The Jackson County Agricultural Society, organized in 1854, sponsored the county’s first fair in 1854, in Black River Falls. A.D. Polley, an early settler in the area along with two other families traveled from Melrose to the fair with a lumber wagon pulled by oxen. Little is known about these early fairs, other than they were held in Black River Falls, and at least one fair was held in Merrillan. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, the Agricultural Society was disbanded and there were no more county fairs for several years.
On July 24, 1867, representatives from several Jackson County townships met at the courthouse in Black River Falls and organized a new Jackson County Agricultural Society, which also served as the “Fair Board.” The society negotiated a lease for 40 acres of land for the fair. At the 1869 fair, popular events included a horse pulling contest as well as bicycle and other races. Exhibitors displayed their projects in a log building. In 1877, the Society sponsored a three-day fair, which was held September 20-22. Families arrived on wagons pulled by oxen, as well as with horse drawn buggies. Some families brought tents and stayed for the full three days of the fair. One popular event was a plowing contest. The winner of the best plowman contest over the age of twenty-one received a purebred Berkshire pig. The best plowman in the over 16-age group received a gold watch.
The person with the best team of draft horses was awarded a heifer calf. The winner of the best turkey received 16 yards of material. The best needlework by a lady under seventeen years of age, won five dollars in gold, and seven dollars went to the “best looking lady in the county under the age of 20.” The fairs boasted having 1,300 entries with 6,000 people attending.
The Society built a new grandstand in 1911, with the front section under the grandstand including a kitchen where the churchwomen sold food during the fair. An early automobile was exhibited at the 1911 fair. It was a one-cylinder, Northern, painted a bright red. For twenty-five cents, fairgoers could have their picture taken with the car. When World War I broke out, the fairgrounds became a training site where men from throughout Jackson County came for two months of training. The men used the fair buildings as barracks.
Early rides at the fair included a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, both operated by steam engines. Because there was no electricity at the time, fairs during closed at six p.m. Horse races were always a highlight. The 1913 fair featured Japanese acrobats, bucking mules, and trained dogs, all performing in front of the grandstand. By the 1930s, with many young people exhibiting at the fair, students who exhibited at the fair were excused from classes at school. The fair, which had been held in September, moved to earlier dates to avid the disruption of classes at the schools because many of the students were exhibiting at the fair. In 1942, three Civilian Conservation Camp buildings at Irving and City Point were moved to the fairgrounds and served as exhibit and dormitory buildings for exhibitors.
Tractor pulls became popular in the 1960s. In 1961, the 4-H Division at the fair had 1,911 exhibits, 237 more than the previous year. The Home Economics Open Class Division had 861 exhibits, up from 473 the previous year. One of the popular features of the late 1950s and early 1960s fairs was a horticultural display organized by 4-H Extenson agent, Darrel Apps.
In 1972, the first meat animal sale was held at the Jackson County Fair. In 1974, a new youth exhibit building, 40 by 88 feet, was constructed. Special features at the 1977 fair included helicopter rides, and Kids from Wisconsin performing, hot air balloons rides and Bingo each day of the fair. That was also the first year for a demolition derby, which has remained popular ever since. In 1982, featured events included a “tug of war” competition between County Township teams. The 1994 fair featured a western rodeo.
In 2008 most of the fair’s aging buildings were sold and moved, and replaced by new ones in 2009, including a new dairy barn, livestock barn, horse barn, small animal barn and grandstand. The fair continues to be considered, “[T]he biggest yearly event for family’s and friends in Jackson County.”
“A History of the Jackson County Fair,” Jackson County Historical Society, Black River Falls, WI, 2008. Provided by Jerry Apps