100 Years of Winnebago County Fair!

Kyah Bean first experienced the Winnebago County Fair when she was 2 months old; she hasn’t missed one since.

Now the 27-year-old serves on the fair board, in the footsteps of her father, Rich Bean. She’s part of a generation shaping the fair’s future, just as her predecessors did during the first 100 years.

The 100th anniversary of the fair will be celebrated Aug. 18-22 at the county fairgrounds, 500 W. First St., in Pecatonica, with all the familiar activities plus a few revived from the past.

“It’s always been a place where summer memories are,” says Deb Runte, president of the fair association. “One of our main goals is educating people about what happens on a farm: how animals are raised and treated beginning to end.”

The Winnebago County Fair Association incorporated and hosted its first fair in August of 1921, though some similar events date back to 1841. Attendance has grown from a few thousand to more than 95,000 visitors in 2019 and Runte expects a similar turnout this year at the 108-acre fairgrounds.

To commemorate its centennial, the fair board is working to restore some forgotten traditions while also bringing in new attractions.

“Reaching 100 years is quite an accomplishment,” says Michelle McCabe, fair board office manager. “We’re trying to make it bigger and better than ever. Coming off a year of pandemic, it’s a little more complicated. But we’re trying to add some nostalgia, things people would have seen 100 years ago.”

The Stephenson/Winnebago County Beef Association will restore its tradition of hosting a steak dinner on Saturday and a greased pig competition is planned.

“Several years ago, that used to be a big 4-H thing,” Runte says. “You’d have an enclosed area with 20 people in there trying to wrangle the pig.”

In Building 5, a new category under Crafts and Hobbies will be dedicated to displays that celebrate the anniversary.

Several new competitions will be introduced, like Oreo stacking, Chicken Bingo and a fair scavenger hunt.
Most entertainment is covered by the admission ticket. Moss Hall, a 36,000-square-foot building, is home to many acts for kids and families. On Wednesday, balloon artist Kevin Lindh will make impressive figures there from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.

Magician “Magic Mike” will hosts shows Wednesday and Thursday, while Dr. Clevis Beaker (aka Curt Strutz) will host three different Hillbilly Silly Science Spectacular Comedy Shows each day.

Outside, events like the antique tractor display, K-9 demonstration and lumberjack show will take place. The Bear Hollow Wood Carvers will host multiple shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“We have a building that we’ve devoted entirely to a straw maze for the kids to play in, to color a mural on one of our boards that we draw out for them, a place to see magicians up close … things geared toward the 5-and-younger crowd,” Runte says.

The grandstand hosts big activities every night that require separate tickets.

On Wednesday, the Xtreme Roughstock Tour Rodeo and local barrel racing begin at 7 p.m. The band Blind Date plays at the entertainment tent at 7:30 p.m.

On Thursday, truck races fire up at 7 p.m. and local musician Penny Mae Dixon performs at 8 p.m.

On Friday, the Badger State Hot Rod Tractor Pulls begin at 6:30 p.m., with cover band Dead Man’s Hand at 9 p.m.

Sunday, the popular demo derby will close out the grandstand entertainment. Pit passes are available.
“Our demo derby is always a huge sell-out,” Runte says. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is, the demolition people are going to be there.”

The fair’s carnival runs from noon to close daily. Special $25 all-inclusive wristbands are available for a time slot of either noon to 5 p.m. or 5 p.m. to close.

“To make it through every high and low, especially as a nonprofit, for all these years truly is incredible,” says Bean. “Exhibitors, volunteers and even fairgoers often have a family tie to the Winnebago County Fair, and I hope they pass on things for the next 100 years.”

Learn more at winnebagocountyfair.com and enjoy a more comprehensive version of this article in the summer edition of Northwest Quarterly Magazine. ❚