The State of the Fair
Life as it is lived at the Illinois State Fair
June 30, 1989
A piece published in the Reader’s In These Parts special issue. In 1994, Harper’s Magazine sent David Foster Wallace to go to the fair and report what he found. (See “Ticket to the fair” by David Foster Wallace, Harper’s, July 1994.) Some people prefer this one.
You can't really go wrong writing about the state fair. I did it four times. For the others, see "Illinois State Fair" on the Illinois life page.
If Illinois State Fair promoters need an animal to play Mickey Mouse to the fair's Disneyland, they couldn't do better than Bird Brain. Bird Brain is the star of the IQ Zoo, which features smart animals each year at the fair; he makes a living taking parking-meter money off college boys dumb enough to think they can beat something with feathers at ticktacktoe. A barnyard bird who plucks the city slickers—now there's a symbol for the Illinois agriculture exposition of the '90s.
The Illinois State Fair is no longer the biggest or the gaudiest such show in the country (Texas and Ohio are the likeliest candidates for those titles), but it remains indisputably the most Illinoisan. Every year a big parade rolls through Springfield on the night before opening day, giving a preview of the fair's 11-day run: it leaves manure on the streets, makes a lot of noise, and is very weird.
Two years ago, Ernie Banks rode at the front of the parade as grand marshal. It was the first time that a black man leading a parade through Springfield's north end was not being carried on a rail, but that happy new precedent was probably the least remarkable thing about the procession. In the same parade, people were dressed to look like turds to protest pollution, the Citizens for the Right to Bare Arms marched in formation carrying the limbs of mannequins, and in the annual contest for "the best characterization of the romance of Illinois," the special Lincoln Award was presented to a walking Crimestoppers demonstration. It was while watching a state-fair parade that I began drafting Krohe's Rules of PR. Rule number one holds that any event needing a parade to drum up interest shouldn't be held in the first place. It applies equally to wars and circuses, and certainly to any state fair held in the Midwest.
Like most kids who grew up in Springfield, I exploited my proximity to the August extravaganza, especially during my eleventh summer. At that age a boy's curiosity impels him toward the egregious in all its forms, and my buddies and I practically lived at the fair. We toured fake coal mines, snickered at fake freaks in the midway (called Happy Hollow), and got sick eating fake food. We suffered sunburn and swindles and blood-sugar crises. We marveled at the perversities of which the race is capable, as well as its capacity for devotion, both of which were demonstrated by the drum-and-bugle corpsmen who, after doing their routines in 100-degree heat, managed to remain at attention while they were passing out.
A 50-cent ticket to the fair could buy a boy a lot of wisdom in 1959. Seeing an old man get hit by a VIP's golf cart later helped me understand Reaganism, just as the ring toss games later gave me insight into Pentagon contracts. And it was while standing in the dairy building staring at a cow sculpted from butter—made from cows—that I realized that life has larger symmetries. Indeed, the state fair was a small-town boy's first foretaste of the crush, the confusion, and the exhilaration of the big city.
The state fair hasn't changed all that much in 30 years, but Illinois has. The fair was first held in 1853, and for the next 100 years enjoyed a reputation (only modestly exaggerated) as the world's premier agricultural exposition. The fair was as much seminar as party in those days. Progress was the aim, and science was the method. The state fair was (and mostly remains) an organized orgy of exposition, exhibition, and celebration of the longest, the heaviest, the oldest, the rarest, the oddest. Stockbreeders, for example, turned the many barns and pavilions into arks crammed with goats, sheep, swine, horses, cattle, even rabbits, whose variety attested to the stockman's patience and nature's sense of humor.
For a genetic Lutheran, raised as I had been in the prepackaged confines of a GI-bill subdivision, the livestock barns were a revelation. The barns were (and are) open to passersby, who found them filled with flies and stinks and bored 4-H members, many of whom were girls; admiring their animal ease, I finally got the point of farmer's-daughter jokes. I saw dairy cows as big as Ramblers and hogs sprawled atop piles of straw in poses I would later recognize in Playboy. The big animals in particular lolled and shat, oblivious and gorgeous, scratching themselves in places I didn't know the names of. Their physicality suggested a parallel universe that was alien but not unfriendly to the one I knew; watching them, I felt the way Gauguin must have felt in Tahiti.
It is a measure of the economic progress made by Illinois farmers that crafts once essential for survival are practiced today mainly as hobbies. You can still win a ribbon for growing seed ("Exhibitors should read and understand rule 13 regarding forfeiture of premiums for low germination rates"), and they still hold the "Main Dish Using Beef Contest." But these days serious stock breeding is done in labs, not barns, and the only time a farm wife is likely to bother making a pie shell from scratch is when she's practicing for the pastry competition.
The mood at many of today's cook-offs is promotional rather than educational. Archway sponsors the cookie contest, and Crisco the pie-baking, and so on. Skills that once made the useful beautiful now make the useless conspicuous. The sophisticated fairgoer may sneer at this Olympics of kitsch, but tradition has its place. Where else these days will someone honor Illinois' masters of decoupage, tin-punch pie-pan decoration, and beeswax-art designs ("not less than 3 pounds") if not at the state fair?
The most dramatic change in farming since the 1850s, of course, has been in the number of people it takes to do it. A farmers' fair without farmers is a fair without a soul, and by the time I was old enough to attend it unsupervised, the state fair had begun to lose its identity. Illinois's agriculture department, which ran it, no longer had much clout with the legislature, and a succession of fair managers tried to stage it on the cheap. The buildings were falling apart, sanitation became a local joke, and the perception grew that the fair had become the province of working-class toughs—sons and grandsons of farmers, who made and repaired the machines that had driven their families off the land. The USAC dirt-car races drew thousands more than the trotters did, and the motorcycle races became so popular that they had to be banned for several years because rambunctious bikers scared the locals.
Some kids I knew weren't allowed to go to the fair, at least not by themselves. In fact (except to gullible boys), the fair was more boring than dangerous in the '60s. Having lost most of its original audience, it had not yet found another. The college-educated middle class (including thousands of younger farmers) found the fair unsavory, while urban sophisticates thought it declassé. Country-club types were as rare on the grounds in August as a flushed toilet (each explained the other), and minorities must have felt as out of place there as a Baptist in the Casbah. Year by year there was less and less to distinguish the state fair from a hundred other gawk-and-puke festivals being staged around the Midwest.
Attendance declined, although not officially. The Pentagon wasn't the only bureaucracy to lie about body counts in those days. A total attendance over ten days of one million people had become the benchmark of a successful fair; and one way or another, each fair managed to break the million mark, even though actual attendance may have been as low as 600,000. As I got older, I speculated with fellow fair-watchers about how they did it. Did they count horses? Delivery drivers? I concluded that they stationed carnival weight-guessers at the gates to estimate the total weight of each day's arrivals, which was then divided by, say, 170 pounds to get an attendance figure expressed in average Illinoisan equivalents; because the typical attendee was probably a good twenty pounds heavier than that, the method kited the estimated count by 11 percent.
This was the condition of the state fair when James Thompson first visited on a downstate campaign trip in 1976. "I was appalled at the conditions at the fair," the guv said this year in his annual message to fairgoers. "I said to myself that if I was fortunate enough to be elected governor, I would turn the Illinois State Fair around." Thompson recognized that the fair would have to draw a new audience from among the state's burgeoning vacation-with-the-kids-in-the-car middle class, especially those who lived in its cities. He set about making the state fair, as he puts it today, "the kind of place you would like to bring your family."
At Thompson's insistence, dilapidated buildings were fixed up and state prisoners were assigned to clean up the grounds. The guv himself has spent hundreds of hours at each year's fair for more than ten years, promoting it nearly as tirelessly as he promoted himself. He changed horses' shoes, he changed his own shoes (trading in his LaSalle Street wing-tips for cowboy boots), he even changed accents. He helped call at auctions and ate chili with Willie Nelson backstage.
Thompson personified the new state-fair audience of the '80s—younger, urban, educated, bored. To the traditional competitions in fiddlin' and cow milkin' the Thompson administration added boccie and softball tournaments and Abe's Amble, a ten-kilometer run. Beer tents were authorized, as was harness-race betting. This was to be a fair for the 1980s; nobody was going to drive 200 miles from Chicago to watch a taffy pull.
Several years ago the Ethnic Village was added. Food and displays from 40 nations and a beer tent serving only imported surround a stage on which clog dancers and balalaika bands cavort continuously. The village has proved popular both with the ethnically self-conscious and with non-hyphenated Americans (especially visitors from Chicago) craving something better than such state-fair staples as the pronto pup.
Families have indeed returned to the fair. So have jaded urbanites. I am told that state-government careerists find the fair such a dramatic departure from life in the statehouse that they go there in lieu of a trip out of town. What local writer Steve Slack once described as "cotton candy cowboys" infest the country-music concerts. (For some reason lawyers in particular like to dress up in cowboy hats; there are lawyers in Springfield who have appeared before Willie Nelson at the grandstand stage more often than they have appeared before juries.) The fair even attracts amateur anthropologists, the type who would never buy a T-shirt that reads "Is that a pickle in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" but are fascinated by people who do.
Selling the fair to the state's urban population requires marketers to straddle the cultural chasm separating greater Chicago from Downstate. The 1988 parade marshal, Doug Collins, was not promoted as the Bulls coach downstate, where he is remembered as an Illinois State University star and hero of the 1972 Olympics final against the Russkies.
The citification of the fair has made it as complicated to experience as it is to sell. No event made the point more vividly than the premiere performance four years ago of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Players accustomed to an opening act consisting of the concertmaster strolling onstage to his seat were startled to see a trapeze artist whiz by over the stage, dangling from a helicopter. And when the unamplified orchestra had trouble making itself heard above the noise of revelry from nearby beer tents, an embarrassed governor (whose idea the Brahms-in-the-barnyard concert was) had to dispatch state troopers to pull the plug on the hoedowns. Ever since, the beer-tent stages have been ordered to stand silent while culture has its hour at the grandstand.
Traditionalists will be pleased to know that, as was often noted about the blond strippers who worked the Happy Hollow, the roots of the fair still show. In the hearts of organizers, it will always be 1900. Ribbons are awarded for the longest ponytails and pigtails, but corn rows are specifically disqualified. Many visiting urbanites must have found the Swinging Grandmothers of Clinton, Illinois, as exotic, as picturesque, and as off-tune as Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, and wondered why the Grandmothers were booked into the Senior Center and not the Ethnic Village along with the gamelan combos.
Agriculture is still the leitmotiv, but nostalgia has largely replaced education at a fair that owes more and more to The Beverly Hillbillies and less and less to the Cooperative Extension Service. For example, the fair has long staged hog-calling contests for the menfolk and husband-calling contests for the women. Neither is a skill much needed today; hogs are kept in pens, and farm wives who need to call their husbands in from the fields use a CB radio. But the popularity of contests in which people call to animals led to contests in which people call like animals. Traditionalists may complain that today's popular rooster-crowing and hen-cackling contests complete a degeneration that began with rural electrification and cable TV and continued with The Gong Show, but they've proved a spur to the ambitious. The woman who set the standard in hen cackling last year was a 1978 husband-calling winner "trying," she said, "for bigger and better things."
In short, the Illinois State Fair is becoming an exposition of life in all its loopy aspects, not just the agricultural. The amusements today still may not be very sophisticated but they are more metropolitan, and so are the crowds. The effects can be measured in the attendance figures. Honest gatekeepers report that the fair (which has added a day to its run) has drawn a million or more since 1985; in 1980 it attracted barely 600,000.
The marketing possibilities in the new fair are only now beginning to be tapped. The racing program could be augmented by a new "Commuter 100": drivers would compete against the clock as they piloted their Volvos and Country Squires toward a single parking space over a course littered with construction barricades and malfunctioning toll machines. How about urban-arts-and-crafts demonstrations: graffiti? chain snatching? bus-pass forgery? And what suburbanite eager to teach her kids about the Good Old Days wouldn't pay to tour a reconstructed three-bedroom ranch circa 1960, complete with a three-foot Chinese elm sapling stuck into a muddy lawn next to a sign that reads "For Sale $15,000"?
Y'all come. You can find me at the IQ Zoo as usual, where Bird Brain is finally going to meet his match. Ahab had his whale, I have my chicken. The difference is that this year, when I put that third X on the grid that will make me a winner, Bird Brain'll walk over to the Kiwanis tent, roll himself in cracker crumbs, and hop right into the deep-fat fryer. If only I don't run out of quarters. ●
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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
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