Resilience: 150 Years of the Door County Fair

When the carnival rides hum to life, the sweet smell of funnel cakes wafts through the air, and the county’s youth unload their pigs, cows and crafts along the midway at the Door County Fairgrounds on July 28, the 150-year legacy of the Door County Fair will live on. Behind the entertainment and thrills rests a history of the county’s culture and development that gives much more back to the community than several days of fun.

“It’s a time for people to get together and families to spend time together,” said Tim Ash, a member of the Door County Fair Board. Ash is a consummate authority on the fair. This is his 40th year helping to organize it, and his father, James Ash, was president and supervisor of the Door County Fair Association for 37 years.

“It draws a large number of people that come just to get together, mingle and enjoy each other’s company while watching good entertainment at a reasonable price,” Ash said.

Preparation for the 150th celebration began well before the 149th edition was over. It takes some foresight to book heartland rockers BoDeans, the legendary Midwest outfit Head East, and the large roster of stock-car racers, wrestlers, motorcyclists, fireworks professionals and other entertainment providers who will fill the midway and grandstand at John Miles County Park in Sturgeon Bay, July 28 – Aug. 1.

For Ash and many other area residents, the real engine of the fair is the opportunity for the county’s kids to show their hard work to the rest of their community through livestock shows, craft displays and competitions. Those events were the hallmark of the fair long before electric guitars and Ferris wheels.

Since the early years of the fair, the event has evolved with the times. The fair in 1941 marked the first four-day festival. Shuttered for three years during World War II and during the polio epidemic of 1956, the Door County Fair even survived the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, when virtual events provided a way for people to connect and share their work from the year past.

“They really missed it last year,” Ash said. “It’s for the children, the school-age kids, the FFA kids, to let them showcase their artwork, their stuff, all the hard work they’ve done.”

Headlines often declare the approaching death of county fairs as attendance wavers from year to year and changes in the agricultural industry similarly change the fabric of the event. But a statement that writer Stanley Greene made in a 100-year retrospective article that ran in the Door County Advocate in 1971 was as true then as it is today.

“It is surprising to find how many times in the past public opinion has pronounced the fair dead,” Greene wrote, “only to find the corpse scrambling out of the grave more alive than it ever had been in the past.”

The 150th celebration of the Door County Fair is a testament to the resilience of the event and the community it represents.

See more photos, and read the full piece about the Door County Fair’s 150 years in the Summer 2021 issue of Door County Living magazine, available now.


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