You won’t see that at the average county fair, but this is Alto – AL-to, not ALL-to. The Fond du Lac County township of 36 square miles and 1,100 residents for 70 years has done things their own way.
The annual Alto 4-H and Farm Bureau Fair lasts only two days and happens in midweek, making it the shortest and smallest annual summertime fair in Wisconsin. Hundreds of volunteers make it happen. Admission and parking are free.
Think one water fight for children, another for firefighters. One horse pull, four tractor pulls (including a “pedal pull” on a miniature tractor, for youngsters). Add a magic show, music, volleyball matches, helicopter rides, carnival rides.
People come to renew acquaintances, size up the exhibits, watch the parade, teach kids about tradition, responsibility and achievement.
John Kloosterboer of Madison, 64, has missed only two of the fairs during his lifetime. Why? “It’s like a family reunion,” he explains. “I see neighbors, high school classmates, family.” He calls brother Bob the unofficial mayor of Alto, and you’ll likely find them at work in the food tent.
The compact fairgrounds are next to the Kloosterboer farmhouse that is more than 150 years old and where some of the cooking for early fairs happened. Recipes for chili and Spanish hamburgers (sloppy joes) haven’t changed since then. Both were a good way to stretch ingredients, especially during post-Depression years.
Alto’s fair began as an alternative to Fond du Lac County Fair because two longstanding practices didn’t sit well with the unincorporated community’s deep, conservative Dutch roots: beer sales and activities on the Sabbath, their time for church and family.
“Ours is a dry fair,” says Bill Bruins, whose father was one of the original Alto fair’s board members. “If you introduce alcohol, the culture will change and never again be the same.”
Alto remains big enough for two churches, one Christian Reformed, the other Reformed (and in an 1898 building). The largest employer is Saputo Cheese; the fair’s grilled cheddar sandwiches are plentiful and popular.
The fair is autonomous: No county or state funds help pay premiums (each blue ribbon is worth $2 to $14, with one big exception). Local businesses sponsor entertainment and defray food costs. Proceeds from food sales cover much of the event expenses.
All 150 members of Alto Allstars and Brandon Tanagers (that’s like the songbird) are required to participate as fair entrants. Despite the area’s small population, around 75 animals are exhibited, and at least one-half dozen bankers bid at the livestock auction, spending around $50,000 per year.
“To be an achiever in 4-H, you have to complete your 4-H projects,” Bill says. “That’s such a valuable life lesson.”
Also expected is pie. Each fair has a different pie contest theme – pecan in 2016, blueberry in 2017 – and the sole blue-ribbon pie maker gets $100. The entries, pie donations from 4-H families and big rectangular sheets of pie from a nearby bakery sell for $3.50 per slice or square. That includes ice cream.
By this fair’s standards, it’s a high-end a la carte purchase, the same price as a pork chop sandwich.
Jade Bresser is on the 21-person board of volunteers – “farmers, teachers, beauticians, business owners, homemakers and more” – that coordinates the fair. A six-person team of food tent coordinators “has over 40 chairpersons, each in charge of a food area,” she says. “And each of those people calls volunteers to staff” fair work shifts. Other teams coordinate advertising to vendors.
That’s quite a contrast to the first fair, in 1947, one year after Jerry Sanders was born. He says it had little more than a merry-go-round and horse-pulling contest for entertainment.
Jerry refers to Alto as “a soft place in the world” and “a little town with deep roots.” He returned to live in the area after 40 years of teaching math at an Illinois high school whose student population was four times bigger than Alto’s entire township.
Before the invention of television, “everybody in Alto listened to WLS radio in Chicago – it was a country music station then and our window to the world,” Jerry recalls. Performers from the station’s Barn Dance, similar to a Grand Ole Opry show, eventually would bring their music and wholesome country humor to Alto’s fair.
“We knew each other as family, harvested crops together and could rely on each other,” he says, of his roots. “It’s still a community that works together.”
The 71st Alto 4-H and Farm Bureau Fair is Aug. 9-10, and the fairgrounds is off of Wisconsin 49 at County AS in Fond du Lac County, northwest of Waupun. Admission and parking are free.
The fair begins at 7:10 a.m. with a ham and egg breakfast ($6 for adults, $3 for children) and ends the next day with an 8 p.m. free concert by Anthem Lights, contemporary Christian musicians from Nashville. altofair.com