The founders of the newly-created Illinois State Agricultural Society wanted to give farmers an arena to discuss and advance their profession, so they decided to host a state fair. The first was held that October in Springfield on the near-west side grounds where Sacred Heart-Griffin High School now rests. Fair organizers charged 25 cents for admission and made a profit of $853.
The fair moved to Chicago in 1855, and until 1894, it appeared at least once in 10 other cities: Alton, Peoria, Centralia, Freeport, Jacksonville, Du Quoin, Ottawa, Decatur, Quincy and Olney.
The new state department of agriculture was given control of the fair in 1872, and 20 years later, decided that it needed a permanent location. Chief contenders were Bloomington, Decatur, Peoria and Springfield, but Springfield and Sangamon County finally won with the offer of a 156-acre county fair site north of the city, construction of a fence and sewer system, free electric lights for two years, free city water and $50,000 in cash.
The Illinois State Fairgrounds hosted its first fair on Sept. 24, 1894. Admission cost 75 cents for one person on horseback, $1.25 for a carriage load of four, 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for kids. In 1895, the General Assembly appropriated $225,000 for new buildings at the fairgrounds, and in 1924, 210 acres were added to form the current 366-acre site.
Pam Gray, the state fair volunteer coordinator, manages the fair’s grandstand museum and thrives on hearing stories about the early days. She met a farmer in his 80s, who brought her a box of prize ribbons that his grandparents won in cattle-showing contests. She has photographs of people, now grandparents, standing in front of the fairgrounds’ main gate when they were children. She even has books from the first 1853 state fair that list prizewinners, such as who won the 50-cent gold piece for best corn that year.
Gray wants to set up a database, so people can research their own family members and their fair accomplishments. For her, Gray says, it’s about turning over history to younger generations.
“I want my granddaughters, who are 4 and 8, to know about that history from 1871,” she says. “What the farmers went through, what their wives went through, how they baked that bread and how a woman from Du Quoin competed against a woman from Springfield who competed against a woman from Chicago that year.
“This is how the great, great grandmother made those apple fritters. She won a first place prize for that, and she shared those recipes with other women. That got passed on across the state. It was about socializing and seeing your neighbors and friends, but it was so much about the education of society.”
Even now, Gray adds, the Illinois State Fair is about reveling in the history of Illinois and its agriculture. The older farmers who haul antique tractors from faraway cities like Danville don’t get paid, she says — they just want to share their lives with others.
See Prizewinner for more.