This Wisconsin family has gone to every day of the State Fair for 16 years

Amy Schwabe
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Stacy and Aaron Bieniek, and their 15-year-old son James, have been going to the Wisconsin State Fair every year, every day, for 16 years.

Well, at least that long.

When a tradition is so ingrained in a family's life, it's easy to forget how it even started.

"I definitely remember going there every day when I was pregnant with James," Stacy said. "We lived in West Allis, it was close by and, the way we do it, it was like an inexpensive way to have a vacation."

The Bienieks walk around the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Stacy (center), Aaron (left) and their teenage son James, 15, all from Hales Corners, have gone to the fair every day, every year for at least the past 15 years.

The Bienieks talked a bit more, trying to remember how the original idea came about, and Stacy mentioned how James started working at the fair last year, in the kitchen at Major Goolsby's.

That thought made Stacy remember that she worked at the fair too, at the Double K Ranch, back when she and Aaron were dating.

"Yeah, he would hang out there all day waiting for me while I was working," said Stacy. "He would sit and people watch. Maybe that's how the idea got started."

That led to a discussion of people-watching opportunities at the fair, and Stacy said that her parents have often joined them at the fair for a few days. "My dad has always loved people watching. I even remember him doing that at the fair when I was a kid," she said. "Maybe that's how it got started."

How it works to go to the fair every day

Regardless of how it started, it's their tradition now. Every day, during the run of the fair, Stacy sets out an envelope for each family member labeled with the date. Inside is the family member's admission ticket and $20. Stacy, Aaron and James use their $20 to do whatever activity, buy whatever food or purchase whatever souvenir, calls out to them that day.

The Bienieks, who now live in Hales Corners, get there early enough that they can park on the street and avoid parking fees. They enter the fair with whatever admission deal is promoted that day — with their cans of food to donate, or James' summer reading program coupon, or the free ticket James gets for working at the fair.

They get inside the fair, grab a directory of daily activities, find a place to sit and map out their days.

The Bienieks eat breakfast at Major Goolsby's at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Stacy (far right), Aaron Bieniek (second right) and their teenage son, James, 15, all from Hales Corners, have gone to the fair every day, every year for at least the past 15 years. They were with Stacy's father, Tom Kasprzak (far left) of West Allis.

This year's mapping happened at Major Goolsby's, at what Stacy says is the best breakfast at the fair. The Double McCohen — described on the menu as "4 eggs, twice the ham, topped with twice the cheese, served on a toasted bagel, with a side of breakfast potatoes" — sells for $11. They buy two of those and two sides of bacon. James and Aaron split one of them, and Stacy and her dad, Tom Kasprzak, split the other.

"We do this breakfast a few times every year," Aaron said. "But not every day," Stacy added. "Because, if we did, we wouldn't have room for any of the other food."

James Bieniek, who usually goes to the State Fair with his family every day, digs into a cream puff at a previous fair.

And what kind of food do they get? Cream puffs? "Yeah, we do get one every year," James said. "I actually prefer the cookies you can get in the cream puff pavilion. They're giant and they're only $3."

James added that the best way to get one of those cookies or cream puffs if the pavilion is crowded is to go to the outside window of the pavilion. "That's also the best way to get a baked potato when it's crowded," he said.

That kind of insider information is one reason James loves going to the fair every year. "I love meeting up with all my friends when they come to the fair," James said. "And it's cool because I can kind of be their guide because I know where everything is and all the fun things to do."

More than just a taste of the fair

Without a doubt, a State Fair visit is a beloved summer tradition for many Wisconsin families, but it's also true that for most of those families, it's really no more than a taste of the fair.

"When you come to the fair every day for 11 days, you really get the chance to enjoy it," James said. "You don't have to rush through things. You can, like, pick one day to do the pig races and the next day to do the expo center."

One year, the Bienieks decided to do a scavenger hunt throughout the fair that was sponsored by Sprecher. They found everything on their list and won the hunt, along with dinner at a restaurant and an overnight stay at a hotel. Of course, they won because they know where everything is. But, also because they had the time to do the hunt. "Most people wouldn't take the few hours to do a scavenger hunt because they're only there for a day and that would take a big chunk out of it," Stacy said. "But, we're there every day, so that was our big activity that day."

Stacy and Aaron Bieniek pose for a State Fair photo op.

Another time, when some of the Bienieks' friends hung around with them for a few hours, they suggested a game. "Everybody had $10, and we went around the fair and bought some type of food for someone else," Aaron said. "We all tried the food, and then switched so everyone got a taste."

Often, the Bienieks want to take a break. Aaron carries a few games in his backpack, and, when they need some down time, they'll grab some food, a table in the expo center and play a game for an hour or two. "Yeah, you may see us just sitting in the exhibit hall, playing a dice game," Stacy said. "That's just how we roll."

Making friends at the fair

"The real fun of coming to the fair so much is that you know everybody," said Stacy's dad, Kasprzak. "It's really about meeting all the great people."

The Bienieks have made friends over the years, and there are certain people they make sure to see every year.

They say hi to Sean Emery, a comic juggler at the Wilderness Resort family variety stage who fascinated James as a young child, and whom they now visit every year.

They head to We Energies Energy Park to see Chef Mark because, according to Stacy, James will eat anything he cooks, even if it's something he refuses when she cooks it. James readily agreed, saying, "Yeah, his food's amazing."

Stacy Bieniek hugs cartoonist Mark Mains on Aug. 1 at the Wisconsin State Fair. She and her family visit Mains every year to get a caricature for their son, James.

They also visit Mark Mains, a favorite caricature artist, every year. Mains draws James doing something that represents whatever his interest was that year — kicking a soccer ball the first year he joined the soccer team, as a Boy Scout when he joined the Scouts, flipping a burger when he got his first job at Major Goolsby's. "Most families have their yearly portrait of their kids that they get at JC Penney's or something," Stacy said. "We don't have that of James, but we do have a yearly caricature of him from the fair."

Some of those fair friendships go deeper than just catching up every year. Several years ago, James was fascinated watching a man make fudge behind a window. The Bienieks got to talking to him, and stopped by to watch other members of the man's family making fudge during their week and a half at the fair. They became such good friends with the family that they even visited them in their home state of Kentucky. "Those words sound so weird coming out of my mouth," said Stacy, laughing. "Yeah, we met a vendor at the Fair and visited him in Kentucky."

"No, it's not that weird," Aaron said. "It was day after day, and year after year, of talking to this family and making friends with them. And then we'd have dinner with them every year after the fair closed up."

Continuing a tradition

How long do the Bienieks plan to go to the fair every day? That's a hard question for them to answer. Because it's a tradition. And a tradition is just something you do every year.

"Sometimes I think to myself that it would be nice to just take a regular vacation," Stacy said. And, as the mom of the family, she also admits that the preparation can feel like a job to her — packing the rain ponchos and sunscreen, getting the water bottles ready, laying the money out each morning.

"I kind of think of it like Christmas though, like with all the prep work that goes into a tradition like that," Stacy said. "I mean, it's not like I wake up every morning of the fair thinking, 'this is the best day of my life.' But it's a tradition, so I do it, and our family does it, and in the end, you're glad you did it."

Tips from a family of State Fair experts

Question: How do you carry all your stuff?

Stacy: We have a stroller. When James was little, he rode in the stroller. Now we still bring it and our stuff rides in the stroller. Like our water bottles and our backpack and whatever we buy.

The Bienieks use a stroller, which James has long grown out of, to carry their stuff when they're at State Fair.

Have you bought gadgets in the expo center?

Stacy: Not really. We do listen to all the demonstrations though. One year, we kept going back to the Vitamix demonstration. We would watch it every morning and every evening and get samples. We could say the demonstration word for word with the lady. And we did finally buy one of those.

Have you ever missed a day since James has been born?

Stacy: Aaron did miss a few days a few years ago, when his father passed away during the week of the fair. We obviously couldn't spend whole days at the fair like we usually do, but James was young enough that going every day was important to him. So, I told him, if all we have time to do is come into the fair, walk in and walk right back out, I'll do that with you. So, that's what we did.

Where's the best place to relax?

Aaron: The Expo Center has the best air conditioning. There are lots of tables and chairs to relax in the hallways outside the exhibit hall. And, even when it's crowded, you can usually find an empty table.

Do you enter any of the contests?

Stacy: No, we don't do any of the contests, like who makes the best pickle, or whatever. We've talked about it though.

James: We've done some eating contests though.

One year, the Bienieks participated in a pizza eating contest. James Bieniek is blindfolded and needs to feed his father, Aaron Bieniek, pizza.

Tom (Stacy's dad): Yeah, like the time Stacy almost killed her father. We were doing a pizza eating competition. Stacy was blindfolded, and she stood behind me and was supposed to feed me pizza. She just kept putting it in my mouth, even though my cheeks were so full I looked like a chipmunk and I was turning blue. We won though.

What about the rides?

Stacy: We never go on them. We just never really go to that section of the park. Rides are what Great America's for.

James: We have done the slide though. And we do go on the sky glider.

Aaron: Yep, a round trip ride on the sky glider. We do that every year.

Where's the best bathroom at the fair?

Stacy: In the exhibit hall of the Expo Center, in the corner, near the trampoline.

Where do you park?

Stacy: That's secret.

Contact Amy Schwabe at (262) 875-9488 or Follow her on Twitter at @WisFamilyJS, Instagram at @wisfamilyjs or Facebook at WisconsinFamily.

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