A look back at Wisconsin Valley Fair’s rich history

The 155th Wisconsin Valley Fair starts on Tuesday, Aug. 1.
The fair runs August 1-6 at Marathon Park in Wausau
Published: Jul. 31, 2023 at 7:54 AM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The 155th Wisconsin Valley Fair starts on Tuesday, Aug. 1. While a lot has changed since 1868, the consistency of animals and agriculture has remained throughout the years.

From rides, amazing food, and great singers, the Wisconsin Valley Fair is a fun attraction for all, but 155 years ago it didn’t start out this way.

“I’m sure they weren’t doing cheese curds, and elephant ears back in the 1890s,” said Ben Clark, Archivist Historian at Marathon County Historical Society.

The first fair was held in September of 1868. The Marathon County Agricultural Society started and continues to run the fair, but back then it had a different name, The Marathon County Fair. The goal of the fair was to promote agriculture.

“The first fair in 1868 was only two days, the first day you show up and say, hey, I want to compete in this category. Second day, you could judge it. I think the intention is always to have the fair, kind of before the harvest really kicks in, when farmers can maybe, you know, bring stuff in,” said Clark.

The biggest attractions were nice flowers and vegetables, but horses, cattle, swine, sheep, and poultry were also exhibited. According to the Wisconsin River Pilot, the inaugural fair started with a parade.

“You never know what you’re gonna see at the fair,” said Clark.

The grandstand entertainment is one of the main attractions at the Wisconsin Valley Fair, but it hasn’t always been the big-name musical performers we tend to see today. The fair was not able to bring in famous bands. Instead, they relied on local musicians and dancers to keep the crowds entertained.

“The local band from Edgar would come in and they would, you know, put on a show, or alternatively, as part of the carnival that they bring in, they would have, you know, an attraction that they might bill as the, you know, the Scottish lasses, these Scottish sisters playing bagpipes and singing,” said Clark.

“Their entertainment for that first fair was a demonstration of target shooting by the German shooting club, the shoots and varan. And then they probably had a cornet band, then of course, the horse race, which is the big attraction,” said Clark.

Things began changing throughout the years. In 1920, the agricultural society deeded 80 acres of land to Marathon County. That same year, the name was changed to the Wisconsin Valley Fair.

The Exhibition Hall opened in 1922. Clark says its opening was just after the rebrand and name change to the Wisconsin Valley Fair. At more than 100 years old, it still serves as a focal point of the fair.

The Wisconsin Valley Fair starts Tuesday at Marathon Park in Wausau.

Marathon Park is located at 1201 Stewart Avenue, Wausau, WI 54401