Let’s go to the fair
Nothing like a county fair to remember days gone by and to catch a glimpse into the future
No history source agrees where the event was held. Some write it was in Judge Maxwell’s new red barn on First Street, others suggest Ruth Merrill’s home on 2nd Street, or the 600 block of Stockdale or the E. N. Lee home on 3rd Street. Yet another contends it was in the grove at “Skinner’s Ford”, now Nokomis Park.
An annual fair of some kind took place each year at various locations in the city until the start of the Civil War.
In the winter of 1868, Judge Samuel L. Rose and R. E. Fairchild organized a county agricultural society to again hold a county fair. The group purchased land for the fairground in southeast part of Webster City. Borrowing $500 from the county, the society cleared the grounds and designed a one-third mile racetrack to hold the first fair at the end of September 1868.
This agricultural society sponsored annual fairs on these grounds until 1884.
A lack of local support and financial loses forced the group to disband. The land east of the river reverted to the county to be used as a county park. In 1919, this same land would again become the home of the Hamilton County Fair.
In 1885, a different group of agricultural supporters banded together to revive the county fair on the existing Driving Park grounds on the west side of Webster City.
Fairs were held at the Driving Park in 1885, 1886, 1888 to 1898, 1900 and 1906 to 1908. Only a few were successful. Most were financial failures due to weather and lack of public support. When the 1908 Fair lost $600 because of sparse attendance, the annual county fair was abandoned. The Fair directors were personally responsible for covering the $600 loss.
In 1909 Webster City began Watermelon Days to replace the annual Fair.
When the Farm Bureau, Extension and Webster City Chamber of Commerce organized in 1917, interest began again for an annual agricultural exposition.
In 1918, county youth club work began. The county was also home to an extensive array of purebred livestock breeders who exhibited and sold their livestock on state and national levels. In addition, the farm economy was enjoying a strong recovery, so all businesses felt prosperous. These programs and financial progress converged to encourage the resumption of a county fair in 1918.
Fred Hahne, long time fair supporter, was a Webster City businessman who founded the Aberdeen-Angus Journal in 1919. He wrote about the 1918 Fair’s history in the August 28, 1941 edition of his newspaper the Webster City Observer – “In 1918 the whole system was reorganized with W. F. Cole in charge. The fair was held Sept. 25, 26 and 27 in the old livery barn, where Wehrheim’s sale barn now stands (Seneca Street) and in the W. A. McCollough factory (now corner of 2nd & Superior Streets) building. This 1918 fair was the first real Hamilton county fair under an organization similar to that of the 1941 exposition. F. A. Huddlestun was the first president of the new organization, and under his leadership everyone was admitted without charge. Anyone who wished to see the vegetables and handiwork exhibits shown on the second floor of the McCollough factory paid a fee of 10 cents.
At 1 o’clock on the day of Sept. 27, 1918, the prize livestock of the county were paraded through the business district led by the Webster city band. The Hamilton county agriculture exposition committee reported that this fair took in $1650, while expenses were $1550. Hamilton countians were jubilant that the expenses had cleared $100, for financial success the first year would make it an annual affair, but had it been a failure the new fair would have died as the old ones had. This was the first of an uninterrupted series of fairs which have been held annually since then in Webster City.”
The organizers of the 1918 county fair included the newly formed county Farm Bureau organization, Webster City Chamber of Commerce, Extension, county businessmen and many prominent county livestock breeders. The organization was officially incorporated as the Hamilton County Exposition in mid 1919.
In 1919, county livestock breeders and local supporters formed the Hamilton County Sales Pavilion Company to raise funds to erect permanent buildings on the current fairgrounds. The company sold stock to 160 county residents at $100 each which was enough to pay for building the Hamilton County Sales Pavilion and Stock barn.
The Sales Pavilion and Stock Barn was the first permanent building on the current Fairgrounds. In continuous use since 1919, the building is undergoing restoration.
The track and grandstand were built in 1938-1939 under the leadership of L. L. Lyle, longtime fair secretary. Using a combination of Work Projects Administration (WPA) funds and fairgrounds savings, the one-half mile track and amphitheater (grandstand) were erected. The historic track begins its 79th year of racing in April 2017.
More WPA funding in 1940-41 aided in expanding the fairgrounds. The amphitheater was enlarged to seat 3,500 people. A new 4-H club calf barn and a display building were erected. Both WPA-built concrete buildings are still in use today for the same purposes.
Because of the country’s involvement in World War II, no full-size fair was held in 1942 or 1943. However, 4-H Club events and free shows were held on the fairgrounds during what would have been the normal fair run.
Edward P. Prince, longtime supporter of the Fair, left a bequest to the Hamilton County Fair to erect a community building. Completed in 1967, the building continues to serve the community as Ed Prince envisioned. It is headquarters of the fair and serves as a community events center during the rest of the year.
The swine, sheep and poultry complex was built over a thirty-five-year period beginning in 1953. 4-H and FFA members, along with the Fairboard, provided the labor and materials to continue improving the buildings.
In 1972, twelve Hamilton County agricultural co-ops financed a 50 by 60-foot building to give the Fairgrounds a needed additional building. Remodeled in 2002, the Coop building will be used during the 100th annual Fair to house a children’s Play and Rest area featuring a large corn pit.
Local master brick masons erected a new brick and granite entry gate for the Fairgrounds in 1991 to replace the original one destroyed by a semi tractor in 1969. The entry gate was the gift of Gladys Johnson, in memory of her father J. H. Shaffer, the Hamilton County Sheriff from 1899 to 1904.
McCollough Plaza, a landscaped meeting court in front of the Events Center, was one of the first combined efforts of the Hamilton County Fair Board and the newly formed Fair Foundation in 2001. It remains a favorite gathering spot on the grounds, reminiscent of the “Comfort Tents” used in the first half of the 20th century.
Hamilton Hall, built in 1980, was renamed the Van Diest building in 2002 after major renovations financed by donations from the Fair Foundation and the Van Diest family modernized the building. Smaller community events are also held here when the fair is not in session.
In April of 2004, Fair Board and Fair Foundation members broke ground for a new shower and rest room complex to replace outdated facilities in the 1919 Sales Pavilion. Many local contractors were involved in the project and the building was completed in time for the July 2004 fair.
The largest building project undertaken began in 2011 as the Fair Foundation began fund-raising for the Hamilton County Events Center. The Events Center was dedicated during the 2012 Fair. As a multi-purpose building with a concrete arena area, flanked by stadium seating, it is used for many different events. The Foundation continues Phase IV fund-raising to add more rest rooms and meeting areas.
Through the years, more than 450 directors and superintendents have made the fair possible along with thousands of volunteers. There have been two Honey Queens, three 4-H Queens and 55 Fair Queens who have reigned over the Fair since 1960.
The Hamilton County Fair celebrates its 100th annual fair this July 25-30 with a celebration to include a 4-H Reunion, a Fair Queen Reunion, a rodeo and harness racing as well as its usual speedway events.
From its beginning in 1857 and continuing uninterrupted since 1918, the Hamilton County Fair will continue through county wide interest, enthusiasm and cooperation. There’s nothing like a county fair to renew one’s spirit, to remember days gone by and catch a glimpse into the future.