BRENDEN MOORE SPRINGFIELD — Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, it’s fair to say I didn’t give much thought to the Illinois State Fair, an event that might get 30 seconds of coverage on the local news but otherwise didn’t pierce the consciousness of many in the northeast corner of the state. After all,
SPRINGFIELD — Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, it’s fair to say I didn’t give much thought to the Illinois State Fair, an event that might get 30 seconds of coverage on the local news but otherwise didn’t pierce the consciousness of many in the northeast corner of the state.
After all, it was a limited-run affair more than three hours away in the sweltering days of August when Six Flags Great America — with its soaring roller coasters and thrilling attractions — was within an hour radius of most in the Chicago region and open all summer long. Just 20 minutes down the road from where I grew up, it was a staple of the summers of my youth.
Quite frankly, the state fair is just not an event people from my neck of the woods travel to, with a few exceptions, namely city politicians chasing downstate votes when running for statewide office.
This is a direct reflection of the regionalization of Illinois, with many Chicagoans rarely venturing south of Interstate 80 for leisure, with day trips to Starved Rock State Park perhaps the most notable exception.
There is even a divide between the central and southern portions of the state, with the flagship fair in Springfield being immediately followed by the DuQuoin State Fair. So two state fairs and an entire region of the state indifferent to both of them? Yep, that sounds about right.
It’s a much different situation than in surrounding states, where state fairgrounds are both centrally-located and near major population centers. The Wisconsin State Fair takes place just outside of Milwaukee, for instance. The Indiana State Fairgrounds are literally within Indianapolis city limits.
Those fairs draw millions, including many city-dwellers in addition to those celebrating their state’s agricultural traditions. Even in a record year, Illinois’ fair doesn’t come close to its neighbors.
I used to be in the category of “indifferent” towards the fair. But then I moved to Central Illinois.
Originally intending to stay for just one year to attend graduate school, I was hired in 2018 as a reporter for The State Journal-Register in Springfield.
The fair is one of the big events of the summer in the capital city — there’s the political angle, of course. It’s been considered the unofficial kickoff to campaign season for years.
But then there was also the human aspect. Just as Great America was the highlight of my summers growing up, the state fair is the big thing everyone looks forward to in Central Illinois. It’s the last hurrah for kids before school starts. It was where you can see A-list musical acts without having to drive to Chicago or St. Louis. It’s a time-honored tradition.
My first fair, I covered a little bit of everything, snagging a one-on-one interview with then-Gov. Bruce Rauner one day as the lone reporter to cover a veterans event he attended. I also chatted with regular fairgoers about their experience and vendors about how they were doing compared to previous years.
As I covered more events, I quickly fell in love with the fair.
There was just an ambiance to it all — the throngs of people passing through the Dairy Building to get a glimpse of the Butter Cow, the screams of children going down the Giant Slide, the music blasting from the free acts in the beer tents and from the paid acts at the Grandstand.
It’s also a giant celebration of Illinois and of the state’s largest industry: agriculture. This is spotlighted every year in the Governor’s Sale of Champions, a marquee event in the Coliseum where champion livestock are auctioned off.
And then, of course, there’s the food. Calorie counts go out the window the week of the fair, replaced with a steady diet of corn dogs, elephant ears, fried Oreos and lemon shake-ups.
After skipping last year due to COVID-19, the fair is back starting Thursday. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
This time, I will be there as Lee Enterprises’ Illinois state government reporter. With 2022 candidates for Illinois Secretary of State expected to appear along with GOP challengers to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, there will be no shortage of political storylines from this year’s festivities.
Not to mention all the political fundraisers that will be happening in town, most notably the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Brunch next Wednesday featuring up-and-coming U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia.
Lots to cover, but still plenty of time to sneak away for a minute to snag a corn dog or take a trip down the Giant Slide.
As a born-and-raised Chicagoan now living in Central Illinois, consider me a state fair evangelist. I believe everyone should attend it at least once. Beyond gaining exposure to a different part of Illinois, it’s just fun.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS: Journey back to the Illinois State Fair
Illinois State Fair Happy Hollow
Heinhold Hog Race
Aerial view of Illinois State Fair
Illinois State Fair Coliseum
Chester White gilt pig
Auctioneer Merrill Anderson
Sale of champions
Shave and a haircut
Illinois Department of Agriculture
Arts and Textile Building
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