Rain or shine, Waseca County was ready to come together and again to celebrate its biggest event of the year: the Waseca County Free Fair.
"It looked like people wanted to get out and about," Tucker Roeker, Waseca County Fair Board director-at-large said Monday, describing the atmosphere in the area before the fair started. He added that the fair board was told that other regional fairs and festivals in the weeks leading up to Waseca's fair had been very well attended, so the board was preparing for high attendance levels, which he believes was achieved.
"Overall, I think it went very well," Roeker said.
The 2020 Waseca County Free Fair was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though the fair began Wednesday under cloudy skies and light rain, with umbrellas and raincoats dotting the main strip as fairgoers purchased concessions and traveled between events in buildings, much of the severe weather predicted missed the fairgrounds. The following days provided for an iconic summer experience, allowing fairgoers to purchase the famous Waseca Fire Department onion rings, endure paintball matches and enjoy free entertainment sprinkled throughout the fairgrounds all week long.
"I think they're excited to have the fair back in town — a little normalcy after a year and a half," Roeker added.
The fair’s opening ceremony began at 4:30 p.m. as planned, though rain at that time forced the veterans giving the 21-gun salute to be stationed indoors on the perimeter of a building with a large opening, out of which they fired. Visitors faced the backs of the American Legion and VFW honor guard who participated in the ceremony.
Deb Wantoch-Yess, a recently retired music teacher who taught at Waseca High School for 38 years, sang the national anthem.
Respect for the vets was the reason Bessie Paulson and Carol Born of Waseca, two women with the VFW, gave for attending the fair’s opening ceremony every year.
“Because they gave a lot of themselves, so we can be here to support them,” Born said.
The Waseca High School Jazz Combo began playing just minutes after the opening ceremony concluded.
For Cory and Kristen Hackett of Waseca, who were in the audience while their son Jordan played drums, the combo is an opportunity for the broader community to see what their young musicians have been working on. Jordan, who is going to be a senior in the fall, they explained, has been playing drums since he was nine years old.
“This is all stuff they play through the school year,” Cory said.
In terms of why they attend the fair every year, though, the Hacketts cited the food, the beer garden and the bands. Cory had already gotten a soft pretzel and cheese curds. Kristen hadn’t gotten anything yet, but was planning to check out the Strawberries ‘N’ Creme stand after the combo finished its set.
Victor Feeley, 17, grew up in Waseca and lives right next to the fairgrounds. A Boy Scout and veteran 4-H’er who has parked cars for the fair, Feeley came to the 4-H building to watch his 8-year-old sister, Isabel Berg, perform in the 4-H Arts-In performance.
“4-H teaches you a lot,” he said. “Gets you ready for future life.”
Building confidence, making friends and organizational skills were just some of the reasons Feeley cited to explain the positive impact 4-H has had on him.
About the fair, which he attends every year, Feeley said he likes the atmosphere, and enjoys getting to meet new people.
“It’s a good family experience,” he said.
Jason Friesen, who runs the Waseca branch of the National Taekwondo Institute, sat underneath a large canvas roof in his red NTI uniform. In front of him were two cinder blocks, a thin plastic board balanced between them and a crowd of children clamoring for a turn to try breaking it.
Friesen has been advertising at the fair this way for six or seven years.
Anna Benson, who helps out at the lemonade stand her grandparents run at the fair, was one of these children. Though she goes to the fair every year, she said, she’d never done taekwondo before. The highlight for her is the rides.
Nevertheless, when Friesen set the plastic board in front of her, and instructed her how to break it — by placing one hand on the cinderblock and pretending to give someone a very low, hard low-five — her palm came down and the board split in two.
The Fair's main attraction Friday evening got underway with a watermelon precariously placed on a traffic cone in the middle of a mud slick. Moments later as engines erupted with a full-throated throttle and the packed stands let out a wail of excitement, the No. 15 car, emblazoned with a seafoam skull and crossbones in the shape of hammers, crashed into the fruit, making the young driver a little richer in the processes.
In the end, Austin DeGrood and his neon orange No. 03 car came out on top in the 19U portion of the derby to kick off an evening full of crashes, cheers and excitement.
James Grundy and Annandale Paintball entertained local youth all weekend long with their inflatable paintball course and family-friendly equipment. Their Low Impact paintball guns were much less powerful than the standard versions that used compressed carbon dioxide as propellant and their paintballs were filled with paint that does not stain clothes.
Waseca Fire Department
Undoubtedly one of the most trafficked stands on the fairgrounds continues to be the Waseca Fire Department with its traditional beer-battered onion rings. Firefighter Eric Cox said the booth has served as one of the main fundraisers for the fire relief association for as long as most people can remember.
"It's part of the fair draw," Cox said. "People expect us to be there and know to come here."
Each day of the fair, the onion rings raise on average more than $10,000 for the association. Cox said the money allows the department to purchase crucial safety equipment that city and affiliated townships cannot always afford due to a strict annual budget.
While the effort is important, Cox said that more than anything running the stand together is fun for the firefighters and their spouses or partners who commonly volunteer to run the stand, too.
"It's not an obligation, but it is a tradition," Cox said. "We're here because the community wants us here and that really adds fuel to our fire as to why we want to be here. We're all about helping and giving to people, even in terms of onion rings."
According to the firefighters, the department cooks on average 800-1,000 pounds of onions during the five days of the fair.
On the midway
The midway is a popular location on the Waseca County Fairgrounds for a number of reasons. Between the traditional carnival games to the exhilarating rides, there is something for everyone to be found inside the midway.
One of the reasons the midway is such a fun place to be, however, is because of the fairgoers themselves. According to Spider, a longtime veteran of carnivals, the Waseca County Free Fair is one of the ideal fairs to attend as a midway worker.
"This is a really good crowd," said Spider, who returned to the fairgrounds for the first time in 20 years to run the Bottle Bust carnival game. "We really like it here and love coming to Minnesota."
Having managed rides for many years, Spider said he enjoys running the games more because of the interaction he can have with the participants. Despite rumors that carnival games are rigged, he promises they are not.
"Every single one of these games can be won," Spider said with a smirk. "Especially mine — this one is easy. You just have to break bottles."
Years of planning are taking shape at Farmamerica, the state's agricultural interpretive center. On Thursday, Executive Director Jessica Rollins announced the public phrase of its capital campaign, Rooted and Growing.
Farmamerica has already raised more than half of the $850,000 it needs to complete renovations at the center just west of Waseca. With funds provided by a variety of associations and individuals, plans are to update the experience and allow the site to educate visitors about agriculture through sensory experiences, hands-on activities, educational programs and family events. The improvements are intended to allow Farmamerica to double the number of visitors to more than 20,000 each year.
"You can help us bring the next stage of this project to life. You can help us build the Agriculture Around You Discovery Center so it can be open to the public in 2022." said Rollins. "You can donate today so that thousands of visitors each year, young and old, can better understand the story of agriculture today and its possibilities for the future."
With plans to improve learning and interactivity, Farmamerica is working to ensure a more informed generation of guests. "This campaign is about moving forward as we make this experience accessible to more people and revitalize this hidden gem of a program." Farmamerica board member Jeanne Popp said.
With the funds raised to this point, renovations to the Farmamerica lobby are already underway and with a plan for the remainder of capital raised in this campaign to be used for the the installation of interactive displays and experiences, new engaging programs to connect people year-round with agriculture in their everyday lives, exhibits in the feed mill classroom and an inclusive playground on site.
Farmamerica board member Julie Tesch noted how exciting it was to see the traditional museum experience evolve into something more, "It's fun to see the progress as we create a much more interactive experience for visitors."
Rollins noted during the announcement, "Through extensive groundwork at the state capital, we will receive an additional $250,000 in 2022 from the state of Minnesota. So, thank you, to all Minnesota taxpayers, because we recognize this is your hard-earned money also helping Farmamerica move forward."
Farmamerica's goal is to connect people with the evolution of agriculture by being Minnesota’s center for agricultural interpretation. The organization has stated that as part of their mission they hope to educate people on how agriculture has shaped Minnesota and continues to be a driving factor in the economy that has a rich history.
"What a great improvement for the state of Minnesota and the agricultural center," said Farmamerica board member Dan Hoffman.
It's clear that the team at Farmamerica intends to continue to improve and create a welcoming environment for a new generation, allowing Minnesotans to know how the food purchased at a grocery store got there and who the men and women who produce it are.
"We hope to make sure we present modern agriculture to the consumers," said area farmer Scott Singlestad.
Added board member Vicky Singlestad, "We look forward to informing the public of where their food comes from. Farmamerica gives them answers to how local farms produce food and how our store shelves stay stocked."
"Let’s continue to rally together, to be proud of our Minnesota farmers and the thousands of workers whose jobs rely on them," said Rollins, "Now is the time to contribute to a cause that will help others personally connect with the importance of agriculture and excite them about the future of agriculture."
Farmamerica was established by the Minnesota legislature in 1978 to preserve, celebrate and promote the state’s rich connection to agriculture.
This August, alumni of the University of Minnesota-Waseca will have the opportunity to get together again at the first reunion in 11 years.
As Deanna Nelson, program director for the UMW Alumni Association, said, these reunions are a way for the alumni of a college that closed 29 years ago to see people they haven’t seen in many years.
Additionally, this year’s reunion will feature alumni, staff and faculty from specific areas in the college who have committed to the event, including a well-known chemistry professor, the former athletic director and representatives from a number of other departments.
“There should be somebody there for everybody to visit with,” Nelson said.
The reunion takes place between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7 at Farmamerica, 7367 360th Ave., Waseca.
“It’s a unique group of folks who remain passionate about agriculture,” Farmamerica Executive Director Jessica Rollins said. “We’re excited to host them at Farmamerica to show them our space and some of the upcoming changes we’ve planned during our ‘Rooted and Growing’ capital campaign.”
Highlights of the event include special awards, music by Jim Kozan of Waseca Music Co. during lunch in the large meeting room, and a UMW memorabilia exhibit. The exhibit will feature a display of old sports jerseys and trophies, as well as scrapbooks reflecting the activities and events of UMW and the Southern School of Agriculture (SSA), which became UMW in 1971.
There will also be a number of speakers, including Federal Correctional Institution Warden Starr and Anne Cummins, who is FCI’s director of public relations, who will present a program on what happened to the campus at UMW. The prison is on part of what used to be the college’s campus.
Others who have committed to speak at the reunion include UMW/SSA Alumni Association President Cindy Glamm, Brain Buhr, who is the dean of the University of Minnesota’s college of agriculture, Waseca Mayor Roy Srp and Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation President Tim Penny.
The reunion “will provide opportunities for some formal visiting along with informal,” Nelson said.
After the event adjourns, post-reunion gatherings will be held at 5 p.m. in Katie O’Leary’s Bar and Restaurant in Waseca.
Pre-registration for the event is open until July 23 and can be done online at bit.ly/36IH6q5, where the schedule is also written, or by mailing their entry fee to the UMW/SSA Alumni Association at 35838 120th St., Waseca. Pre-registration costs $15 per adult and $5 per child.
Guests can also register at the event for $10 per adult and $8 per child, though there is no meal included for those who register this way.