On-a-Stick (how?), Deep-Fried Turducken On-a-Stick (why?), and something called “The PorkSTACKular.”
• Agriculture. The backbone of the Wisconsin State Fair has always been—and will likely always be—agriculture. Cows, pigs, goats, ducks, and little baby chicks that hatch right before your eyes are always on display—cared for by professionals and ogled by city slickers and children of all ages. While Paul Ryan never milked a goat at the Wisconsin State Fair (he saved that beautiful moment for the Racine County Fair), there’s plenty of milking demos, too.
• Amusement park goodness. The State Fair can call its midway “SpinCity” all it wants—it’s just a good old fashioned midway stocked with creaky amusement park rides and rigged carnival games, and it’s grand. Along with classics like the Zipper and Tilt-a-Whirl, you get the 400,000-pound, 15-story WonderFair Wheel, a.k.a. North America’s largest traveling Ferris wheel.
• That exhibition hall with all the quilts, floral arrangements, and photographs. This part of the fair is so wonderful and weird and oddly comforting. Plus, it’s air conditioned.
• That exhibition hall with all the “As Seen on TV” crap. Ditto.
• And, once again, let’s not forget those bleachers where two folks were videotaped humping each other in 2017.
Finally, let’s talk people. Predicting and mulling over Summerfest numbers is an annual tradition in Milwaukee, but the Big Gig is no match for the State Fair. For the past five years, more than one million people have enjoyed the 11-day extravaganza. In 2009, a record-setting 98,625 people walked through the turnstiles on opening day alone. What’s the appeal? In an interview with the Shepherd Express, Wisconsin State Fair superfan (and WMSE sound engineer) Billy Cicerelli said it best:
“You see people from all over, from all walks of life, dressed however they want, and everybody is accepted. Nobody is judged. I tell people, wouldn’t this be great if this were how the world always is? People just getting along with music and food? That’s how I look at it.”
And that’s how we look at it, too. Long live Wisconsin, long live the Wisconsin State Fair, and long live an event where everybody is welcome and nobody is judged. Save that last part for the livestock.