Old Capitol Art Fair beginnings

Springfield’s first Old Capitol Art Fair was a one-day affair in 1962 that featured 174 artists from around the Midwest.

The event, held Saturday, May 26, 1962 (see note below), was one of the earliest events created by the Springfield Central Area Development Association, founded in 1961, and its first director, Bill Montague (1925-2010). State Journal-Register women’s editor Pauline Telford wrote in 1969 that many people doubted Springfield would support the idea.

Eight years ago when the Springfield Old Capitol Art Fair was initiated by the Springfield Central Area Development Association, there was considerable head shaking among many of those approached to help promote the program.

They couldn’t see how such a huge undertaking, so completely foreign to the locale (judging from Springfield’s reactions to “new” things in the past, anyway) could possibly stand a chance of “going over.”

But the small nucleus of supporters under the leadership of Bill Montague … persisted in their efforts.

SCADA contracted with Bill Bealmer, then head of art in the office of the Illinois superintendent of public instruction, to organize the event. The SJR’s Margaret Boswell, quoting another SCADA executive director, Denny Kelley, reported in 1975 that Bealmer encouraged the SCADA board to make an important investment.

(O)ne of the things that Bill got across to us was that most art fairs don’t provide the artist anything except a square piece of ground to set up their wares. We decided to put up something they could hang their work on. We made these big wooden frames and a sort of area for each artist, and we were in business.

Each artist paid $2 as entry fee for that first fair. (The 2016 fee for a single booth was $300, plus a jury fee of $35.)

“From the beginning factory made and commercially cast objects were not permitted,” according to a history on the Old Capitol Art Fair website. “Booths were constructed twice that year because a storm knocked them down during the night. The entire Fair budget was $1,000.”

The 1962 fair also included an art auction, puppet shows for children, and refreshments – sandwiches made by “wives of SCADA members,” Kelley told Boswell.

In a hyperbolically written preview of the 1962 event, Illinois State Journal reporter Joan Muraro predicted “an art smart square fair next weekend is going to give the old courthouse square the newest look it’s worn since Abe Lincoln jumped out that window.” (In fact, Lincoln’s fabled attempt to avert a legislative quorum took place in a different, temporary capitol.)

Sangamon County offices still occupied what is now the Old Capitol State Historic Site during that first fair. The building’s reconstruction to its appearance when Abraham Lincoln was a legislator took place in the late 1960s.

To accommodate the reconstruction, the art fair moved to the Lincoln Home area from 1966 through 1970. The wooden display frames were replaced about the same time by metal ones, built for free by apprentices from the Ironworkers union. The first two-day art fair was held in 1969.

The fair moved back to the Old Capitol in 1971, and display frames were erected that year in traffic lanes on Fifth and Sixth streets. About 20,000 patrons were predicted, a guess that turned out to be far too small, Boswell reported in her 1975 story.

By 9 a.m., all the traffic on 5th Street going south and all of 6th Street going north was hopelessly stopped.

“The traffic officer came over and told us,” said Kelley, “to get those cars moving in 20 minutes or he was going to put the whole executive committee in jail.”

The executive committee went out and directed traffic.

The fair eventually outgrew its SCADA connection; it now is operated by its own volunteer board of directors. SCADA itself was merged into today’s Downtown Springfield Inc. in 1993.

Note: The Old Capitol Art Fair’s own website says incorrectly that the first fair was held in 1961.

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



This entry was posted in Amusements, Arts and letters, Celebrations, Prominent figures, Spectacles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *