The first Illinois State Fair was held in Springfield in 1853. The fair came to be through the creation of the Illinois State Agricultural Society. Some of the organization’s members believed that since farmers read very little and/or traveled even less, inducing them to make improvements in the art of farming would be difficult. Therefore, the society thought a fair would help promote agricultural, mechanical and household arts, and specifically, would introduce the latest in farm implements and innovative ideas. The fair also was intended to display the best of livestock and provide an opportunity for farmers to meet and exchange ideas. Bids were sent out and Springfield was the first to win the right to host the fair. The first fair was held on a wooded 20 acre site one mile west of the Old State Capitol, a $250,000 structure completed in 1853. The site became Camp Yates in 1861, the place where Colonel U.S. Grant took command of his troops.
The four-day fair opened on October 11, 1853 with an admission of 25 cents. The attractions included cattle, horses, and sheep venues, among displays of reapers, mowers, farming tools, and a variety of corn planters. On the third day, over 15,000 people attended. The fair was a success, netting $853 in profits with $1500 in premiums paid out to prize-winning exhibits. There were a total of 765 entries in all areas.
The next year the fair was supposed to take place in September, but a cholera outbreak caused it to be postponed to October. This fair proved to be just as successful as the first with even more entries and visitors. Premiums were $3000 that year and there were 1076 entries.
Although, it commenced in Springfield, this city was not its permanent home. The Illinois State Fair was hosted by twelve cities around the state for the first 40 years until 1894 when Sangamon County and Springfield promised to donate 156 acres north of the city and build a fence and sewage system in order to make this the permanent home for the fair.
On September 24, 1894, a six-day run began with an admission price of 50 cents for adults, 75 cents for one person on horseback, and $1.25 for a carriage load of four. Baby contests, a new feature this year, proved to be very popular, as were mule and horse races. The 1894 Illinois State Fair offered premiums of over $30,000 to exhibitors.
A great deal of construction took place in the early 1900's as attendance, exhibits, and profits grew. But until 1907, carnivals were not allowed at the Illinois State Fair because fair management wanted to maintain a dignified atmosphere at the fair. When the fair closed at dark, fairgoers then proceeded downtown to the festively decorated square where merchants organized carnivals highlighted by vaudeville and circus acts, rides, food, and music.
In 1918, fair dates were moved from the September and October months to August to avoid the notorious fall rains. The new dates also took advantage of a lull in farmers’ schedules, and because the fair was becoming more about family entertainment for non-farming visitors, it was decided the fair should coincide with the traditional family vacation season.
Over a million people visit the fair each year. The crowds and premiums offered are much greater than in the early days. While the initial goal for creating the fair as a means to educate farmers about their craft and provide them an opportunity to meet and exchange ideas, set by the Agricultural Society in 1853 have not changed, the scope of the educational tools and the audiences have expanded greatly .
Incidentally, Daisy Mae, the Nuthatch Hill BBQ Co. mascot, was stolen from the fairgrounds two days ago. There is a reward for her should you find her.
The butter cow sculpture is construct from 600 pounds of Iowa butter and it has been part of the fair for more than 90 years.
Information for this post taken from the State Fair Museum.
Continue to Illinois State Fair at night