Historic day for historic structures

CJ Warson · Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Saturday, July 8, 2017, was a historic day as people came down to the Muscatine County Fairgrounds to witness three different ribbon cuttings.

The renovations include the Exposition Hall, now called the Ryan Building, the entrance gate at the north end of the fairgrounds and the restrooms next to Heritage Hall.

Bill Koellner, a member of the fair board, gave a speech explaining the history of the grounds and the buildings being presented.

“Today, we are here to cut the ribbon to a restored historic structure, a new fairgrounds entry structure and a new restroom,” Koellner said.

Koellner went on to explain the different parts of the fair, starting with the Grove, where entertainment has been shown from the 1910s to the present.

Starting on Dec. 15, 2015, the West Liberty Fairgrounds Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This has provided us access to funding from grant funds in Iowa,” Koellner said. “The West Liberty Fairgrounds has good integrity, reflecting a combination of historic buildings with newer buildings constructed to sustain the use of the property as the county fairgrounds.”

Even with some of the buildings on the grounds being new, the fairgrounds still shows history in its land.

“While the fairgrounds has evolved as historic landscape with a number of new buildings constructed and some older buildings demolished, the fairgrounds retain a large number of historic buildings that reflect the historic fair,” Koellner said.

It was in June of 2014 that the fair board began to raise money for restoration of the fairgrounds’ historic buildings.

Members of the fair board worked with the Kent Corporation for restoration of the 1918, three-tier hip roof, swine pavilion.

In the spring of 2015, construction was completed and the newly renovated pavilion was open for business at the 2015 County Fair.

Other projects that were completed include the reroofed Kiddie Barnyard and X-barn, which was renovated using similar materials to the Swine Pavilion.

The main focus of the ribbon cutting was the newly named “Ryan Building”, formerly called Exposition Hall.

“The buildings on the north end of the grounds have historically, and are currently, devoted to exhibits,” Koellner said. “The main Exposition Hall, now to be called the Ryan Building, was built in 1915 and continues to be the building that attracts the most attention.”

The second area that had a ribbon cutting was the front gate on the north end of the fairgrounds.

“The main entry to the Muscatine County Fairgrounds, complete with its 1927 brick columns and ticket office, provides a historic flavor upon immediate arrival to the fairgrounds,” Koellner said. “Since 1927, vehicles and equipment have changed in size, and the Lehman Family funded a beautiful change to the north gate entrance.”

With the entrance, the fair board teamed up with Ken Wright Welding and Fabrication in the designing and construction of the arched aluminum entry sign.

The sign was funded by the Lehman Family and fairgoers can see the sign as they pass under it to enter the fairgrounds.

The final area to be presented was the new restrooms and showers on the south side of the grounds.

“A new ADA restroom and shower facilities was needed,” Koellner said. “This is a wonderful addition to the southern area of the fairgrounds.”

Located just south of Heritage Hall, the restrooms and showers make a nice addition to the grounds for people that live there during fair week.

These are just three projects that are complete, but there are still more to come as the fair board continues to find the funding to fix up other structures on the grounds.

“The amphitheater has been initially examined by a structural engineer, and the fair board will have to fundraise for this project,” Koellner explained. “At this time, we do not have an estimate for this restoration project.”

As far as the projects that were completed in time for the 2017 County Fair, the Muscatine County Fair Board was very appreciative of all who donated to the restoration project.

To Tom Lehman, whose family gave a donation for the main entrance, it was the right time for these buildings to be restored.

“It’s nice to get these buildings restored,” Lehman said. “They were starting to get really sad. They’ve been there a long time.”

Fair board member Lisa Wertzbaugher was in charge of the money management, but also knew some of the history of the grounds and its buildings.

The board still has a lot of work to do with the other historic buildings on the grounds as they aren’t even halfway to having all the buildings restored.

“Out of the 37 structures, there were somewhere around 20 to 25 that were considered historically significant,” Wertzbaugher said. “At this point we probably got about 40 percent of them done.”

Even though this was a project that took four years, she was impressed that it didn’t take any longer.

“This project has been probably the most productive volunteer project I’ve ever been a part of,” Wertzbaugher said. “There has been more accomplished in four years than probably most of us could get done in ten.”

The historic structures that the board plans to fix up weren’t all here when the fair had been moved to its current location. The fair started in 1852, north of West Liberty, but then in 1875 was moved.

“So nothing has been here since 1875, but the way that a building is considered historically significant is if it was in that period before 1964,” Wertzbaugher said. “The federal looks at anything over 50 years old.”

Having all these structures means the Muscatine County Fairgrounds has something that other county fairgrounds don’t have.

“This fairgrounds has more historic structures remaining than any other fairgrounds in the state,” Wertzbaugher said.

Now with these historic buildings being restored, they must be taken care of so they will continue to stand for years to come and the board has a plan

“Every year when we look at projects, we look at preservation projects rehabilitating the older structures,” Wertzbaugher said. “But also as show numbers increase, patronage goes up, and exhibit numbers increase, part of our plan includes reconstruction as well.

Sometimes it makes more sense to construct a new facility versus redoing an old one.”
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