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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Mark Johnson has been alive for about half of the Colfax Free Fairs.
Johnson’s family’s business, Ray’s Metal Works, has been around for half of the Colfax Free Fairs, too.
This year’s Colfax Free Fair June 20 to June 23 marks the 100th time the free fair has taken place in Colfax.
“The earliest I can remember of the fair was being out there with my mom. She sat in the Ray’s Metal Works booth, and she would schmooze with whoever would ask questions about furnaces,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s mother, Marlene, always sat in the Ray’s Metal Works booth in the commercial building during the fair, and if nothing else, she had “the tin man” to keep her company.
Johnson’s father, Ray, was a member of the American Legion Post 131 and had other duties associated with the fair.
Marlene Johnson passed away January 27, 2017, and Ray Johnson passed away September 2, 2017.
“Being part of the Legion and Legion Auxiliary, and being a business owner in town, they had the advanced sale tickets for the rides. In the afternoon, I’d be down on the playground equipment with the other kids, playing. And maybe every two or three hours I would beg for a ride ticket and go on a ride,” Johnson recalled.
“I don’t remember how much they were, maybe fifty cents back then, but the Holden fair stand would have fudgesicles. So if I was good and played on the playground equipment and stayed out of trouble and was within eyesight of Mom, looking out the window at the corner booth in the commercial building, I could get a ride ticket and money for a fudgesicle,” he said.
“I also remember getting rhubarb-custard pie at the Holden food stand,” Johnson said.
By the time he can remember being at the Colfax fair, Johnson’s siblings were otherwise occupied.
Johnson’s brother, Mike, was in Jim Falls working on their aunt and uncle’s farm every summer, and his brother, Craig, was already working for Ray’s Metal Works, while his sister, Pam, was probably babysitting.
“That was her spending money for the fair, or she was babysitting so the parents could be at the fair,” Johnson said.
“My dad, being in the Legion, was always in charge of closing up the commercial building at night. And then being one of the licensed bartenders for the picnic license from the village, he was also one of the self-appointed closers of the beer tent. Back then, sometimes he wouldn’t get home until three or four o’clock in the morning,” Johnson said.
Among his memories of the Colfax Free Fair, Johnson recalls being a carnival worker one year, too.
Statements from the U.S. Social Security Administration show that in 1978, $1 was put into the Social Security fund in Johnson’s name.
“Apparently that was the year I got a job with the carnival working as a carny for the four days of the fair,” he said.
“They had ‘help wanted’ signs put up on their games. So several of the town kids got jobs. I worked the game booth with all the dishes and glassware, and you flipped dimes, and if it landed on a cup or a plate, that’s what you won,” he explained.
“My siblings and parents thought I could handle the job, but they quizzed me on how to make change. ‘How many dimes in a dollar?’ ‘Ten.’ That was back in the day when Saturday night was the biggest night. At a young age, it seemed to me like there were a million people there,” Johnson said.
Johnson remembers other “town kids” who worked at the fair that year as well.
“I remember the Gunderson twins, Trevor and Kyle, I think they both got jobs. One worked the balloon game where you throw darts at the balloons. I don’t remember if it was Trevor or Kyle, but he had blisters on his fingers from tying all of those balloons,” he said.
The Gunderson twins were three years younger than Johnson.
“I have no idea what I did with the money I earned,” he said.
Working the carnival game “was the one and only time I was a carnival worker. The only other time I had a job working at the fair was between the commercial building and the old Holden stand, when there was a lot more room between the two buildings than there is today,” Johnson said.
“There was a guy from Menomonie who had converted an old van into a popcorn wagon. He made out like a bandit, popping popcorn before the free-act shows on the stage, because he was right there. It was he and his wife who ran it. Some years they had a camper trailer and stayed right there,” he said.
“The year he needed help, his wife was there but she wasn’t able to help out. Somehow my dad talked him into letting me help out. My dad seemed to think it might be a good college fund side business, to buy the wagon and the business from the guy. That never happened. But maybe that’s where I get my popcorn popping experience for the Commercial Club!” Johnson said.
The Colfax Commercial Club, of which Johnson is the president, provides concessions for movies, concerts and other events in the auditorium of the Colfax Municipal Building.
“Otherwise, I had the same experience as everyone else. Once you graduated from high school, you’d go back to the fair, and it would be like a mini class reunion,” Johnson said.
“I can remember friends and classmates who showed cattle, hanging out in the barns with them. Of course, since my dad was in charge of the beer tent closing up, my parents were always in the beer tent with the other Legionnaires. Sometimes it would take fifteen or twenty minutes, even as a little kid, weaving your way through the crowds, trying to find your parents, but as long as I checked in once an hour or so, I was good to go,” he said.
“When I moved away [from Colfax], then it was always waiting for the Messenger to arrive to see the pictures, to see who was on the carnival rides and the animal auctions and animal judging,” Johnson said.
“Since both of my grandparents lived on University Avenue, just up from the footbridge, I remember mowing lawn or weeding garden or whatever my grandmothers could come up with that they would be willing to pay any of their grandchildren so they’d have spending money for the fair,” Johnson said.
“There was one year my mom’s sister, Etta, who was considering opening up a restaurant, wanted to get her feet wet in food service — actually there were two different times — when she and my mom did a sub sandwich, and they rented a trailer set up with the side windows, and there was another year when my aunt had a mini-donut stand,” he said.
“I guess I’ve worked the carnival more than I thought I remembered,” Johnson noted.
“The free carnival acts on the stage, back in the day, it was different era, but maybe it was easier to get entertainment, then, too,” Johnson said.
“That was Julian Logslett’s job to line up the entertainment and to be the announcer. That was back when the commercial building had just about every booth doing a signup or a drawing for something, and then they would all line up on the stage, I think on Sunday afternoon. It seems to me years ago, the carnival went until 9 or 10 o’clock on a Sunday night,” he said.
Johnson also remembers Morgan Music with organists playing carnival music, and the Culligan Water Softener display.
“It had the big spigot and water flowing down in the bucket, and it seemed like magic, and all of the kids grabbing at it and realizing, ‘oh, the tube is in the middle.’ Water was pouring down over it, but it looked like magic,” he said.
“Back in the early to mid-70s, the excitement was to ride your bike out to the fairgrounds the Monday before, or the weekend before the fair to see if any of the rides had shown up yet. I don’t remember watching so much — of seeing them set up, but that’s probably because I went from there to my grandmother’s to see what needed to be done so I could get a couple of bucks for the fair,” Johnson said.
“I remember getting to my Grandma Johnson before my cousin, Terry, got to her, and I got the lawn mowed before he got a chance to get to it. My Grandma Johnson worked in the Holden stand, and my Grandma Olson was in the nursing home guild, so she worked at that stand. Dad was in the beer tent [with the Legion], and Mom was in the commercial building [with Ray’s Metal Works],” he said.
“I can remember walking out to the fairgrounds or riding my bike, and how many cars were there, even in the middle of the day,” Johnson said.
“Once they started parking on Railroad Avenue, between the railroad tracks and the road, probably by Saturday, eight or nine o’clock on Saturday night at the fair, they were probably all the way out to Main Street. And across the footbridge, it was probably full all the way up to University,” he said.
Lodge No. 50
In addition to his memories of the Colfax Free Fair, there is another piece of history that links Johnson to the Colfax Fairgrounds.
Before there was a Colfax Free Fair, there was the Independent Scandinavian Workingman’s Association.
The I.S.W.A., which later became the Scandinavian American Fraternity, owned the area now known as the Colfax Fairgrounds.
The I.S.W.A. was a community self-insurance group, and beginning in 1910, the park was known as the I.S.W.A. Park.
According to an article in the Colfax Messenger, in June of 1910, the I.S.W.A. Park was dedicated with a big celebration that included 300 people who came to Colfax from Eau Claire by train.
The Colfax Free Fair began in 1919, and in 1924, members of the Nordland Lodge voted to make the park a gift to the Village of Colfax.
In Johnson’s possession are two ribbons that would have been worn by officials in the I.S.W.A. and the S.A.F. One ribbon is for a “marshal” and the other is for a “financial secretary.”
“Those were things my dad got when they divided up his mother’s estate. My dad’s parents, Jasper Johnson, bought his mother’s estate. That was in the house with her belongings. So my dad got it. I thought they were neat, so I asked if I could have them and put them in the shadow box they are in,” Johnson said.
Johnson does not know for sure if his great-grandparents were associated with the I.S.W.A. or the S.A.F but suspects that they probably were.
“I assume they were from my great-grandfather Hans Johnson,” he said.
Johnson says his great-grandfather used to own the land north of the fairgrounds between 18 Mile Creek and University Avenue.
“I think my great-grandmother had to sell the land to pay the property taxes,” he said.
The 100th Colfax Free Fair June 20 to June 23 will feature a variety of new entertainment on the free stage as well as fireworks both Thursday and Friday nights.
In addition, carnival wristbands will be $10 this year.
The beer garden at the fair also will feature a “stein-hoisting contest” at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. First place will receive $50; second place will receive $10; and third place will receive $5.
The fair will, as well, have the traditional carnival rides, games, animal judging, arts and crafts projects, food vendors, non-denominational church service on Sunday, chicken dinner on Sunday and the FFA Alumni animal auction.
For more information about the 100th Colfax Free Fair, look for the Colfax Free Fair ad in this edition of the Colfax Messenger.