WAUSEON - Settlers were fighting off mosquitoes and draining the Great Black Swamp when folks gathered for the first Fulton County Fair.
Featuring wood chopping and plowing competitions, the fair attracted a nice-sized crowd to a 10-acre site near the community of Ottokee, then the county seat.
It would be fair to say the crowd was pretty puny compared to modern years. In 2006, the Fulton County Fair drew a record-breaking 269,829 visitors.
Friday marks the opening of the 150th Fulton County Fair, a sesquicentennial celebration paying homage to the event's trademark attractions - farm life, family, friends, faith, food, and fun.
"We started working on the 150th celebration plans a year ago," said Carl Buehrer of Delta, fair board president for 34 years. Special events include fireworks, laser shows, vintage baseball, a fife-and-drum corps, and a mustache and beard contest.
It should be one for the history book.
Flashback to 1857. Fulton County residents Mr. and Mrs. Dresden W.H. Howard, who were impressed by a fair in Adrian, Mich., organized the Fulton County Agricultural Society and members began planning the first fair, to be held the following fall.
The inaugural fair was a success, but the rented site had drawbacks.
"Thee was no room for horse racing and it was sort of a swamp," Mr. Buehrer said.
In 1865, the fair moved to its current home along State Rt. 108, just north of Wauseon. Purchased by the Agricultural Society for $500, the new 40-acre location had ample room for a horse racing track.
To give the fairgrounds some stretching room, more land was purchased beginning in 1965. "Now we have 197 acres," Mr. Buehrer said.
Of course, other changes have been made since the 1800s.
Lights installed in 1926 allowed fair hours to extend into the evening hours for the first time, and a few years later, four telephones were installed.
Another technological advancement?
Fair board members no longer have to hoof it from one end of the fairground to another.
"We have golf carts," Mr. Buehrer said.
In the mid 1970s, nearly 60 camping spots opened on the fairgrounds, a humble home-away-from-home beginning for one of the fair's most popular traditions.
Since then, demand has soared, and more than 500 camping spaces have been added.
All are filled, and there's a waiting list with 100 names.
How popular are these coveted spots? Sometimes, the camp sites are part of divorce settlements, and it takes a judge to figure out who gets to keep on camping during fair week.
For many years, vaudevillelike variety shows and other entertainment fit the bill, but in 1977 the fair introduced the first big-name entertainer for its Labor Day show.
Country singer Lynn Anderson drew a packed house, and fair board members had a hit on their hands.
It's no grandstanding to say that since then, country music's top names, including Willie Nelson, Alabama, and the Oak Ridge Boys, have been booked.
"You want to get country music stars just as they are getting hot," just before their popularity skyrockets, said Jeanne Johnson, fair secretary. Otherwise, the fair can't afford them.
Other prized attractions at the fair include french fries, cotton candy, caramel apples, and more. Much more.
Fair-goers can purchase food at about 100 locations, said Richard Mull of Wauseon, a 26-year fair board member.
Other concession vendors want in, but there's a waiting list.
Some vendors are so pleased to have a spot at the fair that they are "as happy as a pig in a puddle," he said.
And while the food and other attractions keep crowds coming back each year, the Fulton County Fair is about people.
Generation after generation of hard-working farmers, business owners, community leaders, and others have built the Fulton County Fair into one of the premier fairs in the state.
At the helm is the 15-member fair board - one representative from each of the 12 townships in Fulton County and three at-large representatives.
Board members, known for their can-do attitude, common sense, and penchant for pinching pennies, are elected to three-year terms at the Fulton County Agricultural Society's annual meeting.
It's a time-consuming job.
"Each fair board member spends an average of six weeks of time each year at the fairgrounds," Mr. Buehrer said.
Long-time board member Curtis Johnson of Fayette said, "We volunteer here all summer. We do general maintenance, and fix what needs fixed."
They tackle lengthy to-do lists: repair fences, fix sewer lines, trim trees, change light bulbs, set up ticket booths, and install signs.
Beginning in May, board members report to the fairgrounds for Tuesday work nights, Mr. Johnson said. During fair week, they pick up the pace.
What keeps fair board members coming back each year for such a demanding, grueling schedule?
"It's the pay," Mr. Buehrer quipped.
Annual pay is $300.
The real reason fair board members are dedicated to their duties?
"We enjoy what we do," Mr. Buehrer said.
And, Mr. Johnson said, "Everybody is real proud of the fair. We do this because we want to be part of the fair."
Some county fairs have fizzled through the years. Other fair boards often ask about the secret of Fulton County's success.
Mr. Buehrer says it's no secret.
"We get tremendous support from the community and businesses," he said. "Nobody when asked turns us down when we need something done."
Everyone cooperates to get things done, board members said. "If everyone doesn't get along and pull together, it is not going to work," Mr. Buehrer said. Keeping the fair's focus on agriculture and conservative, family-oriented activities is key too, he said.
"The Fulton County Fair is still a place to meet, a place where neighbors and friends and sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles come together to spend time," Mr. Buehrer said. "It was that way a 150 years ago, and still here today, we enjoy coming to the fair."
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