Column

Oliver: Change takes toll on even beloved summer tradition

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Change happens, about as surely as death and taxes.

That’s true even for traditions that some of us hold dear. For me, that’s the Wisconsin State Fair.

Sure, I’ve been to the Illinois State Fair, held each year in Springfield. However, it’s a bit of a drive, and the last time I was there was when a friend was working in the Illinois State Office of the Budget. The governor then was Jim Edgar, in the days before not one, but two governors would go to prison. So it’s been awhile.

The Wisconsin State Fair takes place in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee. It doesn’t require an overnight stay, and it even offers a discount for Illinois residents on at least one day each year.

When I started going, which now is more than 20 years ago, our group was at least a couple of car groups, and we’d spend a lot of time trying to coordinate our way around the fair. We became skilled at setting time limits for exhibit halls so that we’d all meet back at a certain time and place. That allowed each of us to explore at our own pace and still maintained some semblance of togetherness. Those who were not inclined to lollygag had plenty of time to people-watch.

Sadly, time has taken a toll on those large groups, with some regulars moving to other states, some getting too old to want to hike around for hours on asphalt and others no longer feeling the pull of fair food.

Our group has dwindled to a stalwart three, with another couple who attend on their own to accommodate their limited mobility. Still, we soldier on in the name of tradition (and bratwurst).

The fair, too, has undergone its own transformation.

Years ago, the midway area, with its carnival rides and games, had its own area. It still does, but there’s been a gradual creep. This year, an enormous Ferris wheel has taken the place of what once was the Oriental Bazaar, which before that was the Mexican Village.

The variety of vendors, as well as the number of places where they set up shop, isn’t like it used to be. Previously one could find wares from around the world. There even was an area called the International Bazaar. There, one could find embroidered items from the Hmong, alpaca knitwear from Guatemala and even textiles from Jamaica. Some are gone entirely; others have been moved willy-nilly because of higher booth costs and declining demand.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the food. Sure, the offerings have come and gone to reflect the tastes du jour. If you’re looking for something deep-fried and put on a stick, the Wisconsin State Fair is the place to be. Or if it can be wrapped in bacon. Or dipped in chocolate. Heck, there’s even chocolate-covered bacon on a stick. This year, cronuts were out and all manner of insects were in. Ick.

Even the animal offerings have been subject to changes. For a couple of years, one could find alpacas. Not anymore – they’ve fallen victims of infighting and disagreement over the best time to have them shown. Of course, one still can visit the rabbit barn for the bunnies and other barns for baby goats and sheep, as well as calves, for a dose of animal kingdom cuteness.

Then again, most of this could be found in our own backyard at the McHenry County Fair, which just wrapped up last week. Or the nearby Lake County Fair, which took place the week before that.

If you are so inclined, there still is the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. And while you’re there, be sure to have an elephant ear and a corn dog for me.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at
jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

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