Ash Family Has Deep Roots in Door County Fair

In 1871 – just a decade after Door County was officially organized – the first county fair was held, which meant area farmers had become established enough on the peninsula to want to participate in livestock judging and other displays of agricultural prowess, techniques and technology.

Farming has always been the core of county fairs. Carnival rides, funnel cakes and midway attractions came later as ways to attract those not involved in the agricultural industry to the fair.

“I think I had to be in my teens before I really realized there were rides down there. We spent all our time with the animals. That was our 24/7,” said Thad Ash, vice president of the Door County Fair Board and member of a family with deep roots in the fair.

Thad had previously served as president of the board, a role he assumed when his father, Jim Ash, retired as board president in 2009 after serving in that role for 27 fairs.

“I started out when I was 10 years old there exhibiting, and worked my way up the line,” 79-year-old Jim said. “I used to be down there from 6:30 in the morning until midnight. By the end of the fair, you were beat. It takes you two days to recover. I still come down there, make remarks and leave real quick.”

“He doesn’t feel the pressure to stay anymore,” said Tom, Jim’s youngest son who now serves as fair board president. Tom doesn’t even have an earliest memory of the fair because, he jokes, “I was born at the fair.”

Middle son Tim Ash also serves on the board. “Long as I can remember, you were always the fair vice president,” Tim said to his dad.

And daughter Thea drives up from her home in Cambellsport to work in the fair office during the annual five-day event.

“It’s just a family tradition that carries on,” Tom said.

And carry on it does. Tom is proud that his children, Frankie, 13, and Libby, 11, are deeply involved in exhibiting, while the youngest, Jon, “6 going on 26,” Grandpa Jim said of him, is looking forward to being old enough to handle animals for exhibition.

“My daughter this year entered 30 different classes between crafts and horse classes and beef classes,” he said.

He also mentions that his wife, Amy, was not a fair person when they met. Today she is a 4-H leader.

“Mom [Karen] still takes sewing projects to enter in the fair,” Tom adds, and then asks his mother if she still enters the baking competitions.

“All the baking she does now feeds the crew,” Jim answers.

“His mother would bring us chicken dinner and sandwiches,” Tom said, referring to his grandmother. “Still today we have a chicken dinner or some meal just to get away a little bit.”

They know plenty of other people who have had long relationships with the fair. Tom mentions fair board member John White, which prompts an exclamation from Jim, who recalls chasing young John off the grounds when he came with a motorcycle to spin in the gravel. They mention the Birdsall family and Fr. Tony, who remains involved in exhibitions.

With the family so committed to the fair, they have been concerned by the smaller numbers that attend every year.

“The families just aren’t as big as they used to be and there aren’t as many dairy farmers,” Jim said.

“The fair was on a decline probably the last 10 years,” Tom said. “Attendance was slowly going down, from 14,000 to 12,000. Last year we had 8,000. So over the winter I went to the county and said, ‘We’re on our last legs. We’ve got two years left unless you’re going to reinvest in this fair.’”

Tom said in the past the county would give a set dollar amount to the fair board, “and we had to have our necks out to break even. Our goal is to break even. We never set out to make money. This year’s county budget financed the fair, which allowed us to bring gate prices down to $5 a day to get in and $15 for a booster button to attend the entire fair. With the county taking more interest in making the fair last until it gets to be 150 years old or older, that gives us more flexibility and it’s a little more stress-free for us.”

Income for the fair board is limited to the admission price to enter the grounds.

“A lot of people don’t understand, when you get on the grounds, that gate fee is all that supports that fair,” Tom said. “Spend your money inside and that goes to the nonprofits, – the Lions, Amvets, etc. They don’t have to promote the fair. They just show up and start selling.”

Which reminds Jim that back in the day, folks would be hard-pressed to find a church service on the Sunday of the fair.

“On Sunday morning all the churches were down here,” Jim said. “Every church had a stand down here.”

Tom mentions that Kewaunee County’s Fair, which took place last week, had national country act Diamond Rio, which probably drew people from Green Bay and elsewhere.

“People always say, ‘Why don’t you get bigger bands or why don’t you do this?’” Tom said. “Well, we just don’t have the funds and we don’t have the draw. It costs us $180,000 a year to put on the fair. We probably spend only $60,000 on entertainment. The rest is insurance and all those other things to make it happen. Those national acts are $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 a night, and we spend that on the whole fair. Unless people want to start coming to the fair again and start supporting us and pay a higher price….”

Tom also recognizes that the fair has to reach a balance for the various groups it draws. He knows some people just want to go on the rides, some just want to drink beer and catch the entertainment and others are there to see the animals and exhibits.

“It’s always a fine line to balance things and appeal to all of those markets,” he said, adding, “We’re always working on trying to find attractions for next year’s fair.”


Spectrum Entertainment Midway

  • Aug. 2, 4-11 pm
  • Aug. 3-5, noon-11 pm (with hour break at 5 pm)
  • Aug. 6, noon-8 pm (with hour break at 5 pm)

Grandstand, Midway Music Stage and Grounds Attractions

Aug. 2

  • Budweiser Grandstand, Lena Mini and Modified Tractor Pulls, 6:30 pm
  • Coors Light Midway Musical Stage, Dan Doty and Road Trip, 7:30 pm

Aug. 3

  • Market Day Vendors, 10 am-4 pm, Fair Park/Log Cabin area
  • Pleasure Valley Pig & Duck Races, 11:30 am, 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 & 7:30 pm, North End
  • BMX Demo, noon, 2:30 & 4:30 pm, North End
  • On-Site Wood Carving, 3, 5 & 7 pm, South End
  • Budweiser Grandstand, Stock Car Races, 7 pm
  • Coors Light Midway Musical Stage, Modern Day Drifters, 7:30 pm

Aug. 4

  • YMCA Kids’ Event, 11 am, noon, 1, 2 & 3 pm, South End
  • Pleasure Valley Pig & Duck Races, 11:30 am, 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 & 7:30 pm, North End
  • BMX Demo, 12:30, 4 & 6:30 pm, North End
  • On-Site Wood Carving: noon, 1, 3, 5 & 7 pm, South End
  • Ladies’ Night Vendors, 4 pm
  • Local Drill Teams demonstration, 7 pm, horse arena
  • Budweiser Grandstand, EIS Tractor Pulls w/Schnell Aggravator, 6:30 pm
  • Coors Lights Midway Musical Stage, Vic Ferrari Band, 7:30 pm

Aug. 5

  • Pleasure Valley Pig & Duck Races, 11:30 am, 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 & 7:30 pm, North End
  • Drill Team Competition, noon, horse arena
  • BMX Demo, 12:30, 4 & 6:30 pm, North End
  • On-Site Wood Carving, 1, 3, 5 and 7 pm, South End
  • Firefighters Demo and Challenge, 1 and 2 pm, South End
  • Budweiser Grandstand, AMA Motorcycle Races, 7 pm
  • Coors Light Midway Musical Stage, The Hits, 5 pm/Chasin’ Mason, 7:30 pm

Aug. 6

  • Pleasure Valley Pig & Duck Races, 11:30 am, 12:30, 1:30, 3 & 4:30 pm, North End
  • Drill Team Demo, noon, Horse Arena
  • On-Site Wood Carving, noon and 2 pm, South End
  • BMX Demo, 1, 2:30 & 4 pm, North End
  • Budweiser Grandstand, O’Reilly Auto Parts 2017 Demolition Derby, 1:30 pm
  • Coors Light Midway Musical Stage, The John Welch Band, 3 pm


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