Holstein Stoughton
A young FFA exhibitor shows off a Holstein during the Beef Open show Friday morning at the Stoughton Fair in Dane County. This year’s tag line is “Humble & Kind,” a nod to the late Ben Chadwick, the 16-year-old who died en route to last year’s fair. (Photo by Christina Lorey)

The Stoughton Fair showcased the best parts of belonging to a fair family when the animal Ben Chadwick was going to show went up on the auction block without him.

Independence Day weekend is supposed to be about fairs, food, and fun. At this time last year, a southern Wisconsin family was instead planning a funeral. Shortly afterward, the response from their hometown showed how a fair can also be part of an extended family.

The Chadwicks, a farm family of five from Marshall, learned that 16-year-old Ben had died in a car crash on his way to the Stoughton Fairgrounds less than 48 hours before he was scheduled to show his steer, something he had been working toward all year.

A photo of Ben Chadwick is part of the display by a friend at this year’s Stoughton Fair. (Photo by Christina Lorey)

One year later, Stoughton Fair President Chris Quam remembers Ben as extraordinarily smart, funny, and someone he’ll never forget.

“He’d go to softball games and be that kid who cheered for everyone,” Quam told me, as we walked through the fairgrounds. “Everyone who knew him liked him. There’s no way you couldn’t.”

Last year, after Ben’s sudden death, his brother and sister, grieving but wanting to fulfill his yearlong goal, went ahead with the sale of Ben’s steer. The beef tent was packed with people and emotion—not a dry eye or an empty seat in the house.

Steers raised by junior exhibitors like Ben usually sell for around $1 per pound. Ben’s went for $14. Then, out of generosity, the winner put the animal  back up for re-auction, selling for another $9 per pound.

The profits, along with the money raised through GoFundMe, totaled more than $80,000 and paid for Ben’s unexpected funeral, a forthcoming scholarship, and improvements to the Fair’s beef barn, where this year a memorial plaque has been added. 

Donations made after Bed Chadwick’s death helped provide improvements at the fairgrounds in Stoughton. (Photo by Christina Lorey)

“It’s pretty special to see that for the family,” Quam said. “He was just a great kid. You can only hope Ben’s legacy will go on.”

Ben’s siblings have aged out of showing livestock, but both frequently visit the beef barn to show support. Raising some animals is a multi-year process; this year, one of Ben’s close friends is showing one of his animals.

“Another real close friend of Ben has a large picture in their display to remember him,” Quam explained. “Our beef department also put together a Beef Open show that will carry his name and slogan, ‘Humble & Kind.’ They’re selling shirts that will raise money for future improvements.”

In its 96th year, the Stoughton Fair is one of the oldest summer festivals in Wisconsin. Like fairs across the state, the not-for-profit event is a place where 4-H, FFA, FHA, Scouts, senior citizens, and adults compete and learn valuable life skills like good sportsmanship, responsibility, leadership, and community involvement. Simply put: it’s the olympics of ‘Small Town USA.’

“Our fair food is also a hit,” Quam said. “From cheese curds to baked potatoes to pork chops on a stick. Our soft-serve ice cream is also a must-try food.”

Never been? I ended the conversation asking what first-timers should see at any Wisconsin fair. Quam was quick to answer.

“The barns full of young adults with smiles on their faces, enjoying their time with friends and family,” he said.

People like Ben—and the family and friends in the Stoughton Fair community who will never forget him.