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Saving a piece of Portage history

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Photographs of horseback riders, baseball players, and fair-goers prove that the imposing white seats situated at the Columbia County fairgrounds wasn’t always the weather-damaged, graffiti-coated structure rising out of the ground that it is today.

It’s the memories held within, the history, the nostalgia that members of the nonprofit group Save the Grandstand are hoping to preserve. For the past two years, members of the group have been organizing online auctions and craft sales, trying to raise money to complete necessary repairs and effectively bring the grandstand back to life.

According to Nancy Kruse, Treasurer of Save the Grandstand, these efforts have so far culminated in about $33,000, a number she’d like to continue to see grow at the group’s Sept. 24 fundraiser.

Community members are invited to come to the Portage Elks Lodge between 1 and 5 p.m. when photos and other grandstand memorabilia will be on display, a silent auction will be taking place, and attendees can help themselves to a plate of barbecue sandwiches, various salads, and a side of nostalgia.

“Community awareness is a really big thing,” said Kruse.

Built in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era public works effort, the grandstand is, by many accounts, a relic.

Portage High School’s FFA and 4-H participants previously utilized the structure for tractor pulls and other events, but it’s since become obsolete, sitting in relative abandonment since the early 1990s.

Under the settled dust of the years, though, Kruse and many others believe the grandstand still has plenty of life left in it.

“I’m almost positive that it’s a good venue to use if they brought it back to life,” she said. “I believe the grandstand is a big part of youth.”

For Kruse in particular, this hits home. Among the many photos set to be displayed at the upcoming fundraiser is one of a teenage girl with bright blonde hair on horseback, an action shot of Kruse herself riding at the grandstand.

This is the type of memory Kruse hopes today’s youth can experience in a newly renovated version of the current grandstand. That mission, however, will be costly.

According to Columbia County Fair Vice President Richard Ziemke, the price of fixing the structure’s various cracks and making it safe for the public is estimated at over $1 million. Ziemke says he, like Kruse, would like to see the grandstand back in use, but not without the proper construction.

“It’s in desperate need of repair,” said Ziemke. The structure is also part of a five-year plan by the city of Portage, which launched in 2021.

“I’d like to keep (the grandstand),” said Ziemke. “It’s been a fixture for the grandstand forever, it would be nice to be able to preserve something like that.”

If and when the necessary repairs are made, Kruse says she’d like to see the grandstand come back to life the way it once was, with sports, FFA and 4-H events, and music among other things filling the seats with visitors.

For now, though, she and other Save the Grandstand members are doing what they can to raise money toward that goal.

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