History of the Columbia County Fair.
The county agricultural society became a primary means through which to disseminate new information about agricultural equipment, the breeding of livestock, the propagation of new plant types, and the demonstration of agricultural techniques. To this end, the fairs included exhibits, livestock judging, field trials, machinery displays, and competitions. It also became a major social event of the year. The Wisconsin State Agricultural Society formed in 1851 to achieve similar goals and assist the organization of county fairs.
The Columbia County Agricultural Society was established and prepared its constitution in 1851 at Portage. The primary function of the society appears to have been the sponsorship of the county fair. Emphasizing the exhibition of livestock, implements, agricultural products such as butter, cheese, vegetables, floral displays, and domestic manufacturing and crafts, the county's first fair occurred in 1852 at Wyocena. Through the years, additional activities included horse racing, theatrical performances, a circus, side shows, lectures, and by the 1920s baseball. County farmers also bought and sold a considerable amount of livestock at this event. In following years, different communities including Wyocena, Columbus, Lodi, Cambria, and Portage held the county fair. Portage first sponsored the event in 1855 and hosted it with some frequency until 1874. Then, the city purchased a 40 acres tract in Ward 1 of Portage between Thompson and Griffith and Wauona Trail and Superior and presented the lands to the society or its successor under an indefinite lease. In 1877, the county agricultural society constructed Floral Hall, and it erected a wooden grandstand in 1887 and replaced it in 1898-1899. By 1901, the original Columbia County Agricultural Society had become less active. The group reorganized as the Columbia County Fair Association in the same year. Retaining ownership of the land, the group constructed new buildings at the grounds. After the turn of the century, the fair grounds included a number of wooden buildings, a wood grandstand, one large exhibit hall, and barns, most of if not all of the original buildings were replaced in the 1930s.
The City of Portage received funding from the Works Projects Administration (WPA) to replace the major buildings at the fairground in 1935. Beginning in 1933, the Franklin Roosevelt administration developed a series of programs to combat the effects of the Great Depression. On March 5, 1933, Congress was called into session to act on emergency legislation. The following one hundred days of the Roosevelt administration produced a model for much of the legislation which followed and remained in effect during the 1930s. Later acts refined and supplemented this legislation, but they did not alter its substance. In this legislation, Roosevelt attempted to effect recovery for a major portion of the economy including agriculture, industry, and banking as well as the assistance of unemployed and disadvantaged citizens. Because of the variations in the types of individuals who required relief and the causes which gave rise to their needs as well as fluctuations in the public attitude concerning how those needs should be met, the solution for welfare was complex. In the early 1930s, the federal government began to create an elaborate series of programs to assist the different classes of people. The programs associated with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the National Youth Administration (NYA), and early programs directly funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration all sponsored relief work in the states.
The Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933 produced for the first time a system of federal relief. Initially, federal monies were distributed among the states which then supervised relief measures. The Wisconsin agency which distributed these monies was known as the Wisconsin Emergency Relief Administration. Under the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935, a series of federal agencies such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of 1935 were created to tackle the problem of unemployment assistance. Rather than making doles to the unemployed, the program's funds supported projects to employ those needing work and removed them from the relief rolls. It lifted the morale and sustained the skills of many American workers who had lost their jobs because of the economy rather than their negligence. The WPA financed light public works defined as socially useful projects including the development of public parks; the building of roads, airports, schools and other public buildings; the improvement of waterways; and completion of other public service projects. In comparison to the WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA) focused on heavy and durable projects such as dams and bridges. However, each of these federal agencies occasionally supported the same types of projects. Federal government grants to state and local agencies provided part of the funding to which local governments also contributed part of the cost. The funding of federal relief projects ended in 1941-1942 with the beginning of World War II.
Although the City of Portage tabled a resolution to buy the grandstand and educational building at the county fairgrounds in May 3, 1934, it did approve a federally supported, Depression Era project to improve the adjacent twenty acre athletic field on May 8, 1934. Work did not begin until the spring of 1935. Prior to commencement of the WPA project in the fall of 1935, sixty workmen funded by the Wisconsin Emergency Relief Administration (WERA) completed improvement at the athletic field beginning in April, 1935. Part of the federal recovery program during the depression, the Federal Economic Relief Administration (FERA), extant in 1934 and 1935, provided monies to a state administering agency, the WERA, to employ relief workers in public works projects. The workers earned subsistence wages. The existing field was already utilized for 4-H activities, school athletics, band concerts, holiday celebrations, and annual agricultural exhibits. These workmen constructed a fence at the fairgrounds in April, 1935. The remaining improvements awaited further federal support which arrived in September, 1935. Although the city considered improvements at the county fair grounds and playing field early in 1935, it did not finally seek further federal support until September 9, 1935 as city council resolution number 594. The city had originally donated the lands for use as a county fairground to the Columbia County Fair Association under a 99 year lease. Since the association owned the buildings which it had erected, it offered to sell these buildings to the city for $3,000 in February, 1935 to permit their replacement. The city purchased the buildings in April, 1935.
In the fall of 1935, Works Progress Administration (WPA) supplied the City of Portage with 70% of the funding to complete projects at the fair ground. Project 6.31 involved remodeling the county fair buildings and improving the grounds in the athletic field. John Allmendinger was selected as the superintendent in charge of the WPA projects at the fairgrounds. He was responsible to a committee chaired by Alderman Van Epps who in turn was responsible to a WPA district director in Madison. The city acquired this funding to pay wages to workers completing the project and to buy necessary materials. The project costs totaled $30,000. In September, 1935, work on the fair grounds employed 32 men. Eventually, the project employed 390 men over a period of four months. Prior to construction, WPA laborers demolished the former wood grandstand and Floral Hall. New construction included a poured concrete, Art Deco grandstand, additional frame buildings, a new lighting system, and landscaping. The grandstand accommodated 1,500 spectators. Underneath and at the west elevation of the structure were housed the concession stands. New construction also included two locker buildings and completion of the board fence along Wauona Trail. These projects concluded in March, 1936. Improvement of the athletic field in 1936 involved landscaping and grading for the three tennis courts, three softball diamonds, a baseball diamond, a football field, and a track. This portion of the project reached completion in August, 1936.