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Old Whitewater Had A Fair and Fairgrounds That Rivaled Elkhorn

Portion of an 1858 plat map for Whitewater showing the “Fairgrounds.”

The Walworth County Fair is an institution that dates back to the early 1850s and is, today, one of the best county fairs in the Midwest. Located in Elkhorn, the 99-acre fairgrounds include many animal and exhibition buildings along with a grandstand. Its run on Labor Day weekend draws fairgoers from southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois who experience one of the best in rural traditions—the County Fair.

Few people know that Whitewater also had a fairground and operated a fair in the 1850s. Seen on old maps the fairground was soon lost to history. By 1885, the fairground’s horse-racing track can barely be seen at its location at the north end of George Street, between Fremont and Jefferson Streets. Today, the relatively new East Starin Road cuts through some of the old fairgrounds land.

The short-lived Whitewater fair was the work of the Farmers & Mechanics Club, founded in 1855. In the fall of that year, the club held their first fair. The 1850s were booming economic times for both farmers and townspeople, and in 1857, the Farmers & Mechanics Club was incorporated. In the summer of that year the club purchased the fairground site at the end of George Street, and began improving the site for the fall fair. The club members built a fence, an exhibition house, and graded a horse track.

On an 1858 map of the city of Whitewater, the fairground looks well landscaped and laid out, but according to the Early Annals of Whitewater, it might not have been so attractive. An 1857 entry in the “Annals” states that “a bee, with the inducement of a picnic dinner, was made for the purpose of clearing the grounds, but although there was a good attendance, little was done, for they proved much more successful in clearing the tables than in clearing the grounds.”

While the fair at Whitewater was short-lived, in 1858, there was much activity at the fairgrounds. Events included a 4th of July community dinner held there and a horse show on July 10. The Annals reported that in 1858, “the Farmers and Mechanics Club held a very successful fair in September and was supposed to be in good condition to prosper for many years, but these hopes were not realized.” Like many local fairs in the mid-1850s, the Whitewater fair ended almost as soon as it began. A financial panic (financial depression) in 1857 may have hurt the fortunes of the Farmers and Mechanics Club members and the fair being held in Elkhorn at that time had financial support from the city and a county-wide agricultural association. The Annals, which records local history until 1867, does not mention another fair. Neither is a local fair reported in the Whitewater newspaper. Rather, by 1859, the newspaper editor was promoting the county fair in Elkhorn.

By 1873, the fairgrounds track was primarily used for recreational horse and carriage riding. The 1873 city of Whitewater plat in that year’s county atlas notes that the horse track is still there and is marked as a “trotting course.” But, on the 1891 city of Whitewater plat map in the county atlas, nothing can be seen of the old fairgrounds.

*If using this article, please cite, Carol Lohry Cartwright, “Old Whitewater Had a Fair and Fairgrounds that Rivaled Elkhorn,” 2015, Whitewater Historical Society website, Whitewater, WI.

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