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A Long and Rich Tradition

First Fair
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.

Wandering Fair
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 tree.

Permanent Home
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 Springfield.

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 offices.

Construction Continues

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 following summer.

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 Fair.

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 seats.

The Junior Activities building and the Visitors' Services Building were constructed by Works Progress Administration crews in the late 1930s.

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 grounds.

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 telephone poles.

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 right.

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.

Sears House
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 service.

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 Peoria Road.

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 exceed $$640,000.

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 post-secondary education.

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 warm-up arena.

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 Center.

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.

Questions or comments.

Copyright © 2001
State of Illinois Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 19281, State Fairgrounds
Springfield, IL 62794-9281
(217) 782-2172
(217) 524-6858 TTY