Grassy Knoll or Grandstand?
Thursday, May 4th, the Polk County board subcommittee to deal with the county fairgrounds historic 1909 grandstand met to consider the future of the oldest wooden grandstand in the Midwest. The grand old building’s future is very uncertain, not because of its structural defects (which are unknown), but because of the dreams of competing interests.
Four visions of the future were presented during public comments and in the board member discussion. They are listed in order of speakers.
1. Russ Hanson, local historian, pressed for evaluation of what he said his research has found to be the oldest grandstand in the Midwest. He said we must find the cost of repair before making any decisions on its future. He urged repair if possible, as it is truly an historic building, one of a kind. “The historic fairgrounds are a gem in our county. The 1909 grandstand, the 1917 H barn, the 1928 calf barn and dormitory are just a few of the truly historic buildings on the 1885 fairgrounds that make it special and an attraction to tourists and local folks who remember their own childhood in each building. Destruction of these buildings would be short sighted and a terrible removal of our heritage without first determining the feasibility and cost to repair them.”
2. Dale Wood and Tim Wilson from the Polk County Fair Society Board stated they were in favor of getting rid of the grandstand, as it is “too old” to spend money on repairs or even an evaluation. They are eager for a brand new shiny, steel, aluminum and plastic grandstand replacement at about $600,000. They see the choice as an old building they are tired of bothering with versus a brand new one that would be maintenance free. (Actually, there would be a costly yearly contract for inspection and maintenance indefinitely to keep it usable and insurable.)
3. Two visions were presented by County Board Member Chris Nelson of Balsam Lake. First is destruction of the 1909 building with two options: decide on an immediate teardown without salvage, or a “humane teardown” with some salvage. Then, stating his opposition to either repair or replacement, and in general to any grandstand at all financed by county funds, gave two options he would support. A grassy knoll built on the spot where folks could bring chairs and blankets to watch the activities or the yearly rental of bleachers, and if pressed, the county might help buy some permanent bleachers. He stated that “others” on the board were also opposed spending any money on any grandstand old or new. The only important input into this kind of decision is saving taxpayer money.
4. Another board member, when asked of his vision of what a fair grandstand is gave a description exactly like the existing grandstand, a place of comfort, shelter, shade, out of sun, rain, wind and a place to comfortably watch events in all weather. He expressed no favor for old or new, but thought a grandstand was an important part of the fair.
My own view is that the Fair Society is naïve in thinking a new grandstand is a certainty without having first assured there is a two-thirds majority of the county board willing to pay for it. We, the residents and taxpayers of Polk County actually own the fairgrounds and buildings. The Fair Society and County Board are our voted on representatives to manage them for us.
I believe those who oppose determining the cost and feasibility of repair are motivated primarily by their dreams of shiny newness or cheap grassy knolls. It is quite possible the repair cost will be much less than the replacement option, but we won’t know if the first step is destruction and then seeing if there is support for a new one.
Will we come to the 2018 fair and see a pile of dirt with an historic marker “Grandstand 1909-1917, destroyed by the Polk County Fair Society and the Polk County Board”?
Five generations of Polk Countians and tourists have enjoyed watching shows from the oldest grandstand in the Midwest, and another 5 generations could do so if you express your support for evaluation and if reasonable, repair of the grand old structure. Remember these buildings belong to us, not the County board nor the Fair Society.
Early photo of the oldest grandstand in all of the Midwest courtesy of Polk County Again and the Polk County Historical Society.
April 2017 Photo of the Polk County Fair Grandstand. Will there be only a grassy knoll there in 2018? Photo by Russ Hanson
Russell B Hanson, Cushing, WI