For many families, the Rock County 4-H Fair’s livestock barns and the carnival rides and midway—the basic elements of a fair itself—proved the main draws as the fair returned last week after a COVID-19 pandemic-driven hiatus in 2020.
On Friday, the fair drew in 18,031 people, the fair’s business office reported Sunday. That was the biggest single-day headcount at the gates for any fair in the past five years.
And it looked by Sunday afternoon that a strong turnout for the rodeo and bull-riding show would cap off overall fair attendance this year at 65,000 or 70,000. That’s roughly on pace with fair attendance in 2018 and 2019, the most recent year the fair was held.
That was despite a slow start in attendance amid sweltering weather and a thunderstorm threat in the first part of fair week.
Rock County 4-H Fair Board President Ryan George said “the weather turned at just the right time for us.”
Along with breezy, mid-70s weather Friday, most of Saturday and Sunday came sizable crowds like Friday’s and the 11,000 who attended Saturday.
In 2013, 30,000 people turned out to the fair the day that chart-topping country music band Florida-Georgia Line played the fair’s main stage. The crowds were heavy enough inside and outside the fairgrounds that some there to see the popular country band collapsed the fair’s chain link fences.
On Friday night this year, major up-and-coming country music act Runaway June strutted with loud guitars and an electrified violin on the main stage. But that show practically played second fiddle as throngs clogged lines to wait for rides, games and food at the fair’s carnival.
The 18,000 people at the fair Friday was comparable to one fair day in the early 1990s when about 20,000 turned out to watch rising country superstar Garth Brooks perform “Friends in Low Places” and run around like a cowboy acrobat on the main stage.
At one point last Friday, the line for the Tilt-A-Whirl ride wrapped around the platform twice.
“After a year off the fair, it was clear people were obviously ready for something to do,” George said. “And they chose the Rock County fair’s carnival as the thing to do. You often assume it’ll be the big music acts at night that draw the crowds, but this year it was the actual carnival that was the main attraction.”
This year was George’s first at the helm during a fair. Last year would have been had the fair not been canceled. George said the fair board last fall was “conservative” while booking musical acts. He said even as the fair board was planning to host the fair this summer, it was difficult to predict how pandemic conditions would play out while the board was in its planning stages last fall.
George said a conservative approach to booking acts helped the fair save money in a year when paid attendance was as strong as—and even outperformed—other recent years.
That brought a financial windfall to the nonprofit fair after a 2020 that featured a canceled fair and no revenue.
“The blend (of less entertainment expenses and strong attendance) has made this year a financially successful fair,” George said.
On Sunday afternoon, as the carnival and the fair itself were winding down and as 4-H entrants departed the fairgrounds in a long traffic jam of pickup trucks hauling livestock trailers out the gates and onto North Randall Avenue, the fair’s grandstand was packed to near capacity.
As a bustling Sunday crowd moved around the carnival’s concourse, one woman walked past, double-fisting corn dogs—three in each hand. A granddad showed his granddaughter a 1941 Allis Chalmers tractor that sat silent under a partly sunny sky as carnival rides spun in the background. A breeze ruffled the roofs of vendor tents and a big, American flag flying high in the middle of the fairgrounds.
Back at the grandstand, a plowed dirt arena awaited as rodeo cowboys in Stetson hats, checkered shirts and tight Wrangler jeans hitched their belts and paced behind the bullpens, waiting in front of an overflow crowd for the 4 p.m. start of the fair’s entertainment grand finale: The Big League Bull Riders rodeo.
As uncertainty this year tempered the fair’s choices for booking live music, it also tempered the number of youth 4-H members who signed up to compete in livestock showing.
George said the fair saw a relative falling off of participation in animal showing. He said the livestock barns were far from barren, but this year served as a low-water mark for youth entries in many livestock categories.
Beef, George said, was one exception. He said the fair got “back on top” this year in both the number and quality of entries for steers and beef cattle.
The 4-H youth who raised the grand champion beef cow this year had first shown the animal when it was a calf during the 2019 Rock County Fair. Two years later, the same boy emerged a few years older, but with the same beef cow—except that by last week, the cow was full grown.
George said when that champion beef cow went to auction at the meat animal sale Friday, he could see the 4-H boy who raised the cow struck by the significance of the fair’s return, his years of work in the 4-H’s beef program and the finality of the meat auction.
“That’s a second- or third-year 4-H member who got that experience. Through it all—the year off a fair because of the pandemic, and now, he (the 4-H member) is a couple years older than when he started with beef, I think it all kind of hit him. He was about to finish a project he’d started and kept up with for a couple of years through a very difficult time. That was really a rewarding, positive thing to see,” George said.
Kathryn L. “Kathy” Berg
Richard J. “Dick” Dunlavy
Dannie H. Evans Sr.
Lillian Mae (Molkentin) Herriot
Richard G. “Rick” Kakouris
Joye Arlene (Norwood) Kaul
Virginia Roselle Larson
Sharon H. Makdad
Stuart A. Phetteplace
Sharon K. Simonson
Anna Jean Stricker
Vernon E. Toulon
Mercedes Elizabeth Webster
It has been years since tennis was king at Palmer Park, but a group of boosters hopes a new pavilion and a new private foundation sparks renewed local interest in the sport.
About 95 players turned out at the park over the weekend to compete in the inaugural The Pat Janesville Open—a doubles tournament named in honor of late Janesville tennis luminary and business icon Patrick W. Ryan.
A group of tennis enthusiasts and Ryan’s siblings hosted the tournament, which celebrated the new pavilion and monument at the park. Both were built this spring and summer to honor Ryan, a tennis lover who founded national contracting consultant group Ryan Central. Ryan died in 2016 at 60 years old after years of fighting cancer.
Tom Russo, a longtime friend of Ryan’s who lives in Pennsylvania and New York, funded the new features honoring Ryan.
Ryan was a tennis standout and class president at Janesville Craig High School who went on to earn degrees at Harvard and Stanford universities. He lived and played tennis in Rock County most of his life, even after founding Ryan Central, which has expanded over the years to include major offices in Chicago and Maryland.
“This pavilion and tournament is supposed to reset the center of gravity for local tennis,” Matthew Goodwin, a local tennis buff and friend of the Ryan family, said Saturday at the tournament.
While Goodwin spoke, a few doubles teams from Chicago who played earlier in the day snacked on Skittles candy and chocolate milk in the shade of the new pavilion.
Goodwin was talking about local tennis and its heyday here. He recalled Palmer Park as the place where in the mid-1960s he would turn out with a racket and tennis shoes alongside his teammates from Beloit.
Goodwin said he was the third man on a subpar tennis team.
“I used to lose a lot of matches here,” Goodwin said. “But when I’d build up enough momentum, if I got the timing down right, I did excel in throwing a tennis racket all the way across the court.”
Camilla Owen has been named as one of a few Russo hopes will lead a local foundation also named after Ryan that will work to boost local interest in the sport.
Owen is a Wisconsin High School Tennis Hall of Fame coach who for years coached Craig High’s boys and girls teams. Owen is aware that some gyms locally have recently ditched tennis courts in favor of pickleball or multisport spaces because the sport’s star has waned somewhat nationally and locally.
Even at Palmer Park, the nine-court tennis complex is but a vestige of what once was part of a much larger number of courts along both sides of Mohawk Road. Some of the courts over the years have been removed from Palmer Park as interest in tennis has dwindled, Owen and Ryan’s sister, Josephine Ryan, pointed out Saturday.
Owen said Saturday she hadn’t seen Palmer Park bursting with such tennis activity since the 1990s—the latter years of a three-decade run during which tennis was popular among local adults who were invested enough in the sport that Janesville had its own tennis association and a bevy of resident court pros who played frequently as a fitness and social activity.
Owen said she just learned she had been tapped to help with the new foundation. She said in order for the sport to cultivate a following again in Janesville, it would be important for older players to foster love of the sport in younger players.
She also underscored and validated what Goodwin had said about throwing his tennis racket in frustration as a youth.
Tennis is unique in that it’s the “most honest” sport, Owen said. Players always know how good—or not good—they are, especially if they find themselves overmatched on the court by a much stronger, faster player.
Owen looked around the new pavilion and then back toward the courts just as a male player from Chicago blistered what appeared to be a 100 mph serve toward his opponent.
The ball rocketed off the server’s racket, scoured the court in bounds and bounded past his opponent for an ace.
“Pat would be proud,” Owen said.
As the auctioneers rattled off increasing bids at lightning speed Friday morning, 12-year-old Sydney Watson was excited to show off the sheep she raised this year for the Rock County meat animal sale.
“I just like being around my friends,” Watson said, glancing back with a smile as her fellow 4-H members gathered inside the barn.
Watson had the top lamb at 140 pounds. Her two sheep, “Big One” and “Little One,” caught the attention of bidders instantly.
While the Rock County 4-H Fair was called off in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual festivities and traditions were back in full swing this year with a crowd of bidders showing up to the meat sale.
Fair board president Ryan George said the meat animal sale each year raises more than $400,000, which helps pay for local students’ college tuition costs.
“The community really comes together to reward these kids for work they’ve put in all summer,” George said. “We’re out here paying for college educations today.”
This year’s meat sale included 70 lambs, 44 steers and 229 pork barrows.
After bidders buy an animal, George said the fair oversees all meat processing through a secure vendor and then follows up with buyers to deliver their product. Despite a pandemic-induced shortage of labor in the meat processing industry, George said the fair has been able to maintain a secure procedure.
George said he loves meeting families every year and appreciates their support. He added that the fair board is grateful for the numerous volunteers who help out.
George’s grandfather, Dean George Sr., started the meat animal sale at the Rock County Fair decades ago.
And Friday, Ryan was joined by his uncle Dean George Jr. and cousin Kale George, who helped put the event together with their auction services. Kale was the announcer for the grand champion animal competition.
“Everything about the fair is tradition here,” Ryan George said. “There’s lots of families, generation after generation, that put this fair together.”
Raising sheep is hard work.
Lambs are typically born in January or February, and contestants spend the next several months raising them.
Watson, the girl selling a couple of her sheep Friday, said her daily routine involves feeding and watering the animals, untangling their coats, taking them on walks, and cleaning out the sheep pen.
She is a member of the Fulton 4-H Club, which has dozens of members from around the Edgerton area.
Friday’s meat sale marked Watson’s third win in a row. She is the daughter of Leah and Curt Watson of Edgerton.
Nick Lambert of Janesville proudly watched on as his sons Tyler and Blake showed their sheep at the meat animal sale Friday. The boys also raised chickens to show this year.
“They make everlasting friendships. It’s a really great thing for these kids,” Lambert said.
He has attended the meat sale for 10 years and always looks forward to supporting the kids.
As a way of saying thank you to everyone who attended the meat sale, Lambert and some volunteers were giving away free T-shirts from area businesses Branded Wisconsin and 33 Feeds.
“If it wasn’t for everyone who has come out here today, this sale wouldn’t be what it is,” Lambert said. “A lot of businesses come out and support these kids who have worked really hard.”
Two people who came out to support the 4-H participants were Janesville resident David Feingold and one of his best friends, Janesville native Robert Miller.
Feingold said his family has been bidding on sheep for more than 60 years at the fair. Each year, they look forward to coming to the fair and seeing their friends while supporting local youth.
Miller, who currently lives in Alexandria, Virginia, made the trip back to Rock County for the fair.
Miller recalls raising sheep and Holstein cattle growing up. He said he participated in local and state shows in Wisconsin between 1941 and 1951, having winning animals at several points along the way. He graduated from Janesville High School in 1948.
Miller said he enjoys coming back to the meat sale year after year to buy sheep and see the tradition continue.