County fair boards and agricultural groups have been struggling for months with decisions on how to handle fairs in 2020. In many cases, they have had to decide this year against cotton candy, well-trained calves and Ferris wheels in favor of coronavirus safety.
But some fairs, especially those set for August, are still hopeful.
Organizers say it is an agonizing decision to cancel a fair, both because of the joy it brings to families and the boost to many small-town economies.
Jill Hardesty knows the struggle all too well as the secretary of the Fisher Community Fair & Horse Show, held annually in the town of 1,700.
“It is the biggest event of the year here,” she said of the fair normally held in early July in Champaign County. “It brings 10,000 people here over five days and is a big boost to the economy.”
Her board officially announced “with a heavy heart” the fair’s cancellation on June 5, almost a month before the fair was to start on July 7.
“It’s a real disappointment. We’ve been planning for it all year,” she said.
The Fisher Community Fair and Horse show joined 47 other canceled Illinois fairs on the state’s website at that point — with more expected.
Four fairs have postponed dates, still hoping to open this year. The Elizabeth Community Fair in Jo Daviess County will be held Aug. 21 to 23 now; Jasper County Ag Association Fair in Newton will run in August with a date to be announced; Mercer County Ag. Society fair, in
Aledo, has not rescheduled yet and Sangamon County Fair and Ag Association’s event will be held, in New Berlin, on Oct. 2-3.
Hardesty, who is also vice president of the Illinois Association of Fairs and Festivals, said there will be more cancellations to come.
The Fisher community fair board decided to cancel its fair largely on the recommendation of the Champaign County Board of Health, she said. The other Champaign County fair, originally to be held the week of July 23 in Urbana, is also canceled.
However, the community will still hold its food drive and a parade during its usual fair week. They also plan an online family chalk drawing contest with the theme of “what the fair means to me.” Participants will take photos of their chalk drawings. Winners get free fair passes for next year.
Canceling the event meant conversations with sponsors, who all agreed to participate next year. Other things including insurance and tractor pull schedules had to be considered.
“We talked about it a long time,” Hardesty said.
This year would have been the 79th year, so next year the 80th anniversary fair will be a big celebration, she said.
Determined to hold fair
Roy Meyer, vice president of Will County Fair Association, said his board will have a better idea if the fair will be held by early July. The northeastern Illinois fair, one of the latest in the season from Aug. 26 to 30, runs just before the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. What his fair does depends on what the state fair does and how the coronavirus phases go, he said.
Meyer is a member of the Illinois State Fair board, which decided on June 6 not to hold the annual Miss Illinois County Fair Queen contest at its annual convention in Springfield in January, 2021. Instead, Kelsi Kessler of Macoupin County will reign for 2020 and 2021. She is missing out on activities at county canceled fairs this year, but will have a chance to do more next year, Meyer said.
At least one other August fair is still on the books.
“We’re determined to hold our fair. We haven’t canceled a single event,” Phillip Hartke, president of the Effingham County Fair Association, said of the event planned for Aug. 1-8.
The final decision will likely be made on July 1 when University of Illinois Extension will announce if 4-H competitions will able to be held live in August.
“It all hinges on what they decide,” he said.
Hartke, who farms 1,300 acres, raises 5,500 hogs on contract and raises his own cattle, knows first-hand how the coronavirus has caused havoc with everyday operations. With his contractor, he changed pig rations and other management to help with marketing at the right size. He said they were happy to sell 100 cull pigs to the public at $30 each and not have to euthanize pigs.
All the disappointments and stresses everyone has experienced this year, along with his true passion for the unique Effingham fair is motivating him to help make it happen if it is at all possible.
If the fair has to be officially canceled, some events including the fair queen contest, talent show and Junior Miss competition will still continue with a limited audience.
The Effingham fair is also introducing a live-streaming subscription this year for fans to watch fair events online. It will be good even if the fair is held so grandparents and others that couldn’t attend will still be able to view the events online. It will include tractor pulls and other activities, he said.
Because so many fairs are being canceled, organizations have been calling to reserve a space at the Effingham fair. Tractor pulls, for example, where contestants gain points throughout the season towards a championship, want somewhere to compete. Likewise for certain car derby events. One group has already guaranteed at least 12 competitors if a certain class is held, Hartke said.
He also expects good attendance for the rodeo. Last year at the Downstate Classic, Effingham had the highest payout for the bull riding contest, with the winner getting $17,000.
“That’s the biggest prize in Illinois for a long time,” said Hartke, who has been on the fair board for 33 years.
The fair already has some features that are conducive to the new reality. It has permanent handwashing centers at the food court center, which were installed in the last renovation. It also includes 1,800 grandstand seats which were replaced last year as part of seating for 3,500, allowing space for some social distancing.
Last year, Effingham celebrated the 75th anniversary of its fair with a 200-page book about its history, which generated more excitement for this year, he said.