Area Tourism, Attractions and Events
Wild West Days
Winner Of The 1999 Governor’s Award For Best Downtown Event
Wild West Days, held the 3rd weekend of August, is the time of the year that Viroqua folks and visitors from afar commemorate and celebrate the era when Western Wisconsin was the “Wild West”.
Located east of the Vernon County Fairgrounds, the 7 acre grounds are transformed into an 1880’s Boom Town complete with Tent City vendors. You will find merchants, restaurants, “gambling”, the Northstar Hotel with a barber, the Buckeye Saloon, the Marshall’s Office, a general store, and even an undertaker! A fur-traders rendezvous and Civil War camp complete the scene. A game street provides challenges to the keen of eye and strong of arm in games of skill and chance that hark back to times when games weren’t electronic.
There’s a dance hall with dance hall girls, too, and free music playing all day in the saloon. The wildly popular “Hog Wrestling” event draws over thirty teams of “pretty young men and brave strong women” from all over the area competing to see who can stuff a muddy pig in a barrel the quickest.
The saloon and streets of the boomtown will erupt as lawmen and outlaws decide who rules the frontier town of Viroqua. There is “reenaction action” by the 1st Wisconsin Company D, the only Civil War Reenactment Co. in Wisconsin that is reactivated by the National Guard.
As the sun begins to set Saturday afternoon, the cowboy’s fun is just beginning as Wild West Days kicks off the Hell On Hooves Ranch Rodeo and Bull Riding Bonanza. The Ranch Rodeo tests the skills of the cowboy in every aspect of daily ranch work. Bull riding, rope doctor, sorting, wild cow milking, and mutton bustin’ for the kids provides challenges a-plenty for the teams and for the crowd. Hell On Hooves promises to put the excitement back into rodeo Saturday night at 6 p.m. and again Sunday at 2 p.m. when the American Cowboy competes for the “buckle and the bucks”! Click here to visit the Wild West Days website.
Vernon County Fair
The “grounds” were on a vacant lot, now the site of Felix’s clothing store, adjacent to the court house. Here were shown 2 stallions, 3 bulls and 2 cows, while inside the courthouse were displays featuring 3 woven rugs, some patchwork quilts, and a few jars of home-churned butter and sorghum and maple syrup. Visitors to the one-day fair enjoyed two events: a morning plowing match on the field of Moses Decker, Viroqua’s founding citizen, and an afternoon speech by school teacher Hartwell Allen. Between events people could enjoy lemonade and stick candy, the only concessions sold.
On April 11 of the following year, the nation’s first Agricultural Society was founded in Viroqua and the fair began to grow by leaps and bounds.
In 1858 a 10-acre plot just west of what is now Eckhart Park was purchased as the new fairgrounds. Horse racing was introduced that year, spurred on by F.M. Minshall, and is now one of the main attractions of the Vernon County Fair. The races, however, were banned in 1888 until the Ag Society found itself $6,800 in debt by 1890, due to poor attendance during three raceless years. In 1891 Minshall became president of the society and promptly reinstated the sorely missed races. They have been run every year since.
The 22-1/2 acre fair site was purchased from Col. C. M. Butt for $100 per acre in 1981. A 10-cent bus ride took you from the Hotel Fortney to the new location. The first buildings to be erected were an art hall, the grandstand and cattle barns. Fair admission was 10 cents and taking one’s girl on the bus to the north fairgrounds became the mark of a true gentleman.
These early fairs were characterized by other featured events such as bicycle races, foot races, farmer wrestling matches, and such exotic attractions as Japanese acrobats, elephant rides, balloonist and circus acts. Baseball games were always an integral part of the festivities with teams participating from towns all over the county and surrounding areas, including La Crosse and Onalaska. Cash awards always drew stiff competition. Speeches were also a very popular attraction. In fact there was a premium given to the best orator. In those days the premiums were distributed at the close of the fair, when the secretary would stand on a platform and call out the names of the winners, handing them their awards from the fair proceeds. Some of these contest winners from 1900 were: Biggest shoe size (Thomas Silbaugh, Avalanche - size 11); smallest shoe size (J.W. Potts, Viola - size 1-1/2); largest family in attendance (Simon Mockrud, Westby - 118 members); and outstanding farmer (Henry Hopp). Margaret Morse was voted “prettiest girl,” a precursor to The Fairest of the Fair, which didn’t become an official contest until 1973.
In 1903 the Open Class Exhibition Hall, which housed all the open class exhibits and the fair office, was erected. It was built at a cost of $1698.40. In honor of Fred Rogers, a long-time advocate of the fair and former secretary of the Board of Directors, the Open Class Exhibition Hall was renamed the Rogers Building in 1985.
The fair of 1911 saw some excitement when an “airplane flight” was scheduled on Thursday. The big attraction brought hundreds to the fair. On the pilot’s second attempt the fly machine rose to a dizzying height of 25 feet, and on its premature descent got its wing caught on cart and flipped over. It remained nose-to-the-ground for the remainder of the weekend. An additional ball game was quickly put together to take the place of the attraction-gone-bad. In 1911 fairgoers were privileged to partake of the giant barbecue. A 1,150 pound ox was cooked, yielding more than 1,000 pieces of well-seasoned meat that were handed out as sandwiches for a nominal charge.
The first 4-H livestock show was initiated in 1921 by agricultural teacher Richard A. Power. Beginning with 3 calves at the first exhibit, the 4-H division has become a veritable fair-within-a-fair with over 5,500 exhibitors last year. The hundredth anniversary of the Vernon County Fair came in 1956 and with it came approximately 10,000 attendees. The fair is 149 years old this year and in all that time - despite wars, drought, snow and rain - the Agricultural Society has never failed to hold an annual event. There has never been any great tragedies (with the possible exception of the 1911 plane mishap, though no one was seriously hurt), attendance continues to grow as the result of long hours and hard work by those who are committed to making the event the highlight of the year - year after year. The Vernon County Fair is now acclaimed as one of the oldest county fairs in Wisconsin. Click here to visit the Vernon County Fair website.
Tourism Information: 608-637-2575 or firstname.lastname@example.org