These days, for me the Illinois State Fair is as much about memories of those times as what’s happening at the current fair. And they are not just my memories; I also think about the remembrances of my parents and grandparents.
The first Illinois State Fair took place in 1853 on 20 acres in the area around what is now DuBois School and Sacred Heart-Griffin. Town leaders wanted Springfield to put its best face on for the visitors who would flock to the fair: Citizens were exhorted to pick up old hats, boots, rags, bones and manure on the streets. As well, citizens were asked to fill hog holes in the streets. Apparently the hog holes were numerous; A New York Tribune reporter wrote that there were more pigs in Springfield’s streets than at the fair!
Despite efforts to spruce up Springfield, it was a mess. It rained for the first four fair days. Springfield’s streets – including those created for the fair – were all unpaved; it was a sea of mud. Still, the fair was successful enough it was repeated in Springfield the next year.
But over the next three decades, the Illinois State Fair was held in different cities – 12 in all, including Springfield. Cities competed to hold the fair, offering thousands of dollars of incentives. In some of the cities, housing visitors was a problem. Hotels sold sleeping spaces in their halls. In 1858, when the fair was in Centralia, the Illinois Central Railroad put two and a half miles of boxcars on sidetracks for visitors to sleep in, as well as offering free commuter trains that travelled 100 miles away so fairgoers could find lodging. Lodging state fair visitors was such an issue that a 1910 Springfield Chamber of Commerce newsletter says that the Leland Hotel (now defunct, but in its heyday a bastion of elegance) was integral to thwarting other cities’ attempts to “steal” the fair. Apparently Peoria was especially dastardly.
Eventually the Illinois State Fair grew big enough to need a permanent location. Six cities, including Bloomington, Chicago and Decatur, placed bids. Springfield’s winning bid included 156 acres of land, $50,000 cash, fencing and sewage systems, free water, free electricity for two years, and – thankfully – paved streets.
1894 marked the first Illinois State Fair in its permanent and present location. The Exposition Building, still a fair landmark, was constructed in time for that first season.
Other once-iconic structures have come and gone. But one is only half-gone and mostly forgotten. In 1910, the Sears and Roebuck Company built a pavilion to showcase machinery in their catalogue. The pavilion was crowned with a five-room house; it and all its contents were available in Sears’ catalogue. The pavilion is gone, but in the 1930s the house was moved to the east of the Dairy Building, where it stands today.
None of the above is a familial memory. Those reminiscences began with my grandmother, aka Nana, the family’s undisputed storyteller, although my mother masterly assumed that mantle after Nana died.
“It was our first date, going to the fair,” Nana would say. She didn’t provide details, but my mom remembers a large wooden structure in Happy Hollow, longtime site of the fair’s carnival rides, that was a “Tunnel of Love.” “It might have had another name,” my mom, (aka Joann’e Glatfelter) says. “But it had boats for two people to ride through water lanes, and it was dark and romantic.” Thinking of them there, cruising through the dusk and falling in love makes me smile, not least because in the daylight their romance was a major Catholic/Protestant crisis, outdated today, but a serious matter in the 1920s.
The pinnacle of my family’s fair memories is unquestionably the years from 1932-1940, when Henry Horner was Illinois’ governor. Nana’s sister, Eileen, was married to Horner’s patronage chief, Bill Walsh. Though today it seems corrupt (and often was), back then virtually every state job was granted by patronage, making my great-uncle Bill a powerhouse. For my grandparents, that meant “golden passes” that gave them access to everything, including the carnival rides, and use of the Governor’s Grandstand box, not just for themselves, but also 20 of their closest friends. My mom also got special treatment: Horner, a lifelong bachelor who nonetheless loved children, not only allowed her the run of his box, but sat her on his lap during the shows.
In the 1950s, my grandfather’s sister and her husband bought a house on Eighth Street directly across from the fair’s Eighth Street gate. The fair was an economic boon for all of Springfield, but especially lucrative for north-enders. Numerous small strip motels sprang up on the North End’s main streets, but still couldn’t meet the demand for vendor and visitor housing. Many residents rented rooms; Aunt Elsie, Uncle Jim and their three daughters rented their entire upstairs and moved into the basement. How I envied my older cousins as they waved a cane and shouted “Park it! Park it!” to fill up their yard with cars who paid top dollar for a space directly across from the fairgrounds.
Traffic was horrific, sometimes backed up as far as today’s State Journal-Register building. But it was worth it to see top entertainers at the Grandstand, such as comedians Red Skelton (I was old enough to see his show) and Bob Hope and the spectacular fireworks that ended each night’s performance after the show.
By the time I became a teenager, the Grandstand’s roster included top rock ’n’ roll bands, such as the Beach Boys and The Association (main hit, “Windy”). My grandparents had had their first date at the fair; I had my first kiss while walking around the Grandstand’s deserted track from a boy with whom I’d worked at the Chatham Methodist Church’s food stand.
I’ve written in this column before about the civic organizations and churches that were a major part of the food offerings at the fair, especially the Chatham Methodist Church’s stand, which served just three things: beef and homemade noodles (the men’s club made the noodles, the women’s club braised the beef); pork barbecue sandwiches that, while succulent, never saw a whiff of smoke, and homemade pies. Fair-goers would stand three-four deep behind an occupied stool, waiting to be seated.
But in earlier times, many folks brought food with them. Though they might indulge in a lemon shake-up or some saltwater taffy, eating an entire meal out was a rare luxury. My mom remembers Nana getting up before dawn to fry chicken and make deviled eggs for a picnic that the family would eat on the “hill” opposite the Illinois Building.
Over the years, different aspects of the fair have dominated my family’s fair-going. The horse events were central in my daughter Ashley’s youth. This year, her daughter, two-year-old Maddie, will be able to enjoy what the fair has to offer. I can’t wait to see what captures her fancy!
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.