Amanda Jensen was on Facebook one afternoon when she saw her friend post one of those “look at me!” photos. But her friend wasn’t running a marathon or on an exotic vacation, her friend was winning first prize for sewing at the Cassia County Fair in Idaho. Amanda wanted to win something, too, and then she remembered she had her mother-in-law’s chocolate chip cookie recipe. If she could enter those cookies at a county fair ... a blue ribbon would be hers.
But after some intense Googling, she learned Cook County has no fair. Amanda wanted to know what gives and, since Google wasn’t so great with that, she asked Curious City:
Why doesn't Cook County have a county fair? Could we bring it back again?
It’s one of those “Oh yeah, why is that?” kind of questions, and it gets even better when you start digging: Illinois has 102 counties and Cook is one of just eight without a county fair.
But then again, you may be thinking, county fairs are in mostly rural areas and Cook County is very urban and suburban. So: A) How could a fair possibly work in the county? and B) why would it even need one? (Chicago, alone, has you covered with all the fair-y stuff we could need.)
Well, know this: Los Angeles County, which encompasses a larger city than Chicago, has made a county fair work — and thrive — since 1922. It’s a big deal there. So what’s Cook County’s excuse?
After taking a deep dive into this, we found Cook County did partake in this all-American tradition, but had a rocky experience compared to other counties. And while it’s easy to point the finger at Chicago and say the urban behemoth killed off the fair, our experts say that’s a bit off base. The odds against a fair were stacked: It faced competition from world-class events, its fairgrounds were nomadic, and the county’s identity was fragmented — both in and out of farming communities. Could it work today? If someone were to swing it, they’d have to reinvent everything we know about them.
The rise and fall of the Cook County county fair
For those of you who’ve never hit up a modern county fair, here’s how they work, especially in those 94 Illinois counties that have them. You can hop on a tractor-drawn wagon ride, check out the largest pumpkin in the county, gawk at enormous steers, pet cute lambs, watch a pie-eating contest (usually while thinking “I could do that”), and cap off the day with a rickety ferris wheel ride — all for under $40 ... though it’ll probably end up being more because, while absurd, you’ll still end up shelling out the $7 for a funnel cake. Because you’re human.
It wasn’t always like this.
The American county fair started in the early 19th century, when the U.S. economy was mostly agricultural, to primarily promote modern farming, according to Charles Raleigh, who wrote about county fairs for the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Fairs featured livestock judging, exhibits of new agricultural techniques and plowing contests.
Raleigh says Cook County entered the fray in 1841, and held fairs that would typically span two to three days in October.
“Agricultural fairs in this county were extremely popular,” Raleigh says.
Popular as ag fairs were, the county fair didn’t occur each year. One reason was stiff competition.
In 1845, the Chicago Mechanics Institute started holding annual fairs highlighting mechanical inventions, and then drew tens of thousands of people to a state agricultural and mechanical fair it held in Bridgeport.
Raleigh says in 1878 Chicago started an annual, standalone fatstock show that identified and promoted the best examples of purebred species. That evolved into the International Livestock Exposition, which Raleigh says ended up becoming the largest livestock event in the nation.
“If you had your choice to take your livestock to a Cook County agricultural fair or, a few weeks later, go to the International Livestock Exposition, which would have thousands of participants and potential buyers from all across the country and parts of Europe, which would you go to?” Raleigh says.
Raleigh also points out that Chicago hosted the Illinois State Fair eight times between 1853 and 1892, when it was still the “wandering fair.” And then in 1893, Chicago was busy hosting a little thing you might have heard of: the World’s Fair, or Columbian Exposition. It featured an entire building of international agricultural innovations, as well as crops grown around the world.
Considering the wide swath of successful state, national and even international agricultural expositions, Raleigh says, “a county fair just simply can’t compete.”
Still, the county made things work — kind of. For several decades, the fair moved from one vacant, 10-acre parcel to another around the South Side of Chicago.
Ann Keating, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, says agricultural societies in other counties — say, Lake, McHenry and DuPage — started holding annual fairs and acquiring fairgrounds around the 1850s. Cook County, she says, never acquired permanent grounds, and that robbed the fair of stability.
“If it’s in the same place every year, you’ll have a more routine approach to attracting visitors to the event, and then it just becomes a less expensive and a less complicated operation,” Keating says.
The fair had boosters, though they were sometimes put off by its on-again, off-again schedule. Here’s an excerpt from a 1906 article published by The Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper:
Generations have passed since a county fair was held in Cook county, Illinois. The state fair was the last general agricultural show held here. We surrendered this fair to Springfield, and since then we have been content with detached exhibitions, such as flower shows, poultry shows, fat stock shows, etc., every one of which has been successful to the extent of emphasizing the fact that there is a field here for the greatest agricultural fair on earth.
In 1916 the Cook County fair found a “permanent” home at Dean’s Fairgrounds Park, a 120-acre farm in Palatine Township owned by harness racing trainer Charles E. Dean.
The Daily Herald declared the opening season a success: “President Dean and the officers do not claim that it was perfect, but it was an auspicious beginning which they trust will ultimately become the greatest fair for the greatest county in the state of Illinois.”
Beyond farm exhibitions related to cattle, poultry and dairy production, the fair at Dean’s Fairgrounds featured: a Ferris wheel and other rides; dog, pony and monkey shows; and horse racing.
The Palatine-based fair faced competition, first from entertainment venues like Chicago’s Riverview amusement park, which had opened a decade before. But then came along another another threat: a competing fair.
The Chicago-Cook County Fair entered the picture in 1921. This new fair’s governing board had backers from the county farm bureau and truck gardeners. The board was intent on finding and funding new county fairgrounds accessible to more residents in the county “because of the complaint against the old location in the extreme northern end of the county.” The new fair ran just once, though, in 1922, after becoming embroiled in a name dispute.
Financial burdens shuttered the Palatine operation by 1928, according to Raleigh. The Cook County Fair did try to hang on. It opened near the Loop for a short time and after that in the Cook County Forest Preserves near North Ave. and River Rd. — but attempts to revive a full-on fair and not just a one-time carnival sputtered out in the mid-1930s.
The Cook County Fair reared its head again in 1948. It was held at Soldier Field for 11 days, though it had almost no agricultural angle and instead featured the following: a fashion show, burlesque dancers, chest X-rays, and lessons on how to control city rats.
It didn’t return.
So, did urbanization eventually kill the fair? It is an easy target because, Raleigh says, urban and suburban sprawl claimed hundreds of thousands of acres of prime farmland in Cook and the surrounding counties.
But Cook County’s story is more nuanced than that.
“When you think of a county fair, you are thinking of a lot of people getting together as, really, a community event,” Raleigh says. “Well, part of the challenge with that was ... there were multiple communities.”
“You had dairy farming to the north; truck farming to the west; flowers to the south; orchards in the north west; and then you had more grain farms in southern Cook County,” Raleigh says, adding the county’s size made travel to and from a fair difficult.
On top of that, the county’s farming communities were ethnically diverse, Raleigh says, lessening the chances for a successful fair.
So, you’ve got farmers who are very different, do very different things, and are located far away from each other. Add to that the fact that the city continues to view itself as so much more than just part of a county. Put that together with an actually dwindling constituency of farmers, and the idea of hosting a county fair might have seemed kind of ... silly.
No fair! Come back!
This isn’t to say people didn’t care about Cook County’s nonexistent fair. People tried several times to bring it back.
Former Cook County Board President John Stroger attempted to get one going at the O’Hare Exposition Center in Rosemont in 1990, but, according to a Chicago Tribune article it “died with a stroke of then-Gov. James Thompson’s veto pen during a period of fiscal belt-tightening.”
Former Orland Park Trustee Tom Dubelbeis was behind another effort to bring back a fair later in the 1990s. Orland Park was trying to combat urban sprawl, and thought that acquiring public fairgrounds for a county fair might help. When they ran it by the voters, about 60 percent voted “nay.”
People seemed perplexed that anyone wanted to even entertain the idea of having an agricultural fair in Cook County.
When the Chicago Tribune asked people if they would attend a Cook County Fair, people responded with comments like: “Do we even have sheep in this county?” and “If I wanted to go to a fair, I’d go to a county that really should have a fair.”
Dubelbeis kept up the effort for about a decade. He stopped when he realized an agricultural fair wasn’t necessarily what the people wanted.
“They’re interested in the music concerts and a lot of other things,” Dubelbeis says. “A county fair would be more of a huge carnival than it would be a true fair.”
That is, all rides and funnel cakes. No plump pumpkins. No gussied-up goats.
So, is a Cook County fair with agriculture in the mix really an unworkable idea today?
The prospects don’t look good if you consider “agriculture” in the way it’s practiced in most Illinois counties. Cook County had just 127 farms in 2012 according to USDA agricultural census data. Compare that to its neighbors: McHenry, 911; Will, 882; Kane, 590; Lake, 349. Cook beat out DuPage in the number of farms (the small western neighbor had just 74 farms in 2012), but they were almost equal in farm acreage. Each neighbor, including DuPage, has a county fair.
But what if you consider the potential of urban agriculture, which has been on the upswing in the city and suburbs? Consider: Farmers markets abound, community and commercial gardens have been sprouting up, vertical farms and aquaponics operations have started and one Chicago public high school is devoted to agriculture studies.
Couldn’t a new fair leverage those trends?
Keating says if urbanites were not a base of support for a county fair in the 1920s, that could be different now.
“It would be a very different kind of a fair,” Keating says, “I think that a fair could come back building out of farmer’s markets and local farms.”
Bona Heinsohn, director of public policy for the Cook County Farm Bureau, says it's hard to track how many urban farmers are coming online, but that “It’s great for the area and great for the county.”
We talked to a few of them too, to see if they’d participate in a Cook County fair, if one ever came about. While they seemed content with the farmer’s markets they frequented, they say they’d be open to the idea.
Thad Smith, managing member at Westside Bee Boyz — a group of urban beekeepers — says he would most certainly partake.
“There are a lot more urban farmers than people realize,” he says “I think it would be a great idea.”
Now, if anyone would be interested in firming up Cook County’s identity with a fair, it would be Cook County government. What, with its power, tax dollars, far-reaching districts and regulatory know-how.
Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st District) likes the idea of a fair centered around urban agriculture, adding that it could expose kids to processes that make the food they eat every day.
Boykin says the Cook County would likely agree to have a fair and work with the Forest Preserve District to secure temporary fairgrounds. But, someone else would have to come up with a plan and money.
“These people [county commissioners] aren't even willing to invest in jobs in the community,” Boykin says. “The county is already about $200 million in debt, so we’re going to have to figure out where we get revenue from to balance the budget.”
Okay, so the county won’t be the one to spearhead this. But Amanda Jensen wishes that “someone” Boykin referred to would materialize soon, because in her opinion Cook County could use some unity.
Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., and having lived in New York, Los Angeles and Utah, she noticed no one in Cook County would refer to themselves a a Cook County resident.
She noticed it with a friend from Niles who, when away from the Chicago area, says she’s either from Niles or Chicago.
“She’s not going to say she’s from Cook County,” Amanda says.
So to the person that does decide they want to tackle this project and unite the county: You’ll clearly have to have some chutzpah; you’ll have to know now how to leverage private partnerships and put together some type of elaborate fundraising strategy; understand urban agriculture; and maybe, just maybe, even give people a reason to boast about the fact that they hail from good ol’ Cook County.
If and when that all happens, Amanda will be standing by, ready to beat all of you in the blue ribbon bake-off for best chocolate chip cookie.
Laura Pavin is a freelance journalist in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @laurapavinnews.