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Encyclopedia Dubuque



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Photo courtesy: Jim Massey
Dubuque County Fair. Residents of Dubuque County held fairs for many years before the events proved successful. Much of this early work was done by the NORTHWESTERN AGRICULTURAL MECHANICAL ASSOCIATION. In 1864 the County Agricultural Fair Grounds were located near EAGLE POINT. A track was present which was used for a trotting tournament in June 1864. (1)

On September 1, 1884, what was billed as the Interstate Fair attracted the curious to see such exhibits as a demonstration of "type writing," a cream separator which promised to revolutionize the separation of milk and cream, and new fashions.

The first permanent fairgrounds were built in Cascade. Organization plans culminated on June 19, 1891, when the articles of incorporation for the Cascade Driving Park and Fairground Association were published. Efforts to hold the event in Dubuque had failed, according to some accounts of the time, because the proposed industrial focus of the fair had not been appealing to the farmers of the county.

Dubuque again attempted to sponsor an Interstate Carnival from October 3-7, 1899. The main event was "Pain's Gorgeous Spectacle" depicting "Dewey's Victory at Manila" in the Spanish-American War. Although it is not clear how the presentation was staged, a reporter for the Dubuque Daily Times reported that carloads of scenery and hundreds of players were involved. Advertisements also called for an evening display of fireworks staged by James Pain,"the great firework's king."

The Cascade Fair and Driving Park Association abandoned attempts to sponsor the annual event in 1901.

Dubuque Enterprise announced the upcoming fair. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding.

In April 1904 the Dubuque Tri-State Fair Association was announced. The association had fifteen directors. The officers included president, C.J. W. Saunders; treasurer, W.B.Baumgartner, and Col. J.W. Patterson, secretary. On September 4, 1904, Dubuque residents were informed that the "Tri-State Fair" which was billed as the "first fair in twenty years" would be held from September 5th to the 10th. Determined to make the event successful, Friday was declared "Dubuque Day," and local merchants closed their businesses to allow their employees time to attend. Visitors could view exhibits of livestock, but the greatest attention was paid to trained elk diving fifty feet into a tank of water and a performer doing her "radium dance." Held at NUTWOOD PARK, the fair featured horse racing and promises that the grounds would be kept in excellent condition the entire year.

The Tr-County Fair of 1906 drew extra interest with the appearance of Dan Patch and Cresceus, two of the most famous racing horses in the world. There were four stake races that year: the Dubuque, the Union Electric Company, Malting Company, and the Hotel Julien each with a purse of $1,000. Among the shows were the "London Ghost Show," "Old Plantation," "Dreamland," "Glass Blowers," and "Princess Corena and Her Retinue of Court Maidens." (2)

Newspaper articles indicate that the earliest mention of the "Dubuque County Fair and Tri-State Exhibition" was made on May 7, 1901. Efforts to establish a permanent Dubuque County Fair Association were held in Dyersville on September 8-9, 1920. Articles or incorporation were filed and officers elected. C.L. Meis was the president.

From 1939 to 1954, Dubuque County residents found 4-H Achievement Shows and the Tri-State Exposition to be the equivalent of a county fair. In 1953, a fair was held on the Louis Schemmel farm near Farley. Obtaining state aid required the formation of a Junior Fair Association and the provision of funds for premiums and other expenses which would later be reimbursed by the State of Iowa when a claim was filed. To raise money, the fair board sold one hundred memberships at twenty-five cents each and received donations of $25.00 from Farley businessmen and other donors.

In June 1954, the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors leased 66-acres of land at the DUBUQUE COUNTY HOME to the Dubuque County Fair Association to establish a permanent county fair site. (3) In August, 1954, the TELEGRAPH HERALD announced the "first annual Dubuque County Fair...at Iowa's newest fairgrounds." The three day event held in tents, featuring a midway with at least six carnival rides, was said to be larger and "more complete" than either the Tri-State Expositions or 4-H Shows.

In October 1954 the announcement was made that the fair would get its first permanent structure. A 4-H beef barn would be erected on the fairgrounds using volunteer labor. At the same time a County Fair Fund drive with a goal of $153,000 was presented. A canvass of the county's 2,064 farms would be made first followed by towns, cities, business and industries. Each township was assigned a drive captain. It was hoped at a minimum to construct three livestock barns and a combination girl's and women's building before the next fair. (4)

The second annual county fair began on August 16, 1955 and ran until August 18th. Those who attended the previous year's fair welcomed many new additions. Previously visitors had to park half a mile away from the entrance and walk. In 1955 a 5,000 car capacity parking area was unveiled in the northwest section of the fairgrounds. Other improvements included drinking fountains, paved aisles in the livestock barns and exhibition tents, an amphitheater for cattle judging and sales and overhead lights along the promenade. An estimated 130 commercial exhibits were housed in two tents and hundreds of feet of open ground. Entertainment included a horse show, horse races, American Legion drum and bugle corps, boxing matches, and carnival rides. Admission was fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. (5)

In 1997, amid concerns about declining attendance, the removal of the fair manager, and estimates placing the fair at least $400,000 in debt, an interim manager was chosen as questions concerning the fair's future remained unanswered.

In May, 2014 the Dubuque County Fair Association sought financial assistance from the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors. Lower attendance and increased energy costs had led to losses of $121,570 the previous year. (6) In July the Fair Association announced that nearly 56,000 people attended the fair. This was down about 2,000 from 2013 and was below estimated of event organizers who anticipated between 60,000 to 70,000. (7) In September the fair organizers asked the county supervisors for a $30,000 loan to pay the remainder of a $100,000 line of credit. The 2014 fair recorded net income of $117,827.72. (8)

In 2015 the attendance at the fair hit 60,001 which was an increase of about 7% over 2014. (9)



1. "Trotting Tournament," Dubuque Democratic Herald, June 24, 1864, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18640624&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

2. "All Ready for Tri-State Fair," Telegraph Herald, August 28, 1906

3. Germanson, Ken. "County Fair to Get 1st Permanent Barn," Telegraph Herald, October 10, 1954 Dubuque News, p. 1

4. Ibid.

5. Rumsey, Charles. "Second Annual County Fair to Start Tuesday," Telegraph Herald, August 14, 1955, p. 28

6. "May," Chronology 2014, Telegraph Herald, January 1, 2015, p. 10

7. "July," Chronology 2014, Telegraph Herald, January 1, 2015, p. 12

8. "September," Chronology 2014, Telegraph Herald, January 1, 2015, p. 15

9. "2015: A By-The-Numbers Review of the Year in the Tri-States," Telegraph Herald, January 3, 2016, p. 2