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October Fall Festival brings hundreds to Winnebago County Fairgrounds

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All across Winnebago County and the Upper Midwest, crops are being harvested from farm fields with grains being hauled to elevators.

That’s why the October Fall Festival of the Winnebago County ISU Extension and Outreach was started 13 years ago.

It still provides families a fun break from their hard work, even if all attendees are not enduring the strains of the busy harvest season.

The growing festival returned at the Winnebago County Fairgrounds in Thompson after a one-year COVID-19 hiatus in 2020. The parking lot was full of cars and the grounds were bustling with a wide range of activities for families and children. Aside from the late date, one might think it was fair time.

Hesse Family Petting Zoo provided a large mix of farm and exotic animals for attendees to enjoy. Animals included miniature horses and Llama, sheep, pigs, goats, rabbits, and a large shaggy dog, which was so friendly that it was popular with both kids and adults.

In addition to small horses for petting, there were horses for kids to ride and two large, black draft horses (Percherons) hitched to a wagon for rides around the fairgrounds.

“I’ve been involved with this, in this capacity, since it started the first year in 2007,” said driver Eugene Jacobson as he prepared to depart with another cart full of riders. “The Percheron on the right is 8 years old and the on the left is 18. He’s been here a lot of times and knows the lay of the land well. I grew up here outside of Thompson, but I’m from Kiester, Minnesota.”

Winnebago County Extension Director Ashley Throne estimated that as many as 20 sponsors plus even more volunteers, including 4-H leaders and kids, made the free family fun event possible.

“It takes a lot of people to run it and pull it off,” Throne said. “We really rely on club leaders and 4-H kids. Extension council and staff worked on getting everything ready all week and we were still putting on the final touches on Sunday. We usually have at least 200 or 300 people and we had an especially good turnout this year. The weather was great, we received a lot of compliments, and all of the work stations were busy the whole time.”

Those interactive stations included at least eight different fall and Halloween-related educational crafts for kids and parents. Manning one of the craft stations was MaKenna Hanson of Lake Mills, who was a first-year summer assistant with the Extension office this past summer. She said she was volunteering her time to help the children create scary masks out of paper plates, colored construction paper, and “googly eyes.”

“MaKenna came back and helped us out,” Throne said. “She is currently going to NIACC and lives in Lake Mills and so she was able to do it. We are thankful for the help of all our volunteers.”

More crafts

Other craft lessons this year, which Throne said are rotated annually, included color weaving, beaded corn, handprint leaf towels, pumpkin sun catchers, and turkey magnets.

Gus Marmaras was helping a group of children learn how to safely use a bow and arrow and teaching tricks of the archery trade. Gus and wife Betsy Marmaras have been shooting sports instructors for a decade and are Winnebago County 4-H Shooting Sports volunteers at the Fall Festival.

“We’re sharing how to use a bow and arrow (and hit a target), which is the archery part of shooting sports," Betsy Marmaras said. "We meet with kids on Sunday evenings during the summer, from May to September. All instructors are certified and there is a real focus on safety with strict rules and guidelines that we have to follow when practicing. We don’t get into the other part of it today, which is trapshooting.”

Sebastian Sahr, son of Chance and Paige Sahr of Buffalo Center, was being carted out of the back of a Forest City ambulance on stretcher to learn what emergency responders do to treat people during a medical crisis. Paige said it was her family’s first time at the festival and the “kids like it.”

“We’re showing them instruments, the rig, and cot,” Lee Dutcher of the Forest City Ambulance Service said. “We try to do this as much as we can to get the word out that we’re here for everyone. It’s good publicity that can help save lives.”

The Iowa State University Cyclones mascot, Cy the Cardinal, was on hand for this year’s festivities as in previous years. He is a traditional favorite of children and adults.

Extension board member Julie Hagenson said sponsorships, plus Extension Outreach funds, make the free event possible.

“We have a lot of volunteers donating things from tractors to horse rides,” Hagenson said. “The kids love the horse rides, tractor rides, and inflatables, and we always have different crafts. They just seem to really like all of it.”

One example was young Gage Greenfield of Lake Mills, who was being helped with a string craft item by his father Bob Greenfield while his mother, county 4-H volunteer Allison Greenfield, was manning another craft table nearby with her 4-H daughter in the 4-H building.

Jolene Hauge, 2, of Titonka was fishing for a toy in a wade pool filled with corn kernels and prizes instead of water. She is the daughter of J.R. and Marissa Hauge.

“We love it,” Marissa said. “I grew up in Thompson, but this is the first year we have brought her here. She likes the horses the best.”

A futuristic virtual reality learning experience was a new addition to the festival this year. In a fairgrounds exhibit building, Iowa State University Flex 2 Go Artemis provided participants the opportunity to slip on a perception IVR headset to experience being in a “non-physical world,” according to Throne. Participants were so immersed that they were seemingly not at all districted the noisy traffic of nearby inflatables.

Throne, who has been with Winnebago County ISU Extension since June 2016, said the fall festival has been a much anticipated event every year.

“About 13 years ago, it was started as an opportunity to help when families were busy with harvest and needed something fun for the whole family to come out and enjoy," she said.

Rob Hillesland is community editor for the Summit-Tribune. He can be reached at 641-421-0534, or by email at


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