Fair to Middling
Springfield Day at the Illinois State Fair
August 22, 1980
Going to the fair (and, later, working there) was one of the few reasons to look forward to summer in Springfield when I was growing up. This piece is not nostalgic in the least, however. The library of "My Visit to the Fair" reminiscences is substantial, so I thought for this piece I’d write about why people don’t go to the fair like they used to. I also wrote about the fair here and here.
I tidied up some of the original's text a bit.
Mayor Houston said something interesting the other day. It was Springfield Day at the Illinois State Fair, and the Springfield mayor was explaining to a TV reporter that probably 90 out of every 100 people then prowling the fairgrounds were from outside the capital city. He knew what he was talking about; as he sheepishly admitted, he hadn’t gone to the fair on Springfield Day either.
I know very few people who go to the fair. I know Springfieldians who haven’t wrapped their hands around a bona fide state fair lemon shakeup since childhood. There was, I confess, many a year during which I didn’t venture north of Carpenter Street during fair week. I go every year now—for exactly two hours, which is just long enough to stroll through some stock barns, chow down a batch of Culler’s french fries (made from fresh whole potatoes, an act of honest commerce almost without precedent at the fair), and play a quick game of tic-tac-toe at the "IQ Zoo” with Birdbrain, the smartest chicken at the fair.
But of course it is not Springfieldians per se who do not go to the fair but rather a certain kind of Springfieldian, a Springfieldian whose counterparts in Decatur, Chicago, Rockford, and other cities comprise the state’s middle classes. The middle class makes its presence known in virtually every phase of the state’s life except the attendance figures at the state fair. Finding out why and then doing something about it should, one would think, be high on the list of fair manager Sid Hutchcraft’s agenda for 1981.
It might be useful to begin the debate by asking who does go to the fair, and why. We are probably mistaken to categorize fairs as rural entertainment. A lot of farmers go to fairs, to be sure. The State Journal-Register quoted a visiting New York Times man as saying that there were more farmers at Springfield than at the Iowa State Fair. But though farmers have a good time at the fair, it may not be accurate to say they come to the fair for entertainment. They are social but sober people who are able to take pleasure from their business. The fair for farmers isn’t so much a celebration as it is a seminar.
Most of the 600,000 people who came to the fair this year do not share farmers’ mania for improvement; if they looked at any livestock at all, it was the three-headed calf at the sideshow. Their fair is Happy Hollow, foot-long hot dogs, Johnny Paycheck, mechanical bucking broncs, and ornamental belt buckles that quickly turn green. That fair is peopled not by farmers but by their working class brethren from town. (Small towns mainly, although the 1980 census may ultimately reveal that most small town Americans no longer live in small towns but in small town enclaves in bigger cities, like Springfield’s north side.) They are to the fair what bankers’ widows are to the opera.
Broadly speaking, they fall into one of the three divisions (high, middle, and low) of the Proletarian social class (proles for short) described by Paul Fussell in a recent New Republic essay. Proles’ identifying characteristics range from the use of painted truck tires as lawn planters to watching “Bowling for Dollars” on TV and (among the women) flaunting obesity. Social events can be categorized according to the class of people they attract. The state fair is unabashedly Prole (as indeed is most of state government) while the LPGA Rail Golf Tournament in Springfield, another big event on the summer calendar, is a middle or upper-middle class affair (though paying to play in the pro-am is decidedly High Prole); this is why the Springfield bankers, lawyers, and mayors who crowd the Rail are as hard to find at the fair as a flushed toilet.
The question for fair organizers eager to boost the gate is, how to attract more of the the middle class to the fair. One’s attitude toward dirt also is a class indicator and Hutchcraft, Block & Co. have already taken a big step in the right direction by cleaning up the grounds. The Proles don’t notice dirt. Uppers never see any. Farmers—who are culturally Prole but whose independence puts them several notches above them—have learned to regard dirt as an unavoidable unpleasantness, rather the way developers regard having to pay bribes. Most Middles who find filth charming while on tour in Venice find it disgusting in Springfield.
Much more needs to be done, however. Most Middles find the fair either incomprehensible or unbearably declassé. They don’t find much there to amuse them except gawking at those who do. Walking through the Exposition Building is like watching a late-night movie on WGN television from Chicago (a quintessential Prole city, judging from the commercials for plastic sofa covers, fake diamond rings, and burglar-proof glass block windows). Ring toss games offer no thrills to jaded subdivision kids with computer TV games in their bedrooms. The appeal of the fair—any fair—used to be that it offered delights more novel than anything the small town could contrive, short of lynching. Today it is dull; even in Happy Hollow, the carnival that used to beckon like a tarted-up slut now appeals because it is so quaint. Nowadays folks who want to indulge their appetites for vicarious sex and violence merely subscribe to cable TV.
There are exceptions, of course, like the youngish white professionals who like to go slumming, culturally speaking, when Willie Nelson is in town, the types the SJR’s Steve Slack calls “cotton-candy cowboys.” The fair also is popular with certain intrepid types who take vacations to places like Rome—bold adventurers whose curiosity about alien cultures makes them ignore dirt, noise, and smells of the type one usually associates with public housing. They would never wear a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Is that a pickle in your pocket or are you just glad see me?” (one of many items of soft-core apparel being hawked this year) but they love seeing up close the people who do. The more experienced among them have developed iron constitutions which enable them to survive days at the fair in spite of the fact that one could trudge for days, from the goat barns to the governor’s tent, and not see a single fresh green vegetable. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.