THE ILLINOIS STATE FAIR:
A Long and Rich Tradition
The group of farmers who met in January of 1853 to form the Illinois
State Agricultural Society offered Springfield the opportunity to host
the first state fair. Springfield accepted the offer and made
available 20 acres of land at the western edge of the city, in the
vicinity of the current location of DuBois School and Sacred
Heart-Griffin High School. That area later became Camp Yates, where
U.S. Grant took charge of his first troops during the Civil War.
Newspapers editorialized that citizens should clean the streets of
old hats and boots, rags, bones and manure and fill up the hog holes
so Springfield would look its best for outsiders. Neither the city
streets nor the grounds of the fair were paved. Rain on Oct. 11, 1853,
the first of the fair's four days, turned everything to mud. ANew
York Tribune reporter noted that there were more pigs on the
streets of Springfield than at the fair. In spite of the difficulties,
the first fair was sufficiently successful to beget others.
Springfield hosted the fair again in 1854, but that honor was shared
by many different Illinois towns during the next several years. By
1892, it had been held at least once in each of the following cities:
Alton, Centralia, Chicago, Decatur, DuQuoin, Freeport, Jacksonville,
Olney, Ottawa, Peoria, Quincy and Springfield. The fair was held in
Chicago a total of eight times. Cities vied for the right to hold the
fair and spent several thousand dollars to prepare the site.
The cities had difficulty handling the large influx of visitors,
however. In 1857, the fair so crowded Peoria that hotels sold sleeping
space on their hallway floors. In 1858, the fair was held at
Centralia, where some people slept in tents around the grounds and the
Illinois Central Railroad parked two and a half miles of cars on
sidetracks for visitor sleeping quarters. The railroad also ran free
trains in the mornings and evenings to Decatur and Jonesboro, 100
miles each direction, so fairgoers could find lodging and commute
daily to the fair.
One of the more harrowing experiences in fair history occurred
during the 1858 Centralia fair. A gentleman gave a demonstration of
ballooning with a large gas-filled bag and a passenger basket
suspended underneath. He took the balloon up and landed in a farmer's
field several miles from the fairgrounds. The farmer and his neighbors
came to gawk at the contraption. The balloonist let the farmer step
into the basket, and when he got out the farmer lifted his three
children in to try it as well. In spite of the balloonist's
admonitions to bystanders to hold on tightly to the tether ropes, when
the oldest child was lifted out, the balloon popped up and slipped out
of everyone's hands. The farmer's 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old
son floated off into the night.
The balloonist told the group the craft would eventually come down,
and they should tell their neighbors to be on the lookout. The next
day the balloon and the cold and frightened but unharmed children were
found about 40 miles away, where the anchor rope had been caught in a
There was no fair during 1862 because of the Civil War, nor in 1893
because that year Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition.
By that time the fair had grown to the point that its governing
board decided a permanent location would better serve everyone's
needs. Aurora, Bloomington, Chicago, Decatur, Peoria and Springfield
put in bids to become the permanent site. On the eighth ballot
Springfield won with 11 of 21 votes. Springfield's offer included 156
acres of land at the north edge of town, which had been serving as the
county fairgrounds. The city's proposal also included $50,000 in cash,
a fence and sewage system, paved streets, free electric lights for two
years, and free water as long as the fair continued to operate in
The first fair at its current location opened on September 24, 1894,
and ran for six days. The Exposition Building, still a dominant
landmark of the fairgrounds, was built during that year. The building
cost $67,000 and was used then, as today, for displaying the wares of
merchants. More than 175,000 people attended the 1894 fair.
During 1894, Springfield's first golf course was built on the
infield of the state fair racetrack. The four-hole course was built by
the Sangamo Club, which erected a $3,500 club house on the fairgrounds
in addition to its downtown establishment.
The fair's one-mile dirt track has long been considered one of the
world's fastest. Numerous horse racing records have been set there,
including the fastest mile ever paced, the fastest all-age filly or
mare pace, and the fastest mile ever trotted. In the early 1920s, a
half-mile track still lay within the one-mile oval. In 1927, the
smaller oval was eliminated.
During 1895, the Dome Building was constructed on the grounds. The
building's huge glass dome, the world's second largest unsupported
dome at 222 feet in diameter, had been part of the 1893 Chicago
World's Fair. It was purchased for $69,000, taken down in Chicago and
reassembled at the state fairgrounds. The building could accommodate
10,000 people and housed horticultural displays and National Guard
The fairgrounds bustled with construction projects during the late
1890s and early 1900s. Machinery Hall, located at the southeast corner
of the grounds, was completed in 1896. As its name suggests, the
building's long shed usually served as a display area for farm
machinery. The hall was razed in 1973, and its shed burned the
A lagoon constructed near Machinery Hall served as a backdrop for
pageants, including the Fall of Pompeii, a play that boasted a cast of
250 local actors. The lagoon represented the Mediterranean Sea, and
fireworks simulated the eruption of Mt.Vesuvius.
The original Women's Building was constructed in 1899 and became
home to a well-attended cooking school in 1901. Just one month later,
a fire burned the structure to the ground, forcing the young women to
flee the building in their night clothes.
A new Women's Building was completed in 1903, and the popular State
Fair School of Domestic Science continued to operate there for many
years. The school moved to the newly constructed Emmerson Building in
1931, and the previous Women's Building was remodeled for
administrative use before its demolition in 1973. After the women's
school closed, the Emmerson Building served a variety of functions. It
was a senior center, a foreign exhibit center, a display hall, and now
is used primarily as administrative offices for the Illinois State
The fair's original amphitheater was built near the racetrack in
1896 for $27,000. Rebuilt in 1927, the Grandstand provides seating for
those attending races, concerts and other events. Renovations in 1994
brought new concrete and handrails, an elevator and more comfortable
The Junior Activities building and the Visitors' Services Building
were constructed by Works Progress Administration crews in the late
The Illinois Building was completed in 1940 and originally enclosed
a replica of the New Salem Rutledge Tavern. Later taken apart and
reconstructed next to the old Conservation Building, the replica was
razed in 1982. That same year the Illinois Department of Agriculture
Administration Building was completed on the southwest side of the
A 30-foot fiberglass statue of Abraham Lincoln stands outside the
Illinois Building. The statue was constructed in 1967 by John Rinnus,
a display director for a department store. Rinnus made the statue in
two pieces on sawhorses outside his home in Athens. The figure was
molded over a welded-wire frame, with the pants legs slipped over two
In 1968, two more attractions were added: the Giant Slide and the
Sky Glider, which provides a great aerial view of the fairgrounds and
easy transportation from one side to the other.
The Butter Cow
Built in 1930 for $20,000, the Dairy Building has been home to the
famous butter cow for more than 70 years. In the past, the cow was
made of about 210 pounds of unsalted butter and sculpted over a wire
frame that faced left. In 1979, a new frame was constructed facing to
The same woman, Norma Lyon, has been sculpting the butter cow for
more than 25 years. To make the cow, Lyon works inside a refrigerated
case cooled to 42 degrees, molding about 600 pounds of butter.
Although the cow appears to be solid butter, a look from the backside
reveals a surprisingly more complex and less edible modeling
structure. Years ago, the butter was scraped off after the fair and
used in pet and livestock food. During a World War II butter shortage,
buckets of butter were given to fair employees. Lyon now reuses the
butter as she travels throughout the Midwest creating butter cows.
In 1910, Sears, Roebuck and Co. built a pavilion for displaying the
farm machinery offered in its catalog. On top of the pavilion the
company built a five-room house sold through the Sears catalog and
completely furnished it with items available through Sears mail order
During the 1930s, the Sears house was moved from the top of the
pavilion and relocated to a spot east of the Dairy Building. It
remains in that place today, serving as the official residence of the
state fair manager. The Sears Pavilion was used as the Textile
Building for a while and then taken down in 1971.
Also in 1910, the present main gate was built on the south side of
the fairgrounds. The previous main entrance had been at the southeast
corner of the fairgrounds at the intersection of Sangamon Avenue and
In 1917, about 1,500 soldiers waiting to go to war were temporarily
housed in the Dome Building. On Aug. 17 the building caught fire.
Within 30 minutes after the fire was discovered, the huge glass dome
came crashing down. At the time of the fire the building was valued at
$300,000, but insured for only $20,000. Apparently the soldiers were
not to blame for the fire nor were any injured by it.
Much of the brick and steel from the Dome Building's ruins were used
to construct the Conservation Building in 1918. This building, once
known for its native fish and wildlife displays, is now the Hobby,
Arts and Crafts Center. Conservation projects have moved to
Conservation World, located in the northwest corner of the grounds.
This area was part of a 210- acre addition in 1924 that brought the
fairgrounds to its present size -- 366 acres.
There was no state fair during the period 1942-1945 because the
fairgrounds were used as a U.S. Army Air Force supply depot. According
to one historian, in the fall of 1943 more than 1,000 Chinese military
personnel were trained on the grounds.
Premiums for Everything
Since its beginning, the Illinois State Fair has encouraged the
production of high-quality agricultural livestock and commodities
through the award of cash premiums. Over the years the premiums have
risen, and the number of classes of competition have grown. The
premiums at the first fair totaled $944. By the 1867 fair in Quincy
the total had grown to $10,000. In 1920 more than $150,000 in premiums
were awarded. The figure grew to $400,000 in 1952 and topped $1
million in 1969. Total premiums and awards for the 1997 fair will
The competition for premiums in livestock takes on a special
significance for the junior exhibitors. These youths, who must be
participating in a 4-H or FFA program, hope to win their classes and
participate in the Sale of Champions. This sale of junior champion
steer, barrow, whether, poultry meat trio and rabbit meat pin has
netted large sums in the past. The owner gets 90 percent of the
proceeds from the sale and the rest is split between the Illinois 4-H
Foundation and the Illinois FFA Foundation. The Sale of Champions
records are: steer, $30,500 (set in 1982); barrow $15,100 (1994);
whether, $5,300 (1996); poultry meat pen trio, $5,000 (1992); and
rabbit meat pen trio $5,200 (1995).
In 1996, junior exhibitors of beef, dairy, horses, sheep and swine
can compete for scholarship money as well as Grand Champion honors.
Five $1,000 scholarships in each animal class will be awarded to
youths who demonstrate a well-developed understanding of their animal
and its care and maintenance as well as showmanship. Prize money will
be paid directly to schools the winners attend when they begin their
Contests for cash premiums are not limited to the best corn or cow,
nor to those who live on a farm. Green-thumb gardeners can choose from
among hundreds of classes of vegetables and flowers. Those handy with
a needle and thread can choose from a variety of classes in the
textile competition. Someone with a favorite recipe can find an
appropriate class for competition in the culinary contests among the
several varieties of breads, cakes, pies, jellies, jams, canned
vegetables and candies honored. Hobby and craft divisions provide many
with an opportunity to display their pastimes.
In addition to the general premium classes and livestock
competitions there are many special event contests. Abe's Amble, a
10,000-meter race, has become popular with hundreds of runners
throughout the Midwest. Presumably not everyone is qualified to enter
the auctioneer's bid-calling contest, the solo baton twirling
competition or the pigtail and ponytail contests, but how about the
arm wrestling tournament, the hog or husband-calling contest, or mud
volleyball? High school marching bands compete during the Twilight
Parade, which, since 1984, has wound its way up Ninth Street to the
fairgrounds on the night before the fair officially opens.
Home Away from Home for Livestock
State fair livestock competitions have a long history, as do many of
the buildings that house cattle, sheep, horses, chickens, swine and
rabbits during the fair's usual 10-day run.
Construction began on the 2,000-coup Poultry Palace in 1896 and was
completed in time for the 1897 fair. A bridge built that year, called
the Haskell Viaduct, spanned the hollow between the Poultry and
Exposition buildings but was removed years ago. After its use as a
poultry building ceased, the palace served as a storehouse. It was
renovated in 1988 and is now known as the Artisan's Building, housing
displays and demonstrations of Illinois crafts. Poultry and rabbit
exhibits are now found in the Richard Orr Building, constructed in
1990 on the west side of the grounds. The building was named after a
long-timeChicago Tribune rural affairs editor.
The Coliseum was built in time for the 1901 fair, enlarged in 1903,
remodeled in 1948 and again in 1995. Livestock judging and horse shows
still take place in its cavernous interior. Its companion, Barn 13,
was built shortly after the Coliseum and housed horse stalls and a
The sheep and swine pavilions have been renovated since their
construction in 1912, but their original facades remain. Built in
1913, the brick horse barns were the original stabling grounds for the
106th Cavalry. Several sections were lost in a fire in 1984 but have
been rebuilt and serve as the multi-purpose, air-conditioned Livestock
Constructed in 1927, the beef and dairy cattle barns have been
recently renovated to provide new stalls and livestock washing areas.
Some are now used to keep horses.
A new paddock was built in 1996 to provide close-to-the-track
quarters for racehorses prior to and after competing. Located just
north of the grandstand, the modern facility boasts ceiling fans, 72
large stalls and television monitors for viewing the races.
If the historical buildings, livestock competitions, talent
contests, exhibits and educational displays are not enough to whet
one's appetite for the Illinois State Fair, there is always the
traditional fair cuisine of corn dogs, salt water taffy and lemonade
shakeups. Those with more eclectic tastes can find a wide assortment
of foods in the Ethnic Village. And those with B stomachs can
follow up with a few thrilling rides on the carnival midway.
The Illinois State Fair has changed a great deal since its creation
more than 140 years ago. Many fair traditions remain after more than a
century in Springfield, but the event has grown bigger and more
diverse over the years. One thing that hasn't changed in the joy
people get from participating in one of Illinois' most entertaining
and educational events. The state fair offers something for everyone
-- a lesson in history, a hint of the future and a wonderful time.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture would like to thank Mrs.
Patricia Henry and the publishers of the Cook-Witter Report.
Much of this historical account was taken with permission from the
report's Aug. 3, 1989 issue.
Copyright © 2001
State of Illinois Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 19281, State Fairgrounds
Springfield, IL 62794-9281
(217) 524-6858 TTY