For Amy Bliefnick, the Illinois State Fair is like a party with 815,000 of her closest friends.
Bliefnick has been manager of the fair for eight years, making her the longest-serving manager in the fair’s history, as well as the first female to hold that position. An amiable, energetic woman with an air of confidence, Bliefnick enjoys walking through the livestock barns, watching new generations carry on the traditions of the fair. For her, the fair is all about traditions. She recalls visiting the fair as a child with her parents on Veterans Day, when her father could bring the whole family from Decatur – with their seven kids – for free.
“It’s been a part of my family tradition, and for many of the fairgoers who come, it’s part of their family tradition,” Bliefnick says. “We hope to continue to build new family traditions with the next generation. I love the people at the fair – the people who volunteer, the people who tell me every day that the fair means so much to their family because they have generations of family members who came.”
While much of this year’s fair has passed, there’s still plenty to do and see, from quirky contests to powerhouse performances. There’s racing: horses, cars and even babies. There’s music: country, rock, Christian, jazz and more. There’s activities for kids and adults, delicious food, and even a chance to see the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Even if you’ve already gone this year, there’s still more to see and do in the final days of the fair.
Out of the ordinary and out of the way
In the spirit of tradition, Bliefnick is especially proud of one feature that adds an extra dimension to the fair’s agriculture focus. Positioned near Gate 2, a previously underutilized spot in the southeast portion of the fairgrounds, the “Farmer’s Little Helper” exhibit teaches kids about the work and commerce of ag. Kids can learn about raising livestock, growing crops and taking their harvest to market, where they’ll sell their bounty for “market dollars” that can be spent on treats.
“I think it’s been not only a big improvement to that area of the fairgrounds, but it really gets back to the roots of what the fair is about: agriculture,” Bliefnick says. “It’s a great way for families and kids to learn about agriculture in a fun, interactive experience.”
Another aspect of the Farmers’ Little Helper exhibit seems a bit more like a private affair, but the pigs don’t seem to mind. Visitors can watch pigs giving birth at the Piglets on Parade Birthing Center near Gate 2 through Aug. 17. Sponsored by the Illinois Pork Producers Association, the Birthing Center also features adorable piglets and educational materials about raising pigs.
Going back to the early days of ag in the U.S., the Antique Agricultural Exposition – say that three times fast – offers a look at the farm equipment that fed this nation in years past. Located in Building 105, just east of the carnival, the expo features antique tractors, John Deere farm implements up to 175 years old, and a gigantic tractor known as Big Bud. The 16-foot-wide tractor can pull a cultivator 90 feet wide. That’s the distance from third base to home plate in baseball. Expo visitors can vote for their favorite tractor, and something tells us Big Bud is going to get a lot of love.
Down in Happy Hollow, there’s Rattlesnake Dave Richardson, with his West Texas Rattlesnake Show. It features several live, fully-venomous rattlesnakes which Dave nimbly handles in a glass enclosure while wearing thick leather chaps to protect his legs from errant fangs. The best part of the show is the demonstration of how quickly a rattler can strike: a balloon is dangled in front of a rattlesnake, a *POP* is heard, and in a split second, the balloon is gone, deflated, dead. Richardson says he has never been bitten - not even once - in his 20 years of handling rattlesnakes. The reason? He handles the snakes gently and with respect. His free show runs three times daily: 11:30 a.m., 1:50 p.m., and 4:10 p.m.
Contests are a longtime fair favorite, often featuring perfect or oversized vegetables, carefully cultivated flowers and all manner of amazing art. But there are plenty of more offbeat competitions in the final days of the fair.
Parents are usually excited when their child begins walking, but in the Diaper Derby on Aug. 17, babies are better off staying on all fours. The contest pits crawling babies up to one year old against one another in a race to their cooing parents. Any baby who walks is instantly disqualified. The Derby takes place at 4 p.m. in The Shed, just southeast of the Carnival Midway. There’s no prize money, but it’s sure to offer a few good laughs.
Got muscles? Check out the bench press and deadlift championships on Aug. 19 to see some feats of serious human strength. There will be both male and female divisions, along with divisions for teens, police and fire lifters, and teams. The competition starts at noon on Aug. 19 in Barn 26, located west of the Grandstand.
And what fair would be complete without a chili cookoff? This contest features both red and green “verde” chili, as well as a salsa division and $1,300 in total prize money. Each participant provides a gallon of chili or a quart of salsa for public sampling, so don’t eat too many corn dogs on your way there. That cookoff starts at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 19 in the Miller Tent.
Good old Abe Lincoln has made quite a few appearances at the fair so far, with his face popping up everywhere. That’s because the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is passing out “Abe on a stick” – a free fan with Abe’s face that doubles as a coupon at local businesses and tourist attractions. Fairgoers can pick up a fan at the IHPA display in the Illinois Building, then later use the fan to save $5 on admission to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum or get a free panoramic postcard book from the Dana-Thomas House. The fans also offer 10 percent off purchases at Tinsley Dry Goods, 209 S. Sixth Street, at New Salem Lincoln League Museum in Petersburg, or at the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington. It’s also funny to let Abe peek around the corner and surprise your coworkers.
In addition to the delicious cheese curds, corn dogs, funnel cakes and fried everything, there’s also some healthier fare available at the fair. The Farmers Market Tent offers fresh sweet corn, apple cider slush, fruit and more from across Illinois. Hosted by the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, the Farmers Market Tent is located northeast of Ethnic Village. For another food treat, stop by the Illinois Building to try the honey ice cream served by the Illinois State Beekeepers Association and described in Julianne Glatz’s column this week in mouthwatering detail. See page 18.
After loading up on food – fried or otherwise – the only logical next step is to go running. Joking aside, that really is an option at the fair. The 2012 Abe’s Amble 10k is a 6.4 mile run that starts and ends at the fairgrounds, taking runners through nearby Lincoln Park and Oak Ridge Cemetary. (Yes, 10k is supposed to be 6.2 miles, but the course is a bit long.) Registration closes just before midnight on Aug. 16, so move quickly to get in on the action. The race attracted more than 1,100 runners last year, and many of this year’s runners have been training since May with the Abe’s Army training group. Combine that rigorous training with forecasts of cool weather, and it’s a recipe for an exciting, fast-paced race. The race starts at 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 19 by the Grandstand. For more information, visit the registration page online at bit.ly/abesamble, or call the Springfield Running Center at 787-4400.
The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile never fails to bring smiles, and the iconic 27-foot-long vehicle will be at the fairgrounds Aug. 16 through Aug. 19. “Hotdoggers” will be on hand to give interior tours of the vehicle and talk about its history. Look for it by the Artisans Building between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Aug. 16 and 17, then from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Aug. 18 and 19.
Need for speed…and destruction
Pity the dirt that comprises the fairgrounds’ one-mile racetrack. It’s one thing to be repeatedly pummeled by sleek racehorses, but the track is about to be punished by a force far more powerful than any four-legged beast. On Aug. 18, a pack of wild sprint cars descends on the State Fair for the Tony Bettenhausen 100, followed by a hoard of marauding stock cars on Aug. 19 for the 50th Annual Allen Crowe Memorial 100 race. The thunderous roar from this bevy of brightly-colored race cars – each sporting about 850 horsepower – could wake the dead.
The races are put on by Track Enterprises, based in Macon, Ill., just south of Decatur. The sprint cars on Aug. 18 will compete in the Silver Crown Series, a race series sanctioned by the United States Auto Club. The public can watch drivers warm up in practice and qualifying laps starting at 9 a.m., with races starting at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Local legend and part-time NASCAR driver Ken Schrader is scheduled to appear in the race, piloting his number nine open-wheel sprint car.
The 100-mile Allen Crow Memorial 100 race on Aug. 19 is named after former Springfield resident and racer Allen Crowe, who died in a sprint car crash in 1963. Sanctioned by the Automobile Racing Club of America, the race begins at 1 p.m. with practices at 9 a.m. and qualifying races at 11 a.m. Previous winners of the Allen Crowe Memorial 100 include famous names like A.J. Foyt and Al Unser.
Adult admission is $20 in advance or $25 the day of each race. Children get in for $10, and tickets are available at the event, by calling the Illinois State Fair ticket office at 782-1979 or by calling Track Enterprises at 764-3200.
The track has new barrier walls this year to protect the crowd in case of a crash. Destruction of that sort is best left for another event – the Red Neck Weekend Championship Demo Derby. There’s nothing quite like watching dozens of otherwise worthless cars smash into one another, somehow lowering their value even more. It’s the gladiator event of rural America, and it’s a hoot. That free event is planned for 7 p.m. on Aug. 18 at the Arena – that gigantic white tent overlooking a wide dirt bowl to the west of Happy Hollow.
Fun for big kids
While the theme of family traditions permeates the State Fair, more grown-up activities are not hard to find. From huge concerts at the historic Grandstand to elegant evenings with an orchestra, the music scene is ripe at this year’s fair.
Following packed performances all week by the likes of country singer Eric Church and pop rock band Train, the Grandstand kicks it up a notch on Aug. 16 with hard rock group Creed. Cheap Trick – Illinois’ own classic rock band from Rockford – takes the stage on Aug. 17, with other popular rockers like The Blue Oyster Cult and The Georgia Satellites.
On Aug. 18, country singer Miranda Lambert brings three supporting acts to the Grandstand, only one of which is male. Lambert is joined by female trio Pistol Annies and singer Sunny Sweeney, with a lone male act, Charlie Worsham, rounding out the night.
Steve Miller brings his unique brand of classic rock to the Grandstand on Aug. 19, bringing along accomplished Traffic guitarist Dave Mason, who has played with iconic artists like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and more.
Outside the Grandstand, the Budweiser, Miller Lite and Coors tents offer free concerts in slightly more intimate venues. With two or three local acts each remaining night of the fair, all three tents will be rocking hard, featuring bands like Captain Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters, Escaping Neverland and Still Kickin’ Band. Shows start at staggered times and go as late as 11:30 p.m.
On the final day of the fair, a handful of Christian bands gather for the 21st Annual Powerlight Fest, sponsored by local churches and businesses. The festival kicks off at the Lincoln Stage, north of Ethnic Village, at noon on Aug. 19 with a worship service by the Springfield-based iWorship Band. That’s followed with music by Kenny Cook and an appearance by former Indianapolis Colts player Ben Utecht. From there, the packed schedule stretches from 3:40 p.m. until 9 p.m., with bands like Manic Drive, Jason Gray and five-time Dove Award winners Group 1 Crew.
It’s not all rock and country at the fair, however. Those with a more refined taste will find refuge in the Twilight Ballroom, where the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association hosts several nights of ballroom dancing. Styles range from jazz and blues to swing and big band. The party starts at 7 p.m. every night from Aug. 16 through Aug. 18, then at 6 p.m. on Aug. 19.
Get out and explore
While most of the fair takes place outside, it’s easy to take the great outdoors for granted. That will be a lot harder on Aug. 18, however. That’s Park District Conservation Day, when park districts from around the state converge on the Fairgrounds to offer activities specifically centered on the great outdoors.
There’s the Park Pentathlon and Recreation Relay – a contest consisting of disc golf, a marshmallow golf drive, hockey and shootouts, knockout basketball, a three-legged race, and more. A team from the Office of the Secretary of State won last year, but teams from Springfield mayor Mike Houston’s office and the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department are itching to take home the trophy this time. The contest starts at 11:45 a.m. at the Livestock Building.
Meanwhile, kids can enjoy the Park Play station, where they can be encased in a giant bubble, create tie-dye T-shirts and tons of other activities. Over at Conservation World, west of the Grandstand, kids can check out animals from park district zoos like Springfield’s Henson Robinson Zoo.
All fair long, Conservation World also hosts Chris “the Whip Guy” Camp’s whip-cracking stunt show, as well as fishing clinics, archery range and a spot to get hunting and fishing licenses.
For a $2 discount on admission, check out the fair on Family Day, Aug. 19.
Fair manager Amy Bliefnick challenges fairgoers to get off their own beaten paths a bit and try something new.
“I think it’s about exploring,” she says. “When my dad used to take us to the fair a long time ago, they made us go explore before we could do the ‘fun’ things. Don’t just go to the first places you always go and stay there. Visit someplace you’ve never been before.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.
All in the family
The Illinois State Fair is all about traditions stretching back to the fair’s beginnings in 1853. For Brian and Alec Myers, a father and son from Taylorville, the tradition of raising cattle doesn’t go back quite that far, but it’s still an important part of their lives.
Brian Myers raised cattle while growing up, and says his family has done it since about the 1950s, so he wanted his son Alec to experience the tradition, too. Brian said he and Alec worked for about eight months to prepare the steer for competition.
Alec’s crossbreed steer took first place in the Division III Junior class for beef steers and eighth place in the overall Division I livestock class for beef cattle. “We just like to do it because it’s a family activity,” Brian said. “It’s educational and fun.”
To view more competition results, visit the State Fair website at www.agr.state.il.us/isf/competition