Monroe County Fair celebrating 70 years

From the Aug, 29, 1956 issue of the Waterloo Republican, the “tallest stalk of corn at the fair was brought in by Harold Mehrtens. Measuring 13.5 feet, the stalk towers above Marlene Schaefer, Susan Jung and Doris Wienhoff, seated (top to bottom) on a ladder.” (Bob Voris photo)

Seventy years of history. Fifty-seven years of the Open Class Horse Show. Forty-seven years of demolition derbies.

Generations of 4-H learning and development.

The Monroe County Fair, which kicks off this Sunday, has a long and storied past, which Monroe County Fair Association President Don Schrader has demonstrated to the community. Schrader recently offered a fair history presentation to local organizations such as the Waterloo Chamber of Commerce.

He dug back to the first fair held in 1948, when the entire event spanned just two days in early September at Pautler Park in Waterloo. The fair board at that time adopted a purpose that has stood the test of time:

“To promote and hold an educational and agricultural fair and exhibit in Monroe County, Illinois, with special attention to junior exhibitors; and to encourage and promote soil, crop, livestock and poultry improvement.”

Longtime fair association member Lyle Wessel said new technologies have been especially helpful in continuing this purpose.

“That’s still our purpose. The young exhibitors make the fair,” Schrader added. “It’s come a far way with so many ways now to exhibit projects and have competitions. That’s what makes it a strong fair is the 4-H and FFA programs in the community.”

At the time, county superintendent of schools William C. Heil allowed children to take off school Friday, Sept. 3, for the first day of the fair. The main attraction listed in a 1948 issue of the Waterloo Republican was the showing of livestock.

“Monroe County’s first fair was a decided success, and no doubt marked the beginning of another big annual event in which growing interest will bring out more competition and better exhibits in the future,” an article following the fair states.

In subsequent years, many unique events were attempted, including a horseshoe pitching contest, pet show, photography contest, Shetland pony show and combine demolition derby.

Schrader referred to the current Kloepper card tournament as taking the place of the horseshoe pitch.

“That was done before the demo derbies and all of that stuff,” Wessel said.

In 1965, the fair moved to its current location from Pautler Park when 20 acres of land was purchased just west of Waterloo on Route 156. The county sesquicentennial was celebrated at the new location the following year.

The event that drew a record number of spectators last year — the auto demolition derby — came to the fair in 1970. The derby added a whole new audience to the fair in its first year and attendance increased to record levels.

Unfortunately, the event also drew controversy in 1982 when protests by many derby drivers angered by the arrest of seven fellow participants for driving cars on the highway to the fairgrounds forced the cancellation of that year’s event and the refund of more than $10,000 to disappointed fairgoers.

“I’d rather forget about that year. I was secretary then,” Wessel said with a laugh.

In 1983, the demo derby was replaced by the “Midwest Hustlers” women’s professional mud wrestling show. In 1984, a combine demo derby and other events were held instead. But the derby made a triumphant return to the fair schedule in 1985.

The first Figure 8 race, another popular attraction, was in 1972. The Budweiser Clydesdales also came to town at the 1981 fair for four hours, and since returned last year for a longer stay in honor of the county’s bicentennial.

The fair continued to expand in terms of days and activities over the years. In 1982, the fair had reached seven days, though it is not clear when the number reached its current total of eight.

The fairgrounds has also served as the site of Relay for Life, animal swap meets, auctions, bull rides, birthday parties and more. The grounds have truly been a treasure to Monroe County.

No event serves as a greater reminder of this than the Flood of 1993, and the movement of compassion that followed.

About 450 Valmeyer students used the fairgrounds as the home of a temporary school at the time. Three years later, a new school was built on higher ground in the new town of Valmeyer.

“We were very proud of that and glad to do that for the community,” Schrader said, adding that the fairgrounds continues to be a backup for emergency situations.

Wessel has been essential to the fair for more than 50 years and said he enjoys the community effort behind organizing the program.

“To me it was always the challenge of putting it together, working with all the people,” he said, adding the fair association raises most of the money locally rather than relying on the state.

Schrader’s tenure is not quite as long-standing, but he has been involved a total of 37 years. He has served as association president for nine years.

“What I enjoy most is to see the young kids exhibit their projects — their livestock and animals,” he said. “I like to see them having a good time in competition, being able to provide a place for them to grow. I always say the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.

“If it wasn’t for the young people, it’s likely that we wouldn’t have as good of a fair as we have.”

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