Wisconsin author Jerry Apps has written about many different areas of agriculture during his lifetime.
His latest book, “Meet Me on the Midway, A History of Wisconsin Fairs,” published this summer by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, looks at how different aspects of state and county fairs — the agriculture and the entertainment — have brought together different facets of society.
Q: How did you decide to write “Meet Me on the Midway?”
A: I have written rather extensively about Wisconsin rural history, including the history of one-room schoolhouses and the history of farming. Somehow I had not gotten to (writing about) this icon, the county and state fair. It was high time I got at that. I had a lot of experience from the time I was a kid until I was a fair judge and county extension agent. I knew quite a bit about fairs to start with, but I did not know about the early history, how they got started and where they got started. Fairs go back to 500 BC for instance. It just seems appropriate that I wrote a bit about the history of the fair.
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Q: Do you still enjoy going to fairs?
A: I’m 88 years old. I’m not doing much traveling these days. But when I was working for UW-Extension I went to the state fair and several county fairs each year.
Q: In addition to animals and rides, much of the fair revolves around food? Do you have a favorite fair fare?
A: When I started going to the fair back in 1946, I had, like, 25 cents to spend. I really didn’t have a favorite food because I couldn’t afford to buy any. One of the years … we had purchased an Army surplus tent in Wautoma (to stay overnight) at the Waushara County Fair. We all went downtown to eat supper. Supper was 50 cents.
Q: In the book you talk about being a judge at the fair, which to me sounds like it would be a very stressful position, but you did it for more than a decade. What did you enjoy about it?
A: I did it for 10 or 15 years. The judging at the fair is one of the important educational dimensions as you go back historically. My father had exhibited his cattle at the Waushara County Fair in the 1920s. Why did he do that? (Because) farmers were always interested in improving. At the fair they could see what excellence was, what they might work toward. That’s exactly what he was doing. This was a chance for friends from all over the county to get together and see what one had something a little better than another one. The competition at the fair, the judging, continues to be important.
Q: Were you ever worried about hurting someone’s feelings during the judging?
A: You better not worry about that or you’ll never be a judge. I judged hogs and beef cattle, I judged photography and I was a garden judge. I was a vegetable judge, and when I was judging cabbage, I would turn it over to see if a price was marked, because if there was a price (you knew it wasn’t homegrown). I don’t think (parents) realized that Johnny had gone to the grocery store and bought a head of cabbage.
Q: Why did you feel it was important to highlight each county fair?
A: First off, I thought I might include two or three or four or five counties as examples of fair history. Once I got into it, I decided it was better to write about every one of them. Now, I was faced with … where can I find this information? The first place I started was to write the extension office in these various counties. That was a good source. Then I wrote to the fair board, some of the counties had all kinds of fantastic historical information. I went to local historical societies, which saved the day. I had spoken to a number of historical societies over the past several years.
Q: Throughout the book you have stories from people who’ve participated in different county fairs throughout Wisconsin. How did you find people who had participated maybe decades before?
A: I still write a weekly column for the Wisconsin State Farmer. I sent out a plea for anybody who had a story about their experience with the fair to get in touch with me. I got like 50 people. That’s not especially unusual for the way that I write. I like stories. To me, stories make history come alive. So many people found their spouses at the fairs. And they were so open about it. They sent me more details than I wanted.
Q: How many books have you written? What else are you working on now?
A: I really don’t know, it’s 50 some (books). I’ve written 12 novels. I’m doing a series of novels for young readers. I’m just now working on the third one. All of these novels deal with rural issues that I’m not comfortable writing about in a nonfiction way. I’ve got my character dealing with issues of land use and food safety. I taught creative writing for 42 years. I would tell my students “don’t get caught preaching” (in your writing), so I created a preacher (in my novels) to do it. I have written more poetry than I should fess up to, but I sneak it in my novels. I’m working on three different books right now. I published my first book in 1970. My goal is to write a book when I’m 90, and I have one scheduled to come out in 2024.
Q: What else should people know about “Meet Me on the Midway”?
A: Throughout the book I’ve tried to emphasize the need for rural and urban America to come to understand each other. It’s easy to look down on or take for granted all of what agriculture is about. (But) agriculture is essential to our future. I’m trying, through the fair book, as I’ve been trying with 20 to 30 other books, to make that point.