“To the late William Rahr - former mayor and public benefactor, whose energy and indomitable spirit of progressiveness contributed more to the success of the Manitowoc County Fair than any other individual.” That’s the dedication line of the Souvenir Edition of the Manitowoc County Fair Diamond Jubilee in 1935. It wasn’t an exaggeration. While Rahr could not plan, organize, and staff a county fair on his own, he certainly is responsible for reinventing a declining event.
The Manitowoc County Fair began in the fall of 1859. It was first held at Washington Park and was sponsored by the newly formed Manitowoc County Agricultural Society. As the fair outgrew the park’s limits the county festivities were moved to “Northwestern Hill” (known today as the area around Washington, Marshall, 21st and 22nd streets in Manitowoc). The hill got its name because the only home located on the hill was owned by Carl H. Schmidt, publisher of the Manitowoc German newspaper the Nordwestern. The fair was held on the hill until 1874.
Soon the three day fair moved to Clarks Mills – the geographic center of the county. Rules included no games of chance, gambling, or intoxicating beverages. In 1884 the fair again moved to the city of Manitowoc on North 18th Street. By 1905 interest in the fair was declining and talks of discontinuing the fair spread throughout the county.
It is at this point that William Rahr stepped in to resurrect the fair. Rahr (a former mayor and malting and beer manufacturer) personally purchased stocks from the Industrial Association, which ran the fair for 20 years before, and paid holders two or three times the $25 value of the shares. Rahr also made one large change to the fair rules – he allowed the sale of beer. He spent over $70,000 on fair improvements – including redoing the track and rebuilding the grand stand.
Rahr’s work paid off. Over 4,000 people attended the opening day (Thursday) in 1906. Friday proved to be an even better turn out – attendance was estimated at 12,000 individuals. One reason for the burst in attendance was making Friday children’s day. Schools were closed and even businesses throughout the county closed for the afternoon.
The county fair continued under Rahr’s leadership until 1911. No fair was held that year because in Rahr’s absence no one stood up to take charge of the event.
The fair resumed in 1912 with a committee of citizens eager to bring the festivities back to the county. The 1912 fair program includes a letter from the committee saying “An abiding faith that Manitowoc County as one of the leading Agricultural Counties of the State will support a County Fair, has prompted the committee of ten in charge of the fair to undertake its management and the public is asked to show its loyalty and patriotism.”
To those who continue to share their time and talents with the community by taking part in the county fair – thank you. You have over 150 years of tradition behind you and William Rahr would be proud to see that the fair is still an event that people look forward to.