“Some folks think the fair just happens overnight.” -Dave Buck, Fair Board member
Wednesday morning, the 128th annual Lincoln County Fair will kick off at the new Merrill Festival Grounds. While set-up for showtime began Sunday afternoon, the first day of preparation for this year’s extravaganza was actually July 26 of last year, following the 2015 fair. What ensued was thousands of hours dedicated to meetings, planning and scheduling by the Lincoln County Fair Board and other volunteers, to ensure the five-day event is a success.
“Every year on Sunday evening, the last day of the fair, we have what you could basically call a debriefing,” explains 24-year fair board veteran and President Dale Christiansen. “Everyone involved gets together for a meeting where we discuss what went well, what didn’t go so well and what opportunities there are to make the following year’s fair better. That meeting ultimately marks the first day of getting to work on the next year’s fair.”
The current fair board seats eight members of 11 available seats, serving three-year terms. In Christiansen’s 24-year tenure, he is currently on his third term as president, having served two other non-consecutive terms prior.
As Christiansen further explains, the Fair Board is responsible for a vast majority of annual fair functions including oversight of the fair as a whole, along with ensuring proper guidelines and procedure are met as outlined by the Departments of Revenue and Agriculture, coordinating and scheduling of events, coordinating participation of vendors and various food stands, registering and managing logistics regarding 4-H exhibits and financing of fair events.
This year’s fair budget topped out at $180,000 which is a bit higher than those of recent years according to Christiansen, due to the addition of grandstand entertainment for the first time since 2012.
“Every dime folks pay at the fair goes directly back into the fair for the following year,” he adds. “A lot of folks aren’t aware of that. We are all volunteers on the board except for our administrative and financial secretaries. It is the many people who come to enjoy the fair every year and our generous sponsors who are really responsible for making the fair happen.”
While a majority of revenue is generated by sponsorship, a small portion of revenue is generated from parking fees as well as vendors and local organizations who participate in the fair.
From the first meeting on the closing Sunday each year, board members venture out to various meetings through the fall and winter months aside from their own monthly meetings. By attending these meetings, the fair board seizes the opportunity to stay on top of a variety of topics including the latest event trends in the fair industry, changes in state regulations and policies as well as animal care and safety.
“We are a member of the Wisconsin Association of Fairs which is divided into four districts,” Christiansen said. “We are a member of the Northeast district and are very active in district events. We usually end up with at least three or four board members attending various events and of course the association’s annual convention every January in Wisconsin Dells. These meetings are very helpful for us. Not only from an educational perspective, but also by meeting and discussing with other fair boards from around our district and around the state. It’s really a great opportunity for swapping ideas and learning what other boards are doing.”
It is also during the fall and winter months that the search and booking process begins for main events.
“As a rule of thumb we would usually start looking for grandstand acts in the fall,” adds board member Clyde Nelson. “But due to the uncertainty of the construction schedule with the new grandstand, we held off until January this year.”
“Aside from fair week, the fall is probably our busiest time of year,” Christiansen said. “Like Clyde said, normally we would have started a lot sooner with booking, but overall we are very happy with our lineup this year. We will have something for everyone. Now that the grandstand is open and ready, we will definitely get an earlier jump on things this fall.”
In early spring, the board begins to enter the home stretch of the planning phase, in meeting with vendors and local organizations who plan to participate in the upcoming event. Around the same time, the board launches their annual fundraising campaign to bolster revenue.
As fair time draws closer in late spring and early summer, final plans are made for vendor placements, parking and volunteer staff assignments.
One area the board didn’t have to invest much time in this year was the carnival, due to North Freedom, Wis. based “Mr. Ed’s Magical Midways” entering into the third year as what Christiansen considers “one of the best” carnivals the fair has had.
“We are entering into our third year with them and we are in the process of renewing their contract for another three years. They run a nice, clean, affordable and safe carnival with minimal staffing issues and a very friendly staff at that. We have heard great things about them the last few years from fair goers and are just overall very pleased with them. We look forward to continuing to work with Mr. Eds.”
When this past Sunday arrived, board members and their trove of additional dedicated volunteers went to work once again in final set-up and preparations for this week’s celebration.
“We stay pretty busy all year,” Christiansen explains. “There is always something going on, either a meeting here or a discussion there. The fair really is a never ending process, but fair week is by far the busiest week of the year. Last year I tracked our hours just out of curiosity and from Sunday to Sunday we logged 118 hours.”
“Some folks think the fair just happens overnight,” Dave Buck adds with a chuckle, as he enters into his 15th year of service on the fair board.
“That’s not quite how it works, although some days we may wish it did. There’s a lot that goes into the planning and scheduling and so on.”
Aside from their seemingly full-time volunteer roles as fair board members, each have their own additional obligations including families and full-time jobs. However, each of the four members present during Monday’s interview with the Foto News were seemingly indifferent to the staggering amount of time and effort they invest every year.
“I look at it as working to give back to the people of Lincoln County, especially the kids,” Nelson said. “There is a lot of time and work involved, but it’s all worthwhile to come down here and see the kids having so much fun and our 4-H’ers working so hard and proud of what they are doing. This fair also brings a significant amount of revenue to the city every year and I enjoy being a part of helping make that happen. The city did a fantastic job of securing these grounds, building a brand new grandstand and just really turning things around down here. It’s a good feeling to work hard and be a part of something like this.”
“For me it’s about dedicating myself to making sure the fair stays great for the kids,” Buck adds. “I was a 4-H’er from the time I was 13 until I was 18. I showed beef cattle and I loved it. This is my way of giving back to keep the fair alive. It’s hard to find people to get on the board but we work hard at it, it pays off when the fair rolls around.”
“Without active board members and a supportive community there wouldn’t be a fair,” adds board member Bill Dinges. “It’s rewarding to be a part of keeping the fair running strong and promoting the city.”
Christiansen echoes the other members’sense of dedication to both the fair and those who attend every year.
“Like the guys mentioned, I too was a 4-H’er,” he explains. “I showed dairy cattle from the time I was 10 until I was 18 and boy I sure do have a lot of memories as I’m sure the guys here do. And that too is a huge motivating factor for me. I’ve been a registered 4-H leader for 38 years and I have loved every minute of it. When I got involved on the fair board I took a vested interest in promoting 4-H here in Lincoln County. And over the last 20 years, I feel the face of 4-H and Agriculture in general has changed. We have become more of an education group, teaching folks about agriculture every year, where their food comes from and so on. And you know, that is something our 4-H’ers have really come to enjoy and be proud of!
“Aside from that, like the guys mentioned too; just standing there in the beer tent and seeing people coming down on a warm summer night enjoying themselves makes it all worthwhile.
“Come Sunday, we will do it all over again.”