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It makes sense if you think about it, but it was news to me that Wisconsin has three – not one – annual State Fair. And just because I hadn’t heard of them doesn't mean the Northern Wisconsin State Fair and the Central Wisconsin State Fair are newbies.
In fact, the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, held this year from July 13 to 17 in Chippewa Falls (it's July 12-16, 2017), dates back to 1897, when Madison pols acknowledged that hoofing it over to West Allis wasn’t all that easy for homesteaders at the top of the hand.
"You can’t copyright the name ‘state fair’," says Rick Frenette, CEO at Wisconsin State Fair Park. "The ‘state’ part of it doesn’t have any connotation it’s just a name they did years and years ago."
Frenette says the Northern Wisconsin event is more like a multi-county fair that over the years has operated under a variety of names.
"It’s a county fair but it’s more of a tri-county fair so that’s why over the years it’s been called the Wisconsin District Fair, it’s been called the Northern Wisconsin State Fair. To get it a name that people are attracted to."
(Central Wisconsin State Fair Facebook)
Roughly 70,000 people visit the Northern Wisconsin State Fair each year and, according to the Central Wisconsin event averages about 100,000 admissions annually.
And Frenette ought to know. He is closely associated with that event.
"(It’s) my family’s fair that I grew up in," he says. "My dad was part owner of that fair. That’s how I got into this business. It’s now owned by the community, the Chippewa Foundation.
"I started selling concessions there when I was 12 years old for my dad and then he became part owner and manager of the fair and then I worked for him every summer managing the parking and then the gates and all that stuff."
All these years later, the three state fairs in Wisconsin have all evolved similarly to include agriculture competitions and displays, 4-H exhibits, grandstand entertainment, midways, food on sticks and, yes, beer.
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The Central Wisconsin State Fair boasts the world’s largest round barn. Built in 1916, the barn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This year, the Northern Wisconsin State Fair hosted headliners like Charlie Daniels Band and The Guess Who. Meanwhile, down in Marshfield, the Central Wisconsin State Fair, which runs Aug. 31-Sept. 5, hosts Blue Oyster Cult and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, among others.
Frenette says there are 76 county fairs in Wisconsin each year and a baker’s dozen typically take place during the Wisconsin State Fair.
But he doesn’t view those fairs, or even the two others as competition for the Milwaukee-area event. In fact, just the opposite.
All the fairs in Wisconsin, he says, are members of an association – the Wisconsin Association of Fairs – and Frenette sits on the board of directors.
"We’re all in this game together," he says. "We work real hard. The Department of Agriculture has a part-time fair coordinator; all the county fairs are coordinated out of the Department of Agriculture. Their rules, their competition rules and that kind of stuff. (The fairs) are very connected, all of them."
(Northern Wisconsin State Fair Facebook)
And, Frenette says, as the biggest fair in the state, he and his team are approached for advice and assistance and they are eager to lend a hand.
"We have a connection as far as helping them if they need help with different business ideas or changes because we’re bigger and we have full funding," he says. "There are a lot of part-time people or volunteers that help run those events."
But it’s not charity work. Frenette understands how the fairs work in unison to buoy each other; how they’re all part of a single ecosystem. Plus, you can tell, he just loves a good fair.
"I think it helps our attendance. People go to them and if they have a good experience at the fair, they want to see a bigger fair. All of our ag competitions kind of bleed down from the county competitions, so those people want to be at the State Fair. When I visit county fairs and talk to people, they just like the fair atmosphere and if they’re treated right there then they want to come to the big one."