SPENCER, Iowa (KCAU) — Each year, hundreds of thousands of people attend the Clay County Fair in Spencer, Iowa. But even before that, many more are reminded of the fairs upcoming dates by a unique billboard along the northwest Iowa countryside.
But the roadside ad actually has a history much greater than the fair.
“It’s a sign that you’re getting close to Spencer. An older building that has seen better days but has tremendous history. It’s a great tradition,” said Clay County Fair CEO Jeremy Parsons.
Sitting high above U.S. Highway 71, about 12 miles south of Spencer, sits a more than century old building. The property dates back to 1890 when the Ditton family settled on the picturesque lookout.
“It was there when Jesse lived in it with his mother, and she passed away in 1901. So at least until 1901, if not the late 1890’s,” said Braden Falline, director of collections at the Clay County Heritage Center in Spencer.
Since the 1940’s, with its hand painted flags and checkerboard, the Ditton home also served as a billboard of sorts for the Clay County Fair alerting passers-by of upcoming event dates. Jesse Ditton called the place home and started the tradition that continues today. He died in 1957 and the building has been vacant ever since.
“From all accounts he was a big fan. He would come up every year. Thought it was his way to help out the fair allowing them to advertise on his home because so many people come up what became Highway 71,” said Falline. “He would catch a ride up to the fair, go to the fair every year and was probably involved in the fair.”
But what the thousands who zoom by likely don’t know is the unusual history associated with what some refer to as “The Ditton Place”. Others, perhaps more appropriately know it and the 140 acres surrounding it as “Goat Hill”.
“I remember coming up to interview for the job and you drive By and oh, there’s Clay County Fair signage. That’s pretty cool. So, I learned the history after I got here and it’s part of the folklore history of Clay County and the gentleman who lived here and the goats,” said Parsons.
That’s right. The goats.
“He always had goats around which is why there are no trees or shrubbery around which is why it stands out so much. On that hill, there’s nothing else to break your line of sight coming up the hill,” said Falline.
Just the goats.
“It wasn’t just one or two, he had a herd,” said Falline. “The goats kind of became the main character of his story. The goats were outside in the summer and that’s where they stayed. Then this time of year October he brought them in the house where they would stay especially overnight and winter. On colder days, he might let them out like we let dogs out a little at a time.”
A goat lover indeed. Folklore has it that a live-in housekeeper once asked Ditton to choose between her and the goats.
“[A] Tall tale, but it makes sense. You wouldn’t want to share your house with goats. As anyone that has goats knows they can get into trouble. It definitely could have been part of why he lived alone so long. He definitely was looking for people to come live with him but didn’t seem to be successful in the long term,” said Falline.
Since Ditton’s death, the property has had several owners. All agreeing to continue his passion for the Clay County Fair.
“We know they see it because they tell us if we don’t get the dates changed quick enough. We’re all set for 2023 right now,” said Parsons. “It’s a sign they are getting close to Spencer. Definitely a landmark that way, but just a landmark in general.”
“If he wasn’t on Highway 71, we wouldn’t know of Goat Hill. It wouldn’t be as prominent as it is today,” said Falline.
The sign on Goat Hill should be there for years to come. Back in 2013, Spencer businessman Gary Hoefling bought the old Ditton place and the land it sits on. Preserving it for the foreseeable future.
The 2023 Clay County Fair is scheduled for September 9-17.