How did the Viola Horse and Colt Show get started?
By Henry (Hank) Simmons
In 1931 the Viola Horse & Colt show was conceived by two local men with great interest in promoting horses and agricultural education. They were S.A. (Spar) Simmons who owned the Simmons Farm north of Viola and bred Purebred Percheron horses and Mr. Harrison Eckley, a long time instructor of agriculture at Viola High School.
The object of the show was to get the colts sired by the two beautiful stallions owned by Mr. Simmons in front of the public for advertising purposes and to give students in agriculture an opportunity to judge both a class of colts and adult horses in preparation for judging at the state judging contest in Madison.
The first show was held at the old fair grounds one mile east of Viola where the park and campground is today. They invited Professor James Fuller who was the animal husbandry instructor in charge of the horse breeding program at the University of Wisconsin to come and give a short talk on horse breeding and to judge the different classes of horse and colts. There were exactly fifteen suckling shown so it wasn’t a difficult job. The prizes were a free service by one of Mr. Simmons’s horses for first prize and $5.00 for second prIze.
The following year the Gillingham horse association, which was a group of farmer’s that owned a Belgian stallion, was invited to the Horse & Colt show. There was considerably more interest that year. The founders of the show were so enthused by the additional interest: that they decided to move the show into Viola the following year.
Since those were the early days of 4-H and FFA, Mr. Eckley worked toward giving his students an opportunity to show the public the results of their summers effort on their various projects.
As more horsemen and business people in Viola became interested it wasn’t too hard to solicit merchandise to give as prizes and a horse pulling contest was added, as well as the junior exhibits. As the show was always held on the Saturday after the Vernon County Fair, it wasn’t long until concessions moved in to make their last stop of the season. And thus the world’s largest thing of it’s kind was on its, way!
A Home Town Fair with a Past…
The first venture of the “Horse and Colt Show” was undertaken in 1930, only a few years after the was discontinued, sponsored by a few farmers and the Agriculture Department of the high school, with H.M. Eckley (Eck) as their leader. At first it was called “Colt Show” and only a judging contest was held in the old livery barn, but soon was joined by the businessmen of Viola and became an annual event growing larger each year. The crowds have grown until it is not unusual for the attendance to be from four to five thousand. It has as many attractions as a fair, art exhibits, fancy work and canning, horse pulling contests, concession stands, judging contests, a parade …and ends with a dance … which is usually too crowded to dance. Hundreds attend to greet old neighbors and enjoy a day in the old home town, where many were born and raised. Many come who are not natives of Viola.
From “The Memorable Kickapoo Valley” by Grace Hocking p.74 Available at: Viola Public Library
Photos and Research Material provided by Viola Public Library
Show Cancelled For The First Time – 2016
In 2016, the show was canceled for the first time in its entire history. Several days of hard rain in the area caused the mighty Kickapoo River to go over its banks and flood most of venue areas. Water levels were receding late in the week of the show and much consideration was given to trying to put on at least part of the show. In the end, the mess made by the flood waters was just too great for enough of the venue areas to be made safe and usable. With great sadness the committee was forced to cancel the show. The annual raffle drawing was done late on Saturday evening however.
History repeats itself in 2018
As unbelievable as it may sound, history repeated itself in 2018. The 2018 show was also canceled due to flooding. Torrential rain fall in late August and again in early September inundated the entire Kickapoo River valley. On August 28, the National Weather Service reported a crest of 23.72 feet at the Hwy 131 bridge in Viola. Flood stage is 14 feet. The entire downtown area of Viola was heavily flooded with water reaching as far as the old high school building. Several buildings were lost. The horse arena was apparently wiped off the map entirely by one report. Numerous buildings were heavily damaged…several were lost entirely. Thankfully, no injuries were reported. Even though the show was still almost 3 weeks away, there was just no way to recover from the devastation that quickly, so the show was canceled.