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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Ah, yes — those were the days.
Days that were sweltering hot in the summer, and along with the heat would come the Colfax Free Fair.
“My early recollections of the fair do not amount to a lot — but it was the highlight of the summer. Especially for the young people, as I remember it,” said Dr. David Frogner, who was born in Colfax in 1930.
Dr. Frogner has lived his entire life in the village except for when he was away at dental school and for a four-year period when he gave dairy farming a try.
This year’s Colfax Free Fair June 20 to June 23 marks the 100th birthday of the fair.
“My aunt and her two daughters would come to Colfax and stay for a week for the Colfax fair. That was routine. They did that every year. And we would visit them occasionally,” Dr. Frogner said.
“That was a big deal, the Colfax Free Fair. They gave away tractors and raffled off cars. It was a fun time of the year,” he recalled.
“A lot of the kids saved up money they earned so they could go to the fair … I can remember the big crowds it drew for the raffles and the local talent contests,” he said.
The Colfax Free Fair has been held, at various times throughout its 100 year history, in either June, July or August. When Dr. Frogner was a young boy growing up in Colfax, the fair was held in August.
And because the fair was later in the summer and the weather was hot, Dr. Frogner recalls swimming as an important activity around fair-time.
“I can remember the heat back in those days. August was really hot. I grew up in the 1930s. There were a lot of heat records that were broken, like in 1934. We didn’t have fans then or air conditioning. Sometimes it would be so hot in the evening, we’d go out and lay on the lawn where it was cooler,” Dr. Frogner said.
“We used to go swimming in Mirror Lake. And we had a lifeguard down there by the name of John Sumstad I can remember quite well. That was behind the Kiekhafer house. We’d go down through the yard. There was a nice sand beach there, and the water was pretty deep. Some of the braver ones would jump off the bridge or dive off. Some of the kids had rafts down there. Between the fair and swimming in the summer, it was really great for summer vacation,” he said.
For those who are not familiar with the history, a dam was located at the point where 18 Mile Creek now empties into the Red Cedar River. Instead of the 18 Mile Creek we see today, there was a lake extending east from the dam called Mirror Lake. Over the years, Mirror Lake silted in, and in the late 1990s, the dam was taken out, and 18 Mile Creek was restored.
One year when he was a youngster, Dr. Frogner worked at the lumberyard with his father and earned $27.
“That was quite an accumulation in those days, and to my astonishment, I blew it all in about three days at the fair. It was a lot of food and a lot of rides. It was a great time for kids,” he said.
“[Soda] pop and ice cream was probably a nickel at that time,” Dr. Frogner noted.
“A lot of the local businesses and local residents sold raffle tickets around in the different towns, and I guess they sold enough to pay for the prizes. Those were some pretty good prizes. Back in those years, I would imagine you could buy a new car for $600 or $700,” he said.
Although Dr. Frogner could not recall for certain how much the raffle tickets cost, he thought they were 25 cents.
At a quarter each, you would have to sell 2,400 to 2,800 raffle tickets to cover the cost of a new car.
“It was such a special time every year. We really looked forward to it,” Dr. Frogner said.
“They had a talent show, too. It was a regular feature for at least several years. We had quite a bit of local talent. Younger people and older people. That was fun, too, and drew a big crowd. We had a lot of laughs. It was a great time,” he said.
When the fair first started, “I would imagine they only had horse and buggies, so I was suppose it wasn’t quite as big a deal as it was in the early 30s when there were automobiles. People could come from a long ways. And being a free fair, that was a big draw, too. Free parking. Free admission,” Dr. Frogner noted.
Dr. Frogner remembers the Ferris Wheel and the Merry-go-round as some of the more popular rides at the fair.
“The rides weren’t as fancy as what they have now,” he said.
“Some of the bigger fairs had more rides. I don’t remember much about the rides, other than the Ferris Wheel and getting way up and seeing all over town. And the Merry-go-round. That was about it for excitement,” he said.
Dr. Frogner also recalls one year when several families of Gypsies came to town at fair time.
“I was in the shoe repair shop, and they came in there,” he said.
“They camped on 18 Mile Creek [east of town], and they were a curiosity … People drove out there just to see them, my folks included. There were several dozen of them. They were bathing in the creek. It was pretty hot out. That stays in my memory.
I was impressed by them,” Dr. Frogner said.
In the earlier days of the Colfax Free Fair, “there was no TV and the radio reception after 6 o’clock in the evening went down. It was just AM [radio] so we had to jump at chances for entertainment, like the fair,” Dr. Frogner said.
As for some of the games, “I remember taking a big maul and trying to hit the peg and ring a bell. I was kind on the low end of the score on that one,” he said with a laugh.
“And there was dart throwing and breaking balloons. The technology wasn’t there back then. They were simple games. They had one game where there were all kinds of toys in a glass cage and you had to try to pick them up with a claw. That was kind of a big deal. Oh, and trying to make a basket with a basketball,” Dr. Frogner recalled.
“I think it was as much about getting together [with friends and neighbors] as it was about the games and rides. Of course, you could blow a lot of money on it, anyway,” he said.
“That was back in the days when they didn’t have much for athletics for kids the way they do now. It was mainly swimming. It was good exercise and good fun. It was good swimming down here in Mirror Lake. Nice cool, clear water,” Dr. Frogner said.
“We used to swim at the dam, too, in the channel that went down to the powerhouse [on the Red Cedar River at what is now Felland Park]. We’d jump off the bridge. There was quite a lot of water in there. That was good swimming above the dam, too. No lifeguards or anything. I guess we were just lucky. I suppose I was 12 or 13. Something like that. Lots of kids used to swim there,” he said.
“I can remember the heat being so bad. We’d run across the bridge here in town [on Main Street], just barefooted. You couldn’t stop. You had to keep running [because] it was so hot. And we’d get across and then jump in the water. That was pretty good relief,” Dr. Frogner said.
“I was 11 years old when World War II started. I knew a lot of the guys that were drafted. And I knew several who didn’t make it. We were living right across from the depot. I can remember the troop trains going through with the big steam engine. They made a lot of noise. There were a lot of different sizes. Bigger ones and smaller ones. The bigger ones were up in the five thousands – 5002 and 5003,” Dr. Frogner said.
“A lot of trains went through with tanks and artillery. It was common. And then the troops going through and waving. That was an impressive part of my life. I was really interested in what was going on. I read the newspaper a lot, and much of the news came through in the news reels at the movies. They were about ten minutes long,” he said.
“I can remember when they picked [green] beans and sold them. A lot of guys would raise beans, and then they’d hire the kids to go pick them. Some were good pickers and some weren’t. That’s the way we earned a little pocket change. Cucumbers, too,” Dr. Frogner recalled.
“Now they don’t have those opportunities. Those were good times. Not many of the kids ever got into trouble, that I recall. Kids were outside playing all the time. Most of them stayed out of trouble. Kids would wander around town and play together. Maybe get into rock fights,” he said.
“We used to go fishing up to the dam. We used to get a hold of a big net and go down to the river and try to catch the suckers when they were running. There’d be four or five of us. One time we weren’t having a very good success rate. The suckers were swimming around the ends of the net. We had to get two landing nets and put one on each end to try to get the suckers as they were swimming around. I don’t think we got very many of them, even at that. But there was always something fun to do,” Dr. Frogner said.
“I can remember in the spring at the dam, they would raise the gates up so the water would come through underneath. And some of the gates were closed. There would be big suckers and carp trying to jump over. We were sitting up there and shooting them with a shotgun. The game laws weren’t too strict back then,” he said.
“In my growing up days, movies were the big entertainment. Seems to me there was four nights of movies a week [in Colfax]. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They had those short subjects, like Zorro, so you had to keep going to get a continuation of the story,” Dr. Frogner said.
Movies made a significant contribution to the economy in Colfax. In 1954, the publisher of the Colfax Messenger, Kenneth Reed, wrote an editorial strongly urging people to attend movies at the Audio Theater to help keep the movie theater in business. At that time, people were abandoning the movies in favor of staying home and watching television.
“They had a lot of good comedies on television. Times change, I guess, and you’ve got to go along with it. You have to roll with the times,” Dr. Frogner said, as he pulled his smartphone out of his pocket to show a picture he had taken.
The Colfax Free Fair starts Thursday, June 20.
A preview of the events at the 100th Colfax Free Fair is published in this edition of the Colfax Messenger.
Keep an eye out for the Colfax Free Fair ad on the back page of this edition as well.