WEST ALLIS — The Horticulture, Craft & Culinary Pavilion offers a respite from the inane.
There are no 18-inch corn dogs with $13 price tags, deep-fried Snickers bars on a stick, Spam burgers or Thanksgiving Day burritos — warm flour tortilla shells filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing.
And unlike the nearby 200,000-square-foot Exhibition Center, it is sans hucksters pitching windows, siding, jewelry, cookware, Christmas ornaments, vacuum cleaners, sun glasses, furnaces, pillows and jerky in what had the feel of multiple infomercials running simultaneously as they competed for attention with a live “wrestling” match at the center’s Events Stage.
I kid you not. There were turnbuckles, body slams and forearm shivers, and this was just opening day.
So, after battling our way through the Zoo Interchange road construction project and paying $10 to park at Paulie’s Pub & Eatery on West Greenfield Avenue, one of the first stops after navigating the increased security at Gate 2 was the horticulture pavilion.
The 19,512-square-foot show space at Main Street and South Grandstand Boulevard offers visitors to the 165th Wisconsin State Fair, which runs through next weekend, a chance to cool off and slow down. This is where you can take in authentic sensory teasers that have been plucked from gardens or whipped up in kitchens from Superior to Beloit and Green Bay to Prairie du Chien.
We found tables full of colorful vegetables such as eggplant, garlic, cabbage, red potatoes and onions. There were display cases jammed with homemade breads and cakes, coolers filled with pies, smoothies and casseroles, and shelving lined with flowers, herbs and other plants grown within the state’s borders. Some had blue or red ribbons, others waited to be judged.
“These are perfectly trimmed. These are a little beat up,” said Barbara Carroll, as she judged sets of leeks. “I’m looking for cultural perfection. I’d say (overall vegetable entries) are improving in quality but reducing in quantity.”
Carroll, 64, has been judging at fairs for over 25 years, is the former education director of the Milwaukee Urban Garden program, worked for a number of years with UW-Extension and has a horticulture degree from UW-Madison.
A Thiensville native, Carroll was being assisted by Haleigh Gill, 21, of Milwaukee, who will return next month to Cardinal Stritch University to pursue a nursing degree. The pair carried clipboards, with Carroll plucking the vegetables from their Styrofoam containers and holding them up for a closer look and Gill recording the results.
In the case of kale, Carroll looked for evidence of insect damage. Potatoes needed to be uniform and cucumbers shapely, while Carroll wanted green peppers to shine and look healthy. Carroll does not taste. Instead she follows a book put out by UW-Extension that tells how to prepare vegetables for judging.
“You want it to be firm and clean. You want it to have few imperfections,” Carroll said of the entries. “If you were to go shopping at the grocery store, you’re going to pick out ones that look the prettiest and don’t have holes and major flaws. That’s basically what I’m looking for.”
Carroll, who will judge all three vegetable shows at the State Fair, has already judged at the Racine County Fair and has stints at the Dodge County Fair later this week and the Sheboygan County Fair next month. She also expects the workload to increase in the years to come as younger judges are not replacing at the same pace those who retire from the vegetable judging business.
“I’m getting calls from counties I’ve never heard from before,” Carroll said. “It’s getting hard for them to find judges.”
When the State Fair was founded in 1851, it was designed to highlight the latest farm machinery and to show off the best animals, produce and art projects from around the state. Through 1885, different cities took turns hosting the fair, including Madison in 1858, 1860, 1867, 1868, 1878 and 1879. A Milwaukee fairground was the site from 1886 to 1891, but West Allis has been the fair’s permanent home since 1892.
And in an effort to attract visitors, more and more popular entertainment was added to the fair over the years, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
That trend continues, which is why there are sea lion shows, carnival barkers trying to lure passers-by into a tent touting a 200-pound python and 7-foot alligator and, this Wednesday, Anson Williams, Donny Most and Henry Winkler headlining the Main Stage. The actors will talk about their roles as Potsi, Ralph and The Fonz on the Milwaukee-based 1970s sitcom, “Happy Days.”
But the fair is still clinging to its historical roots with dozens of classic competitions throughout its 11-day run.
They include photography, sewing, knitting and quilting. Others bring flavored bacon, sausage, cheese, ham and ring bologna. This year’s grand champion in whole muscle jerky came from the Eden Meat Market, while the best chili pepper Muenster cheese was made by Randy Pitman at Mill Creek Cheese in Arena.
Back in the horticulture building, Bill Meyer was judging dahlias, bushy, tuberous, herbaceous perennial plants native to Mexico but popular in Wisconsin. Milwaukee is home to the Dahlia Society of Wisconsin, while the Badger State Dahlia Society is based in Madison. Both are branches of the American Dahlia Society.
Charles Craig grows about 350 dahlias each year on part of his three acres in Fitchburg and was on hand to help with the dahlia judging at the State Fair on Thursday. The event had about 145 entries, but when the dahlia show comes to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison on Aug. 20 there will likely be close to 400 entries.
“What’s special about a dahlia is looking at the plethora of colors in your garden,” said Craig, who opens his garden at 5335 Whalen Road to the public on Sundays during September. “The judges are looking for uniformity. They’re looking for color, they’re looking for good growth ... something that’s vital and has produced a good bloom.”
And while we hauled a six-pack of cream puffs back to Madison and gorged ourselves in the Wisconsin Products Pavilion with Cedar Crest ice cream, 75-cent cider donuts from the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association and grilled double cheeseburgers from the Wisconsin Cattleman’s Association, a walk through the barns was also part of the trip.
Somehow I missed colleague George Hesselberg, who was camped out Thursday near the Clydesdales but I found Geneva Nunes, 17, in one of the dairy barns frantically putting the finishing touches on Behnke, her 3-year-old black-and-white Holstein that was about to be shown in the nearby coliseum.
Geneva, whose parents, Matt and Mandy Nunes, operate Scientific Holsteins, was missing captains practices for her Chippewa Falls High School cross country team but has been showing at the fair since age 5.
“It’s been a passion every year after that,” said Geneva, who will be a senior this fall. “Cows are like really big dogs so you get to spend a lot of time with your pet. It also feels really good when you win and all your hard work pays off.”