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More than 130 years of ag heritage will be celebrated this week as the Antelope County Fair kicks off in Neligh. Its struggle during the late 1890s and 1920s are rarely discussed but remain a testament to the county’s dedication toward agriculture.
Now housed on the east edge of town along Highway 275, the first four Antelope County Fairs were on Hans Schutt’s farm located two miles north of Neligh.
According to Emanuel Wolfe, who ran the mercantile store Wolf & Co., the first Antelope County Fair was in 1883. It remained on Schutt’s property until 1886 when the agriculture association purchased 26 acres from Lyman Bailiey for $900, moving it to Riverside Park.
To help with moving expenses and grading the dirt horse track, the association sold stocks and were ready for the fair in the fall of 1887. Only 60 percent of the premiums were paid out that year as the association struggled with expenses.
Despite the financial struggle, attendance records were shattered with the move to Riverside Park along the Elkhorn River. The times were starting to get tough and became worse quickly as a drought struck the area, leading to a halt to the fair.
“There was not thought of a fair or anything else, only to figure how in thunder everybody was going to live through until another crop could be raised,” according to Wolfe.
History books show the Antelope County Fair took a nearly 20-year hiatus from 1894 to 1913; however, that conflicts with documentation showing the Antelope County Fair cutest baby contest from 1896 when Phoebe Rorabaugh won and Olive Suter was second. Death records confirm their births as 1895, putting in question when the fair actually stopped due to the drought.
It was during the fair’s hiatus, the ag association sold the land in Riverside Park to the City of Neligh with the stipulation that the City take over the mortgage.
But residents wanted a fair back in Antelope County and elected fair officers in 1911 with L.G. Babock serving as president. It would take three more years before a fair would return to Antelope County. Once the state legislature passed a bill making it a law for tax assistance with fair associations, residents worked to reinstate the fair.
Memberships were sold for $2 each, according to the book History of Antelope County, and in September 1914, the Antelope County Fair continued and has been an annual event ever since. Three years after the fair’s continuation, the association built the pavilion and gave it to the park in lieu of rent for 10 years.
In the 1918 fair book, the association proclaimed itself as having the highest premiums of all county fairs in the state.
“The the meeting of the Board of Directors this last fall, the amount of the premiums offered on all livestock was more than doubled, and at this time, there is not a county fair in the state of Nebraska which offers a larger premium on livestock than our own Antelope County Fair,” the greeting stated.
It went on to say that the purpose of the fair was to increase and encouraged more purebred livestock and grains.
“If our association can, but its influence in urging that pure seed be sown, help our farmers to raise two kernels of wheat where they have heretofore only raised one, it has done a patriotic service as well as helping our own farmers. Let us all pull together for Antelope County and the good old U.S.A.,” the greeting stated.
By 1919, the association began looking at additional tracts of land near the pavilion and sent two people to contact W.H. VanPatter about purchasing 22 acres that adjoined the park on the east, according to the History of Antelope County.
“The idea was to move buildings other than the pavilion to the extra ground where there would be space available for pens and crowds. The grandstand and tract were used as before,” it stated.
The 1919 fair had the largest in its history. Admissions were used to pay premiums and other expenses. Records show the balance on Sept. 12, 1919, was $59.19 while on Dec. 30, 1919, it was $137.85. In 1920, the fair had a huge carnival, including a ferris wheel at the midway.
The ag association continued selling memberships, raising the price to $10 and by 1925 sold a record 100 memberships.
The fair continued to grow the addition of 4-H Clubs in 1927. During that time, the fair had carnivals, afternoon concerts by school bands, horse races, hot air balloon rides and trotting races. Beauty contests were added in 1928 and baseball in 1931 when the American Legion team was organized.
The association continued to work toward improving the fair and adding different entertainment as the years passed. In 1953, the fair’s entertainment included a “Tournament of Thrills” featuring Ford cars performing tricks, including driving on two wheels. Frank Morrison served as president of the fair and Sol Greenamyre as vice president.
While the Antelope County Fair is now in its 103rd year annual, but the legacy of the fair actually dates back to 1883 when residents first worked together to celebrate the agriculture accomplishments of their neighbors.