Half a century ago, in 1964, the future of the Monroe County Fair looked anything but bright. In fact, the year before, there had been no fair queen selected. Disarray and uncertainty swirled around the whole institution.
But one young man who grew up taking part in fairs was waiting in the wings.
“I showed dairy cattle in 4-H back in the 1950s,” Wessel, a local farmer, told the Republic-Times as his wife Ruth sat nearby.
Wessel, who had completed a hitch in the Army in 1958, joined the Jaycees in 1962. A year later, the fair was unable to select a queen – a low point for what had been an annual summer highlight.
“We told them the Jaycees would sponsor the fair queen contest if we could also have a beer stand at the fair,” Wessel remembered.
In November 1964, the fair board was reorganized in a last-ditch attempt to sustain future fairs. Twenty-one new directors were elected for one-, two- and three-year terms. Wessel was selected for a three-year term. Before the end of that term, the queen pageant had returned to the fairgrounds from the VFW hall and high school settings, and things were moving ahead smartly.
On Monday night, Wessel was honored by the Monroe County Fair Association for his 50 years of service during a volunteer appreciation banquet.
The next day, Wessel reflected on buying the 20 acres fenced at the grounds in 1964, building the first bleachers in 1968 and kicking off the first section of what is today the Commercial Building in 1970. He noted that the sheep and cattle barns then were former Army barracks buildings from Jefferson Barracks (the sheep barn still is).
The focus of the Monroe County Fair has always been strongly on agriculture, Wessel said. The FFA, 4-H, Farm Bu
reau and individuals have been, and remain, staunch supporters. Tractor pulls have been another highlight of fair week, he added.
“In the late 1960s, we recommended adding the demolition derby to the fair. Some of the older board members thought this would be crazy,” Wessel said with a laugh.
But it has been a mainstay of the fair ever since.
Wessel acknowledged that county fairs are in difficult straits in many areas, while Monroe County’s summer festival continues to thrive. It is questionable, in fact, whether fairs in St. Clair and Randolph counties will take place much longer.
“Some fairs have been run by a small group of people who pocket the money,” he said.
But Monroe County’s is different.
“We are all volunteers,” he said, adding, “some people even schedule a week of vacation every year so they can devote the entire time to the fair.”
Wessel said the way ahead is clear.
“We need to continue to engage and involve younger people,” he said. “Three of four of the directors have served 40 years or more, he noted.
“The FFA, 4-H, Boy and Girl Scouts have been heavy users and supporters of the facilities and those young people are being looked to for future leadership,” he said.
“We are also blessed with strong support of county businesses – the banks, the phone company and other businesses,” he added.
He also credited the Farm Bureau and University of Illinois Extension for their support.
Another key to the success of the fair and its grounds is rental by others, such as for commercial auctions and monthly swap meets.
“And every penny we bring in stays with the fairgounds and future activities,” Wessel reemphasized.
When asked how much longer he anticipated serving, Wessel, acknowledging health issues, said, “I’ll be there as long as my health will permit.”
Monroe County Fair Association President Don Schrader was effusive in his praise of Wessel.
“He’s clearly a great steward of this county institution,” Schrader said. “The countless hours he contributes and dedication he brings to the table – and he is a great participator in meetings – are simply invaluable.
“He has done it all. These days, he is focused on renting facilities and maintaining our grounds,” Schrader said. “Lyle Wessel tells us he has health limitations, but we should all be so limited.”
The road ahead for the Monroe County Fair must accommodate change, while remaining firmly anchored in its agricultural and community roots, Wessel said.
“Decades ago, we took on a demolition derby,” Wessel reminded. “This year, we conducted a first Kloepper Tournament that brought more than 60 players and other family members to an otherwise slack period before the queen and little miss contests. These are the kinds of things we have to do to sustain and build the event.”
The Monroe County Fair appears to continue to be in good hands – or maybe great hands. And two of them are Lyle Wessel’s.