Illinois State Fair

Illinois State Fairgrounds Main Street, 1913. The covered walkway went from the Exposition Building to the Dome Building, which was destroyed by fire in 1917. (eBay postcard image)

This entry, first published in 2013, was significantly expanded in 2023.

The first Illinois State Fair was held in Springfield in October 1853 under the direction of the Illinois State Agricultural Association. The association’s president, James N. Brown (considered the founder of the fair), and its secretary, Simeon Francis, both were from Sangamon County.

In 1872, the fair was put under the control of the State Board of Agriculture. That lasted until 1918, when the fair became part of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

The first two state fairs, 1853 and 1854, were held on the original Sangamon County Fairgrounds, now occupied by Dubois Elementary School and Sacred Heart-Griffin High School.  The fair then was a traveling agricultural exposition, so it moved around the state to 12 different cities over the next 40 years. In addition to Springfield, host cities were Chicago, Alton, Peoria, Centralia, Du Quoin, Freeport, Jacksonville, Quincy, Decatur, Ottawa, and Olney.

Moving the fair added expense in terms of management and organization, so in 1893, the State Board of Agriculture took it upon itself to determine a permanent location. The finalists were Bloomington, Decatur, Peoria, and Springfield. The board chose Springfield in January 1894, and the first fair under the new arrangement took place Sept. 24-30, 1894.

Included in Springfield’s bid to win the fair was a 156-acre site north of the city; the state bought another 208 acres north and west of the original fairgrounds in 1924.  As of 2023, the fairgrounds took in approximately 366 acres with 165 structures.

The 21st-century fairgrounds contains spaces devoted to agriculture, farm machinery, livestock and other animals, as well as spaces for public interest exhibits, food preparation, music performance, auto and horse racing, and nature conservation. Two midway sections feature carnival rides. The grounds were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

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 (formerly Poultry Palace), 1896-97
  • Coliseum, 1901; expanded in 1903, remodeled in 1948, 1955, 2018-19 and 2022-23
  • Dairy Building, 1903
  • 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 (formerly 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
  • Reisch Pavilion (formerly Food-A-Rama), Commodities Pavilion, both 1971
  • Illinois Department of Agriculture headquarters (John R. Block Building), 1981
  • Orr Building, 1990
  • Livestock Center, 1992
  • Horse Paddock, 1994
  • Multipurpose arena, 2000; canopy restored, 2022-23
  • Illinois Department of Natural Resources headquarters, 2002

A 2002 Cook-Witter Report archived by the Illinois State Fair Museum Foundation recounted the history of the fair’s carnival:

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. … 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 and a focus on the family farm still are prominent at the fair, but the overall recreational emphasis has expanded over the years.  There are a variety of entertainment venues, beer tents and performance showplaces on the fairgrounds.  National music acts also perform at the Grandstand on most nights of the fair.

State fairs were not held in 1893, when Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, in 1942 because of World War II, and in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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.

Hat tip: William Cellini Jr.

Other SangamonLink entries related to the fair
The butter cow
The Dome Building
The Coliseum
Lincoln statue and Carl Rinnus
1942 state fair canceled
Army Air Force Depot, WWII
State fair crisis, 1922-23
Unnatural deaths at the fair
Machinery Hall collapse, 1895
Camp Tanner, 1898
Haskell Viaduct
Sangamon Fair and Springfield Exposition, 1890
Dan Patch (racehorse) at the fair

More information:  The Illinois State Fair Museum Foundation website includes a collection of articles on a variety of fair history topics. The Illinois Department of Agriculture has a short history of the fair.

More photos: The Illinois Digital Archives: Illinois State Fair Museum.bridge

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 

This entry was posted in Agriculture, Amusements, Buildings, Celebrations, Farming, Illinois capital. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Illinois State Fair

  1. Jennifer Long says:

    Looking for a cover photo of a young woman with a snake around her neck/snake charmer.Her name was Letty Mae the this was from 1954,1955 or 1956.Illinois State Fair.

  2. Douglas Kamholz says:

    One of my favorite historical notes about the wondrous state fair also strikes a dramatic contrast between now and then. There was a time when folks would drop their picnic baskets at some designated tent and retrieve them at mealtime. That’s a far cry from alligator-on-a-stick or fried jellybeans.

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