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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From 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.

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

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, Charles 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," 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 Tri-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)

In 1942 a revival on a small scale of the Tr-State Fair was organized by Frank R. Kerrigan, agent of the Dubuque County Farm Bureau. Farm bureau 4-H clubs of Jo Daviess County in Illinois and Grant County, Wisconsin were invited to send exhibits to the annual Dubuque County 4-H Club Achievement Days and County Fair held September 18-21 at SILVER ACRES. Developing the Achievement Days program into a tri-state fair had been the goal of the farm bureau agent and other officials since the program had been moved to Dubuque in 1940. (3)

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. (4) 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. (5)

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. (6)

In August 1992 county supervisors boycotted the opening day of the fair for the first time in many years. They were upset that Paul Vaassen, Dubuque County Fair Manager, blamed the one dollar increase in general admission on the IOWA TRUST FUND scandal. The supervisors eliminated the $50,000 contribution to the fair's general fund because of the nearly $3.9 million in county money tied up in the trust fund scandal. (7)

In February 1993 it was announced that the county fair would be moved to July in 1994. Fair organizers said they were forced to make the change after the Iowa State Fair Board decided to move its event earlier. The new date eliminated any overlap in scheduling. (8)


In 1997 with concerns about declining attendance (down 10,000 in 1996) and estimates placing the fair at least $400,000 in debt, Paul Vaassen, the Dubuque County Fair Association manager since 1983, was fired by a vote of 22-14. (9) Before the meeting was through, two board members had resigned and the board president had stepped down. Ray Grimes, one of the board' vice-presidents, was chosen as interim manager. (10)

Paula Jo Wolfe, the new manager, continued to operate with a 45-member board despite an attempt in November, 1997 to table for one month nominations to fill four positions. The election went ahead and the four positions were filled. (11) Later in the month, a committee was created to develop a business plan for the association. It met once before being called to a halt by the executive board until Wolfe could be involved. (12)

Fundraising and making the fairgrounds a showplace were the themes that began 1998. January 23, 1998 was the Blue Ribbon Banquet, a $50 a plate prime rib dinner and dance. Other events included the Blue Ribbon Auction scheduled for March 28th at which donations were to be sold with the proceeds going to the association. Reducing the debt of the fair association was the object. A total of $75,000 had been raised since August 1997. (13) In March the fair board voted unanimously to lease the fairground's Sunday night races to Al Frieden Inc. for the April 26th to September 3rd racing season for $1,680 per evening with at least ten racing days guaranteed per season. (14) The "blue ribbon" theme was carried into May with the "Blue Ribbon Beautification Project." Seeking to counter the chain-link fence with barbed wire appearance, a committee proposed eye-appealing displays throughout the grounds to create community pride. (15)

50 Year Pin for the fair.

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. (16) 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 estimates of event organizers who anticipated between 60,000 to 70,000. (17) 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. (18)

The Dubuque County Fair board voted to reduce its size from 45 members to 24--eight elected each year to three year terms. (19)

In 2015 the attendance at the fair hit 60,001 which was an increase of about 7% over 2014. (20)

By 2016 the organizers of the fair had reversed their financial situation. In the past, the fair association had requested a $100,000 loan from the county. Better weather resulting in higher attendance and decreased spending resulted in the fair operating in the black. (21)

Attendance in 2018 rose to 68,000 people--the highest turnout in a decade. (22)

Interstate Battery Advertisement (Dubuque County Fair. Video courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/ykyguidiiyr/) YouTube: https://www.ispot.tv/ad/Avwc/interstate-batteries-rock-band



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. "Plans for Event Are Announced," Telegraph-Herald, July 19, 1942, p. 17

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

5. Ibid.

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

7. Japsen, Bruce. "Board to Snub Opening," Telegraph Herald, August 10, 1992, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19920810&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. Japsen, Bruce. "94 Dubuque County Fair to Move to July," Telegraph Herald, February 13, 1993, p. 3A

9. Bragg, Mary Rae. "Fair Board Votes Out Vaassen," Telegraph Herald, July 30, 1997, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19970730&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

10. Bragg, Mary Rae. "Fair Board Begins to Hoe Its Row," Telegraph Herald, July 31, 1997, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19970731&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

11. Reber, Craig. "Fair Board Elects Not to Reduce," Telegraph Herald, November 12, 1997, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19971112&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

12. Reber, Craig. "Fair Board Pulls Plug on Business Committee Work," Telegraph Herald, November 25, 1997, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19971125&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

13. Reber, Craig. "Fair Kicks Off Fundraising Events With Party," Telegraph Herald, January 22, 1998, p. 3A. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980122&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

14. Krapfl, Mike. "Fair Leases Track to Farley Operator," Telegraph Herald, March 20, 1998, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980320&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

15. Reber, Craig. "Fair to Beautify Image," Telegraph Herald, May 12, 1998, p. 12A. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980512&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

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

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

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

19. Reber, Craig. "Fair Board Votes to Reduce Membership to 24" Telegraph Herald, June 10, 1998, p. 3A. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980610&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

20. "2015: A By-The-Numbers Review of the Year in the Tri-States," Telegraph Herald, January 3, 2016, p. 2

21. Descorbeth, Shirley. "Dubuque County Fair on Track Financially, Kicks Off Tuesday," KWWL.com. July 25, 2016. Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/32529346/2016/07/25/dubuque-county-fair-on-track-financially-kicks-off-tuesday

22. Montgomery, Jeff,"Dubuque County Fair Officials Eye Another Big Year," Telegraph Herald, July 22, 2019, p. 1