It's a State Fair sampler!

Illustration by Johnny Sampson



Cream puffs


Available at two pavilions inside the fairgrounds and a drive-through at Gate Six; drive-through orders must be placed 24 hours in advance and picked up between 6 and 8 a.m. (call 414-266-7111 for more info)


$4 each; 3-pack, $10; 6-pack, $20

Some three dozen cream puffs are consumed every minute at the fair. That’s about 2,160 per hour. The 340-calorie treats have been a staple since 1924 and the recipe, originally created by Cramer’s Bakery, has barely changed since. But for anyone who has ever wondered why puffs sold outside the fair don’t taste quite the same, it’s because the Wisconsin Bakers Association keeps the exact mass production formula a closely guarded secret.

The cream puff kitchen – complete with five massive ovens and sugar-sprinkling machine – operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the fair. A staff of some 200 rotates over three shifts, making the puffs and manning the cash registers.

A monster 125.6-pounder filled with 15.5 gallons of cream landed in the 2011 edition of Guinness World Records but, sadly, never made it into anyone’s mouth.



Culinary experimentation


Fairgoers can sample smaller portions of fair fare on Aug. 8, Crazy Grazin’ Day; Sporkies are judged on Aug. 9, starting at 11 a.m.


Crazy Grazin’ Day samples range from $1 to $7.

It’s not often you see a Bloody Mary Burger or a Deep Fried Ol’ Fashioned. But every year the fair’s culinary creations get crazier.

Professional chefs start cooking up ideas months in advance, perfecting off-the-wall dishes that can be mass-produced for sale at the fair.

For many, it’s the opportunity to win a coveted Golden Spork – Wisconsin’s culinary equivalent of an Oscar – and the chance to showcase some extraordinary combinations of food groups that motivates them.

Saz’s Hospitality Group has presented several spectacular dishes since the awards began in 2013, including last year’s Fairgoers’ Fave winner – Klement’s Famous Racing Sausages Corn Dog.

“We start brainstorming in January, thinking about unique things that we can cook on a large scale,” says Kristal Kaiser, Saz’s marketing director. The company’s concessions sold 2,000 deep-fried bread pudding bites on a stick for $6 apiece last year. The sugar-coated treats – weighing in at 716 calories each – have been on Saz’s regular menus ever since.





On view in the barns on the west side of the fair grounds; visit to find out when specific animals are exhibited or judged


No additional charge

For many people, the fair’s livestock displays are its biggest draw, and its junior dairy show is the country’s largest. Last year, the event attracted more than 500 young exhibitors, many of whom are 4-H members learning about animal science. Prizes include scholarships, meaning that getting up at the crack of dawn to milk a cow or feed pigs could help pay college tuition.

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Q: Why do the sheep wear coats?

A: Sheep aren’t known to be great followers of fashion. But lambie jammies – protective pajamas – are all the rage in the livestock pens as animals await their turn in the ring. Sheep are especially messy eaters and often top off lunch with a good old roll in the hay, so the coats help keep them clean and keep pesky flies at bay.

Q: After raising an animal, isn’t it hard to see it auctioned off?

A: Farming isn’t for the faint-hearted – something young exhibitors learn early on when prize-winning animals are herded off to auction and ultimately the slaughterhouse.

“You have to learn to say goodbye,” says Rebecca Starkenburg, 21. “But it is hard, especially if they have personalities.”

The 2017 Fairest of the Fairs winner, Starkenburg is a roving ambassador for all Wisconsin shows this summer and is constantly quizzed about emotional farewells.

“It’s probably the number-one question,” she says. “Farmers don’t look at livestock as pets – animals have a purpose, as does everything on a farm. When I was younger, I learned not to get too attached.”

Starkenburg, who grew up on a four-acre farm in DeForest, near Madison, has been exhibiting her own sheep since she was a 9-year-old 4-H member. And even though she is now studying agriculture at South Dakota State University, she still maintains a herd of 10.



The Equinox


SpinCity, near Gate 7


$5; GoRide Wristbands start at $35

The fair’s second-tallest ride (after the 155-foot WonderWheel traveling Ferris wheel) is also, unsurprisingly, one of its scariest. Like a three-armed monster, the Equinox sends riders spinning – quite literally – 75 feet above the ground.

Located in SpinCity, a brightly-colored area of carnival rides and games of chance dominating the fair’s northern border, the Equinox is one of 50 rides at the fair this year. Thrill seekers shouldn’t have trouble finding it – they can just follow the dizzy, delighted screams.



Retro Futura


Main Stage, Aug. 3, 7 p.m.


Tickets start at $25

Singer Howard Jones got a taste of Milwaukee at last year’s Summerfest and couldn’t get wait to get back. “It was just amazing. I was blown away,” he says.

The synth wizard is making good on his promise to return, and he is bringing a slew of his New Wave compatriots with him when he headlines the 1980s pop extravaganza Retro Futura, alongside Paul Young, the English Beat, Men Without Hats and Modern English.

He’s already planning his dive into the fair’s food – but don’t expect to see him hovering near the barbecue stands. “I like the char-grilled corn on the cob, and cream puffs sound good,” the longtime vegetarian says.

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Jones, now 62, enjoyed a string of mega hits – including “No One Is To Blame” and “Things Can Only Get Better” – in his native Britain before setting his sights on America at the end of the 1980s. Now in the midst of a 28-date U.S. tour with other ’80s acts, he bristles at the notion of nostalgia. “I can’t really think of it as a revival, as I have been doing it the whole time. I have never stopped,” he says.

Ask the father of three for his proudest career moment and he doesn’t hesitate. “It’s got to be 1985’s Live Aid. It was the biggest audience you could ever play – there were a billion people watching. That was a bit special,” he says. “I played with David Bowie and Paul McCartney. I met Princess Diana and Prince Charles. It was so great to be a part of that.”


At the first Wisconsin State Fair in 1851, a 200-pound squash was the star attraction.


Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the fair in 1859.


The fair set a new attendance record in 2014, when more than a million people visited.


Roughly half of all fair visitors live in the metro Milwaukee area.


The Milwaukee Mile, a racing circuit on the fairgrounds, is the oldest continuously operated race track in the world.


For folks who live nearby, the fair offers an opportunity to make some extra cash.

Retired electrician Jack Oleskow knows he will never get rich renting out eight parking spaces on his West Allis front yard. But he loves the block-party atmosphere.

“I do it for the fun and the social life,” he says. “Depending on the weather, I can $400 to $1,500, but I spend a ton of money on watering and replacing damaged grass, and [on] fertilizer, afterwards.”

Accidents do happen, Oleskow says. “Someone backed into a tree once and an older lady took her wing mirror off. I just shook my head. I don’t get involved in parking vehicles, I just direct.”

Oleskow, 66, became the neighborhood hero earlier this year when he paid $1,220 for custom curbs all along South 85th Street.

“It was a case of putting my money where my mouth was,” he says. “And it was worth it. It’s like a party here during the fair.

“I joke that people have to bring me a cream puff back. And, sure enough, they do.”

Illustrations by Johnny Sampson

‘State Fair Sampler!’ appears in the August 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 31, or buy a copy at

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