If it wasn't for the tenacity of the Waterloo's citizens and Iowa's dairy farmers 100 years ago, the centennial of the National Cattle Congress might be celebrated this year in Milwaukee.
The Iowa State Dairy Association held its first dairy cow exhibition at its annual meeting in Cedar Rapids in 1909. About two dozen cows were exhibited.
In October 1910, the dairy cow exhibition moved to Waterloo's Chautauqua Park - now the site of Cedar River and Exchange Parks. The show featured 62 cows, and more than 5,000 people attended.
The Iowa State Dairy Association used the success to form the Dairy Cattle Congress as a nonprofit venture to develop the dairy industry.
However, Waterloo wasn't guaranteed the annual exhibit until area dairy farmers pledged several thousand dollars to become the permanent host.
Organizer and Iowa State University professor Hugh Van Pelt arranged schedules with the national dairy shows in Chicago and Milwaukee to avoid competition among fairs. However, Milwaukee ignored the agreement. Van Pelt teamed with the national show to solicit entries for Waterloo. Milwaukee did not have enough entries to mount a decent dairy cattle show and never again threatened the Cattle Congress' annual event.
One thing hasn't changed much throughout the years. Weather has been a major factor on attendance and profit.
In fair weather in 1912, 700 cattle nationwide were part of the exhibit. Conversely, it rained several days before the opening of the Congress in 1914. Country roads were impassable. No sessions of the fair were held on Tuesday, and the attendance on Wednesday was so low that most of the program was not carried out.
The fair's worst weather came in 1925. Three weeks before the annual NCC fair, on Sept. 8, 1925, a violent windstorm destroyed three of the original wooden barns. Cedar Valley carpenters and brick masons joined forces to rebuild the barns in brick. Those brick barns still stand and are one of the distinctive architectural features of the Cattle Congress grounds.
In 1942, the Iowa State Fair and other local fairs were canceled during World War II, but the Dairy Congress Fair continued. In 1943, 1944, and 1945, the Cattle Congress was "kept alive" by providing a home for the Iowa State 4-H Dairy Club Show. Entering the post WWII era, the NCC experienced its greatest seven-year period in its history; profits were twice as large as its previous best year.
Much of the activity on the National Cattle Congress grounds today centers on McElroy Auditorium and the Electric Park Ballroom.
McElroy Auditorium, originally called the Hippodrome, was built in 1919 and was replaced in 1936 by the present-day auditorium. The city of Waterloo owned and operated McElroy Auditorium until 1974, when the NCC purchased it. Beginning in 1962, McElroy Auditorium was home to the Waterloo Black Hawks hockey team. The team moved to Young Arena in 1995.
When the Cattle Congress moved from Chautauqua Park to a permanent site on the opposite bank of the Cedar River, it ended up adjacent to Electric Park, which was named for the novelty of its electric lights.
Electric Park Ballroom was built in 1906. Fire destroyed some of the original structure, and the building was replaced in 1936 by its present-day structure. It became part of the National Cattle Congress with its purchase in 1974.
The National Cattle Congress featured top entertainers, such as:
- Ronnie Milsap
- Anne Murray
- B.J. Thomas
- Waylon Jennings
- the Beach Boys
- Wayne Newton
- Willie Nelson
- the Miami Sound Machine
- Garth Brooks
- Alan Jackson
- Tonya Tucker
- the Charlie Daniels Band
- Billy Ray Cyrus
As the culture of family farming lost ground, the National Cattle Congress began to look for new revenue sources. In 1967, greyhound racing was introduced on the fairgrounds. In 1984, the NCC bet a big part of its future on an off-site greyhound racing business, winning a conditional three-year winter season greyhound-racing license from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
The NCC began operations on Oct. 15, 1986, at Waterloo Greyhound Park, a facility on the southwest side of Waterloo, separate from the original grounds. But greyhound racing soon fell out of favor as gambling culture shifted to casinos with slot machines. On Dec.r 10, 1993, the NCC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The NCC reached its lowest point in 1994, as the fair was canceled due to its financial problems. Waterloo Greyhound Park was shut down completely in 1996, and the NCC lost multiple bids to get its gaming license.
Since the shutdown of the Greyhound Park, the NCC has refocused its efforts on activities at its main grounds, hosting a variety of acts and figures like:
- Beyoncé and Destiny's Child (2001)
- Sen. Hillary Clinton, who campaigned with her husband President Bill Clinton (2007)
- the world-famous Royal Lipizzaner Stallions (2008)
The Cattle Congress made national news in May 2008. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security used the grounds as a processing center for hundreds detained in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on Agriprocessors, a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville.
People now come to the Cattle Congress grounds year-round for all kinds of events in several multipurpose buildings.
However, Cattle Congress continues to try to connect people to rural life and valued traditions. Visitors can still attend a rodeo in the old Hippodrome (now McElroy Auditorium), learn the difference between a Holstein and Brown Swiss in the vintage brick barns, get close to baby animals in the petting zoo and attend sock hops in the Electric Park Ballroom.
The National Cattle Congress Fair's Centennial Celebration will be September 16-19.