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Heart and Soul of the Dodge County Fair

by Kay Stellpflug

When Cannon Smith pulled into her driveway one summer day, Sharon Keil wasn’t even there to be surprised or honored. Her husband was in the pasture moving cattle and wondered why a big black bus was in the front of their house. With GPS guiding them to Sharon’s home, they had to find their way to the fairgrounds, her second home, to meet her.

The Dodge County Fairgrounds have been Sharon Keil’s second home since 1978 when she joined the board of directors. “My husband’s grandfather was one of 400 stockholders who formed The Dodge County Fair Association in a State of Wisconsin Corporation in 1887. The corporation has a nine-member board of directors who volunteer their time to plan and conduct the annual Dodge County Fair,” said Keil.

“The first several years, I participated in monthly meetings and helped in the fair office. All entries were hand-written and all accounting was done by hand. The contracts with entertainers were simple (three to five pages) with few requests like a deli tray or some soda or water. Things have changed. Now the contracts can be 25 to 30 pages and spell out all the requirements in detail, like what color M&M’s they want.”

That early involvement was the beginning of a long and wonderful commitment by a woman who had a job, a young family, and other responsibilities. Once the fair got in her blood, she was hooked.

“Most people think the Dodge County Fair is owned and operated by Dodge County. It is not. It is owned and operated by a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization with Sharon Keil as the heart, soul, and brains of the organization, assisted by the organization president, Doug Ninmann, and seven other volunteer board members,” said Steve Hannan, a long-time board member.

There is much that goes on behind the scenes all year long to bring this event to life, and much of it falls onto the secretary of the fair board. “My duties have included working with the board to maintain the upkeep of the fairgrounds, keeping the calendar of all the events that are on the grounds, making out the contract for outside groups using the grounds, paying the bills as necessary, and sending out annual meeting notices. I work with the other board members to put on and run the annual fair. We secure entertainment with contracts and see that the commercial space contracts have been paid for. The entries need to be processed and entry tags printed and the judges have to be hired. We hire a crew for maintenance and work with the Sheriff’s office for security, and we are in contact with the county EMS and fire departments to see that there is someone from these departments on grounds at all times.”

The list continues with restroom maintenance and cleaning and removing manure from the barns. All of this has to be planned well in advance of those days in August when the festivities are in full swing.

In the early years, the acts were booked at the State Association of Fairs Convention in Milwaukee in January of each year. In 1984, the board went with Jayson Promotions to get ‘Big Name’ entertainers and along with that came bigger contracts and more demands. By 1986, Sharon was asked to become secretary/treasurer of the organization and accepted.

Within a couple of years, she asked her good friend Mary Hanefeld to share some of the duties. Having a co-secretary/treasurer seemed more manageable with a young family and a job. At that time, they were still tabulating results and writing checks by hand and handing them out on the Sunday of the fair. A lot has changed since then, including the use of computers.

“We ask local people through radio and online surveys what they might like to see at the fair next year. Many of the suggested entertainers are out of our budget. We have a range of $100,000 to $140,000 for four nights of entertainment. Some bigger names get that much for one show,” Keil said. “This year we will be doing three nights of big name entertainment.”

Since the budget is based on the revenue for events and fair admission, weather plays an important part in the success of each year’s events.

Keil remembers, “It was August, 1990, and we had Conway Twitty in the grandstand. The entertainers put on two shows a night at that time. Conway was facing west and saw the sky getting blacker and blacker and finished his show in a hurry. The people in the grandstand never saw it coming. It rained about an inch and a half in a half hour. Needless to say, there was no second show and people started demanding their money back.

“Cars were stuck in the parking lot, grounds crews were pushing them out, and to make matters worse, we lost the whole next day, too! That is when we began to stress that the admission was for the fair, not the grandstand show.”

Sharon’s daughter, Karen Gibson, had this to say about her mom: “My sister, brother, and I were in grade school and middle school when she was first elected to the Fair Board. We have seen the hard work and dedication she has put into the fair and we are very proud of her. I don’t think there is a question about the fair she can’t answer. She has shown us that no matter how busy she is in the fair office, when it comes to her children or grandchildren showing their steers, she is always there watching. She has been able to balance family time and fair time.”

The County Fair means different things to different people. For some, the fair offers an opportunity to take the children to see all the animals and go on the rides. For others, it is all about the arts, crafts, and cream puffs. Businesses and organizations get a chance to show off their business, products, and philosophies. Still others may think of the fair as volunteering at the Rotary Booth selling hamburgers, brats, and sharing the experience with friends. There is something for everyone. Food, fun, and festivities coming together for the entire county is Americana at its best.

To Sharon Keil, the fair means a lot of work, but all of it is worth it! “I am having a hard time backing away from it. To me, the fair means a place to show everyone what Dodge County is made of. Animals, crops, produce, crafts, machinery, food, and other commercial venues, along with the entertainment that is second to none. The other most important thing to me is the friendship and camaraderie that is formed with everyone involved in the fair. I am proud to be a part of this.”

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