Wells County Fair
Right now in Fessenden, the annual Wells County Fair is underway. This fair, however, is not just any fair. Today and the rest of this weekend, Wells County is celebrating the event’s 100th birthday, a landmark only four other county fairs in North Dakota have been able to celebrate.
To celebrate, the fair will host performances by country music stars Ty England, Ricochet and Highway 101. Yet, most of the fair’s activities are seeped in 100 year-old tradition.
The first Wells County Fair was held in August 1907. The Wells County Free Press boasted of the good times to be expected: “The fair will be a place to see what your neighbors are doing, to meet your friends, to enjoy the sights, to forget your troubles, to make life worth living.” Indeed, the fair had much to live up to if it was to make life worth living, but in a time when work and church governed the lives of the North Dakota homesteaders, the fair was a major social highlight.
The primary attraction at the fair was the horse races. In 1929, Betty Critchfield remembers the excitement of the races:
“There was plenty to watch at the races, the trotters walking around in their dusters, with eyeholes bound in red braid and the drivers of the sulkies looking over their two-wheeled carts and limbering up their horses. … Just before the races, it always seemed like some bewildered old farmer would drive his wagon onto the track about the time the heat was to start. Everyone in the stands would start shouting and laughing at him.”
Then, the horses would be off, said Critchfield and the crowd would stand and yell for the horses. “One rider, Harold Jakle, had to climb up on his horse and grab the bit after one line of the reins broke,” said Critchfield. “That brought the whole crowd to its feet again, roaring and shouting.”
But, the fair was about more than horse races and other attractions; the fair was about community. The fair was only discontinued four of the past 100 years. During the Great Depression, the fair implemented a free gate admission policy to ensure everyone could still attend the fair. That policy still defines the fair today, and it is mostly funded by business sponsors and individual donations.
In its earlier years, the fair was even a place to join couples in matrimony. According to author Louis N. Hafermehl, “Before the fair, newspapers publicized the intent to cap off an evening’s entertainment by conducting a public wedding in front of the grandstand. Interested couples were invited to submit their names for a drawing. The chosen lucky couple, whose identity was closely guarded prior to the event, then entered the holy bonds of matrimony in front of several thousand strangers—and presumably surprised friends and family members—in what can perhaps best be described as a public elopement.”
The Wells County Fair Board isn’t promising any surprise weddings at its 100th Anniversary, but it is promising its biggest and best fair yet, with big-name concerts, chariot races, demolition derbies, and of course, those traditional agricultural and home-making exhibits.
By Tessa Sandstrom
“The County Fair at Fessenden begins a week from Monday,” Wells County Free Press. July 26, 1907: 1.
Hafermehl, Louis N. “The Wells County Fairgrounds: ‘The Fair that Made Good.”