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.
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’ windows 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 LPGA Rail Golf Tournament in Springfield, for example, is a middle or upper-middle class affair (though paying to play in the pro-am is decidedly High Prole). The state fair, as noted, is unabashedly Prole (as indeed is most of state government), which is why the Springfield bankers, lawyers, and mayors who crowd the Rail are as hard to rind at the fair as a flushed toilet.
The question for fair organizers eager to boost the gate is, how to attract the middle classes to the fair. Hutchcraft, Block & Co. have already taken a big step in the right direction by cleaning up the grounds. (One’s attitude toward dirt also is a class indicator. The Proles don’t notice it. Middles recoil from it. 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 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, or 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. ●