The first two Illinois State Fairs, in 1853 and 1854, were held in Springfield at what originally was the Sangamon County Fairgrounds. (The area is now occupied by DuBois Elementary School and Sacred Heart-Griffin High School.) The fair moved around the state for the next 40 years; communities that hosted the fair at least once over the period included Alton, Centralia, Chicago, Decatur, DuQuoin, Freeport, Jacksonville, Olney, Ottawa, Peoria and Quincy.
Springfield finally was chosen as the permanent fair site in 1894. Its winning bid included 155 acres of land (again giving up the Sangamon County Fairgrounds, by now relocated to the city’s far north end), $50,000 cash, fencing, sewers, streets, and free water.
The first fair on the current site was held in 1894, the same year the Exposition Building was constructed.
The fairgrounds acquired another 210 acres in 1924, for the current total of 366 acres. The grounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Major buildings on the fairgrounds as of 2020 and their construction dates:
- Exposition Building, cornerstone laid July 4, 1894; first used during 1895 fair
- Grandstand, 1896, rebuilt in 1927
- Artisans Building (originally Poultry Palace), 1896-97
- Coliseum, 1901; expanded in 1903, remodeled in 1948, 1955 and 2018-19
- Main Gate, 1910
- Sears home (state fair manager’s home), built atop former Sears Pavilion, 1910; moved to present site, 1930s
- Sheep and swine pavilions, 1912; swine pavilion expanded, 1955
- Brick horse barns, 1913
- Hobbies, Arts & Crafts Building (originally Conservation Building), 1918
- Beef and dairy cattle barns, 1928 and 1931
- Emmerson Building (formerly Women’s Building), 1931
- Junior Activities, Visitor Services buildings, late 1930s (Works Progress Administration projects)
- Junior Livestock Building, 1938 (also federal project)
- Illinois Building, 1950
- Giant Slide, Sky Glider, 1968
- Food-A-Rama, Commodities Pavilion, both 1971
- Illinois Department of Agriculture headquarters, 1981
- Orr Building, 1990
- Livestock Center, 1992
- Horse Paddock, 1994
- Multipurpose arena, 2000
- Illinois Department of Natural Resources headquarters, 2002
(List above has been corrected and expanded)
The fair has changed in many other ways too. As a Cook-Witter Report history archived by the Illinois State Fair Museum Foundation website recounted in 2002:
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. Initially, wooden arches that could be set up and torn down during special occasions like fair week or welcoming home troops were placed at each corner of the square. Wooden arches gave way to permanent steel ones, which were eventually pulled down in 1921. The arches, brought from the Chicago’s World Fair (Ed: this is incorrect; the arches were built expressly for Springfield), were wrapped in flags, bunting, and lights to celebrate special events. Strings of lights would outline the Court House (Old State Capitol) and stretch from the dome to the arches. A midway of tent shows and rides in a wooded glen named “Happy Hollow” was finally allowed at the fairgrounds beginning in 1907 rendering the downtown carnivals unnecessary.
Agriculture remains prominent throughout the fair, but the recreational emphasis has grown over the years. The fair now has two carnivals (though the main one has relocated out of the traditional Happy Hollow) and a variety of entertainment venues, beer tents and performance showplaces — not to mention the national acts that play the Grandstand most nights of the fair.
The evolution of the fair perhaps was best summed up in the introduction to Illinois State Fair: A 150-Year History by Edward Russo, Melinda Garvert and Curtis Mann (2002).
When the Illinois Agricultural Society proposed an annual fair in the 1850s to help educate farmers and advance farming methods, little could organizers have realized that it would grow to a major cultural and entertainment venue for the state. The small harvest festival grew not only into the state’s most prominent agricultural event, but eventually brought world class entertainment, auto and harness racing and carnival thrills of every kind to visitors.”
Primary source: The Illinois State Fair: A Long and Rich Tradition. Note that the information on the butter cow sculptor is out of date.
More information: The Illinois State Fair Museum Foundation website includes a collection of articles on a variety of fair history topics.
More photos: The Illinois Digital Archives: Illinois State Fair Museum
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