Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

July 30, 1997, Page 36

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 



IN THE Good Old Days


Compiled by Dee Zimmerman


History of the Clark County Fair Grounds and One of its Builders


This year, the Clark County Fair records its 125th anniversary, having started in 1872.  Except for one year, there has been a County Fair every fall.  It was canceled in 1949 due to a polio epidemic.


Clark County’s first cooperative was organized on March 15, 1872.  Its purpose was to initiate and operate a county fair.  The Clark County Agricultural Society was formed under the leadership of John S. Dore, to obtain land and develop a county fairground and fair.  Shares were sold at $10 each, which was to draw no interest and which would never be repaid.  A 40-acre tract of land on the southeast edge of Neillsville, in the town of Pine Valley, was purchased for $1,200.  Two thousand five hundred dollars was invested in building bleachers and the first exhibit building.


The following year, 1873, a race track was developed, and a grandstand was erected on the east side of the track.  The biggest even of the fair’s early years was the harness races which drew horses and drivers from near and far.


As time went on, additional buildings were constructed and other improvements made.  An additional 15-acre tract of land was purchased, in 1921, from the farm adjoining the fairgrounds on the west side.  The fine arts and agriculture building was erected.


A Clark County man, William R. Swann, of the carpentry trade, was credited for erecting the several fine buildings on the fairgrounds during the early 1900s.


Swann, born in Sheboygan County, November 1858, was left an orphan at the age of 13 and had to learn how to make his own way in the world.


Coming to Clark County in 1877, Swann found employment within the area.  Saving his money, he eventually was able to purchase an 80-acre tract of hardwood timberland one and a half miles south of the Pleasant Ridge Church (along what is now Miller Avenue).


Swann married Frances Waterman in 1880, and together they carved a farmstead out of the timberland.  Their first house and farm buildings were crude log structures.  Gradually, as time and finances permitted, Swann replaced the log buildings with frame buildings, using lumber cut and planed from their land.  They raised three sons, Ernest, George and A. R. (Bert) in their comfortable home on the 80-acre farm.  A fourth generation family member now owns and lives on the Century Farm.


Besides his farm work, Swann learned the carpentry trade from Lime Hall and Lon Huckstead.  His reputation as an excellent carpenter became known throughout the area.


The Clark County Fair Board awarded Swann contracts to build new buildings on the fairground in the early 1900s.  They had a stipulation on the new cattle barn to be designed and built in 1918.  The barn would have a judging ring in it but not like the neighboring county’s barn – where people were “splashed by the cows.”


Swann pondered the barn’s design, and while lying in bed one evening, and after thinking about the project for several days, the plan came to his mind.  The barn would be, four-winged with two rows of cattle stanchions in each wing.  An end of each wing would join a large show/judging ring in the center.  An octagonal sided louvered cupola would be elevated above the judging ring and the joining wings’ roof lines.  There was a door at the end of each wing’s loft area for storage of hay or to open for ventilation.  For a number of years, the 4-H boys slept in the cattle barn loft while tending their cattle and livestock at the fair.


The four-winged cattle barn, fine arts and kitchen buildings were razed in 1980, making space available for the new metal multi-purpose building set-up in 1981.


Recently, the last of Swann’s buildings was razed at the Clark County Fairground.  A calf building, 40’ x 124’ with a second story, 20’ x 124’, was put up in 1925.  The lower story had room for four rows of calves.  The second floor was used for a dormitory and was the first Club Building with a dormitory in the State of Wisconsin.  The 4-H girls used the upper story dormitory in the beginning.  Later, the lower level was remodeled into a dormitory with the girl’s staying in the first floor and the 4-H boys lived in the upper level.  Three livestock buildings were built the same year.


Many who stayed at the county fair, or worked there in some other capacity, have various memories of “fair week.”  A memory shared by former Clark County Extension people, were the straw-filled ticks, substituted for mattresses.  Bunks made of boards lined across the dormitory floors, covered with the straw ticks.


A major task, to be done a few days before the fair, was filling each tick with fresh clean straw.  The number of 4-H girls and boys in attendance at that time, numbered 150 and more – that made a lot of “straw stuffing.”  After fair week, the straw ticks were emptied and packed away until the next season or the rodents would have taken up residency.


A dormitory “father” and “mother” supervised the dorm during fair week.  Wes Worden, of Greenwood, enjoyed spending fair days at the boys’ dorm.  Esther Smith served as dorm mother for the girls for several years.  As she stated, “I told the girls they had to be back in the dormitory before eleven o’clock in the evening, because the door would be locked at eleven.  They abided by my ruling.  I liked being with the young people.”


Extension staff members spent many hours supervising the dorms at night, often staying well after midnight or until they thought all were settled in and asleep.  As one former extension member stated, “You never get 200 kids to sleep at the same time.  You couldn’t have dorm life without water balloons, fire crackers, shaving cream, plus other events that only kids are capable of dreaming up.”  There were some homesick kids occasionally, experiencing their first time away from home and in need of assurance by a staff member.


In the late ‘70’s, an adult supervisor program was initiated.  Usually five or six club leaders or parents were assigned to stay overnight in the girls’ and boys’ dorm.  That program was very effective in quieting down the dorms.


The dorm took on a “Holiday Inn accommodation look” in the early ‘80s.  The straw ticks and bunk boards were taken out, to be replaced by army surplus bunks and regular mattresses.


After the fair was over, each year, the bunks were pushed aside and the area was used for storing cars, boats, etc.


Now that the dormitory has been razed, tents, sleeping bags and camping equipment will replace dorm living, setting up on the outer edge of the fairgrounds.


Swann has left his mark of carpentry with other buildings such as the Reed School, still visible along Pleasant Ridge (Hwy 10), at the intersection of Cardinal Avenue.  After the frame school house burned, Swann built the brick structure in 1915.  That fall, the building wasn’t complete when the school term started, so classes were held in the Gene Counsell home (now Suckow’s home).  Shortly before Christmas, the new building was complete, and furniture, supplies and students were moved into the new facility.


Keeping the students in mind, Swann placed several windows on the north side, so as to allow as much natural light as possible for the students to study by.  There was no electricity so when evening events, such as the Christmas program was held, lanterns burning white gasoline were brought to provide light, being brighter than kerosene lanterns.


The school building has a nice full basement with room for the children to play in on rainy or cold days.  It was also heated by a furnace set-up in the basement, a modern convenience for a 1915 rural school.


Retiring from the farm, Swann built a new house for himself and his wife at 1 Court Street in Neillsville.  He added a unique feature with the wrap-around front porch visible on the Division Street side.  After living in the house for a few years, his wife died.  He sold that house and built a bungalow next door, on the east side.  He and his second wife, Neva, lived out their lives in the bungalow.  Swann passed away in 1938 and his second wife died in 1948.  Arnold and Ruth Ebert purchased the house, being the second owners and Ruth still lives in the home.


As we drive by the Miller Avenue farm, Reed School and two Division Street houses, we can think about the man who designed and built those structures in his life time, a man who was very conscientious in doing his carpentry profession.


(Thanks to Swann’s great-granddaughter, Nadine Novotny of Menasha, for family information and retired members of the County Extension Office for sharing their memories.)


A 1925 view of the new calf club building at the Clark County Fairgrounds; razed this year, the 40’ x 124’ structure was the first county fair Club Building with a dormitory in the state of Wisconsin.  The lower photo depicts a scene of the Clark County Fair in 1926 when the grandstand was on the east side of the race track.  The fair buildings were designed and erected by William R. Swann, a Pleasant Ridge farmer who also learned the carpentry trade.  (Club Building photo taken from August 1925 Press issue)  (County Fair photo courtesy of Don Marg)




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