Fair History in Rock County

Did you know that Janesville was the site of the very first Wisconsin State Fair on October 1-2, 1851? It was held on the banks of the Rock River and sponsored by the newly-formed State Agricultural Society. There were 461 total entries with a profit of $85.45. Popular features include a 200-pound squash and a quarter-acre plowing match.

(Click photograph to enlarge text)

The fairgrounds contained 6 acres and about 10,000 people attended. The fair was held just east of Upper Courthouse Park, now a residential area in the Courthouse Hill Historic District.

You can read more about it at Hedberg Public Library.
Our Local History Database contains many references
to the Wisconsin State Fair in Janesville here.
Or, email a Reference Librarian referencedesk@hedbergpubliclibrary.org or call us during open hours at 608-758-6581.


Civil War Rallies in Janesville

Civil War Rallies in Janesville

What do we know about this photo from Hedberg Public Library's Gruver Collection?

We believe that it is likely to have been taken on April 25, 1861. The Civil War had broken out on April 12, 1861 when Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter off South Carolina. Fort Sumter
surrendered on April 14, 1861, and on the following day, President Abraham Lincoln called out the state militias. On April 17th, Governor Randall urged Wisconsin men to "join him in making common cause against a common enemy" by enrolling themselves into military companies.

Janesville did not hold back. The largest gathering of people ever convened in Janesville up to that time (History of Rock County, 1879) assembled at the Hyatt House Hall in downtown Janesville on the evening of April 20, 1861 to "take into consideration what could be done in the way of raising men and money to defend the flag of our country."

A few days later, on April 25, 1861, another large group gathered in downtown Janesville. The Janesville Gazette described the scene: "During the forenoon people poured into the city from the country. Not less than five thousand of the hardy yeomanry of Rock county were in attendance. The stores on Main and Milwaukee streets were tastefully beautified by almost innumerable flags of all sizes--some hung out of windows and others from ropes stretched across the street. There was a deep feeling manifested by all present. The excitement was intense and manifested itself in loud applause at the utterance of every patriotic sentiment in the meeting. The fine weather and the gay banners produced an animated scene well calculated to incite patriotic emotions."

Continuing, the Janesville Gazette reported that "the volunteer company of this city, commanded by Capt. Ely, marched to the Haytt House Hall [located on the northwest corner of W. Milwaukee and N. Franklin streets, this building burned down in 1867] at about 2 o'clock, followed by an immense multitude of people who soon filled the hall. The hall at the Hyatt House proving insufficient for the accommodation of the immense crowd, an impromptu meeting was held on the public square. Judge Armstrong of this city spoke with thrilling effect upon the duty of sacrificing all feelings of party, and uniting as one man for the defense of the country."

Horrified by the"acts and plunders of the southern robbers and traitors of the self-styled 'Confederate States of America,' the group organized itself into The Rock County Union and Relief Society to "enroll, organize into companies and drill such men in this county as are willing to enter into active service as volunteers, and to raise funds for the support and relief of such volunteers and their families."

We suspect that the uniforms worn by the soldiers in this photograph were their state militia uniforms, since it seems too early in the war for them to have been issued Union uniforms.

"The square was alive with the right spirit," according to the newspaper--"women standing there encouraging the speakers by waving their handkerchiefs." The paper concluded by
stating that these rallies were worthy of "old Rock [County]" and show "that the spirit of 1776
animates the people, as effectually as it did in the days of the American revolution."

Another Civil War rally is said to have taken place in Janesville on July 27, 1862, but we are still seeking confirmation of that date and details about its events.