The author is a former Hoard’s Dairyman editorial intern and grew up on a 90-cow dairy in Minnesota. She is a 4-H Program Coordinator in Rock County, Minn.
Imagine putting everything you own on the line to give something you believe in the fighting chance to be great. Sure, this sounds like a noble gesture, but would you be ready to walk down to the bank and sign a note for a loan that would leverage your entire farm? Would you be able tell your spouse and children the gamble you are taking with your livelihood?
Chances are, this isn’t a decision you could take lightly. Certainly the show organizers of the first World Dairy Expo knew they were taking a risk when they arranged for a $100,000 loan from the Bank of Sun Prairie in Wisconsin to help fund the development of World Dairy Expo. However, they all felt it was the right thing to do. Recollections differ on exactly how many people signed that note. There is a general consensus that at least Allen Hetts, Gene Nelson, and Norm Magnussen put their farms up as collateral for this loan. In addition, Brown Swiss breeder Howard Voegeli played a key role in enlisting financial support from the state of Wisconsin.
Today, we know that their enormous leap of faith was a leap worth taking. Each fall, as competitive show people and cow aficionados from all over the world gather in Madison, the legacy of these visionaries lives on. While these men have since passed away, they had children old enough to remember the day dad came home and said he leveraged the farm.
Bring the show home
A feeling of uncertainty filled the barns of the National Dairy Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. Word was spreading — the future of this once prestigious show didn’t look bright. The board of the Cattle Congress was placing more emphasis on the horse show.
Known for his natural leadership skill, Wisconsin Holstein breeder Allen Hetts was one of many breeders who refused to sit back and watch. He led an initial meeting of breeders at the Kit Kat Klub in Waterloo during the 1965 National Dairy Cattle Congress. A clear message came out: the idea of not having a major national dairy show was something they refused to accept.
The road ahead wasn’t easy. Several meetings of breeders took place to determine the direction of this future show. Where would it be held? While several likely locations were evaluated, Madison became the frontrunner. Since many of these concerned Waterloo veterans were from Wisconsin, they were willing to do everything they could to bring the show home.
“They felt that Wisconsin was America’s Dairyland and Waterloo was letting the show go,” Roy Hetts, son of Allen Hetts, explained. “It was a great expense and took many hours on a boxcar to travel to Waterloo. So having that show in Madison would be huge.”
Once the idea was born, there was no turning back. These men with an unmatched drive to do the right thing and a commitment to dairy cattle began paving the way for Expo as we know it. However, these men would need more than just the idea; they needed the financial means to make it a reality.
Howard Voegeli was close to Don McDowell, who was Wisconsin’s dynamic agricultural secretary at the time. So, Voegeli wrote a letter explaining the idea and opportunity for the state to pursue.
Bryan Voegeli, Howard’s son, would have been 7 years old at the time, so he does not recall many of the details. Thankfully, he has learned from reading his father’s letters. In fact, he has read a copy of the letter his father wrote to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
“In my dad’s letter to the secretary of the Department of Agriculture in Wisconsin, he wrote that his concerns were that we had to rush forward and do it now because too much momentum was going to be lost and the opportunity was going to be lost,” Voegeli explained.
His letter convinced the Wisconsin secretary of agriculture to share the idea with Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles. Soon, the state of Wisconsin pledged $50,000 to help launch the show. While this support helped, it would not be enough. That is where Allen Hetts, Gene Nelson, and Norm Magnussen come in.
No reason to doubt
The “day Dad leveraged the farm” is now a part of Expo history.
At the time, the children of these pioneers didn’t understand the magnitude of that decision. Even if they would have comprehended the risk, the children are certain they wouldn’t have doubted their fathers. In their respective households, these men set an example that when something is the right thing to do, you do it without hesitation.
Gary Magnussen, Norm’s son, who was in his early 20s at the time, can still picture that day.
“Dad came in from a meeting, and he said, ‘I might have mortgaged the farm today,’” Magnussen recalled. “I know it took a lot of guts, but it was the right thing to do. Dad’s mission in life was ‘if it wasn’t right, it wasn’t right.’”
Roy Hetts, who was a teenager at the time, said the day Dad leveraged the farm was just another day. He explained most people knew Allen as a man with strong confidence and natural leadership skills. Therefore, the Hetts family didn’t think twice about his decision.
“In our home, you pretty much listened to what Dad said. He said he co-signed this loan and that is just the way it was,” Hetts recalled. “Farming is a gamble, and every part of farming is a gamble so it wasn’t really anything different than anything before.”
Hetts noted that he is sure his mother, Doris, was nervous knowing the potential fate of their livelihood if Expo wasn’t a success. However, her own efforts made a difference in the movement to start Expo.
“Along with all of the given chores of a farm wife and mother, Mom handled all of Dad’s correspondence,” Hetts said. “In the late 60s, the amount was formidable. She would work late into the evening turning Dad’s dictations into neatly typed letters.”
Steven Nelson, the son of Gene Nelson, was also a teenager the year the loan was signed. At the time, he didn’t know about the financial risk his father had taken.
“My dad didn’t tell us kids much about the finances of the farm. It was more of the cows that he was concerned about,” Nelson explained.
“There is no question in my mind that he would have signed a note like that in a heartbeat; it doesn’t surprise me at all. Showing cattle and working with good cattle was his life.”
The rest is history
Today we know there was no reason to fear signing that loan. Expo has grown to an event unimaginable to these pioneers. Many hands played a role in starting Expo once the idea was ignited. However, these men deserve credit for the guts to put everything they own on the line to give the idea a fighting chance.
“I know that everybody understands the role those men played in getting this started,” Nelson said. “It wouldn’t have even been an idea without them. They are the ones who started it and made it happen. It is amazing how huge it has gotten, and that is a tribute to them. We are just fortunate that the right guys were there at the right time in history.”
Magnussen echoed this sentiment of his father’s place in Expo’s history.
“Looking back, our dad and all those who started World Dairy Expo would be awfully proud,” said Magnussen. “I think he’d say, ‘By golly, we did something right.’ It almost brings tears to my eyes when I think of those guys and think of how they did it and how successful they were.”
Finally, attending Expo each year, Hetts is reflective of the community his father contributed to growing. Famous for the line “We Need a Show!,” the trailblazer Allen Hetts would be proud of all the show became.
“Dad was in show mode 365 days of the year, and he had a lot of company in the barns and Coliseum during Expo week,” Hetts said. “Still 43 years after his passing, lots of dairy producers share dad’s love of competition and his quest for perfection. Somehow, someway, in the early autumn of every year, the finest cows in North America find their way to Madison.”