What happens when the Illinois State Fair ends?

By Gregory Harutunian for Chronicle Media

Fair goers line up at Coller’s French Fries, one of the many venodrs on the midway. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

As of Aug. 20, the 166th edition of the Illinois State Fair became history.

The requisite livestock auctions and judging, 4-H projects, artisan efforts, husband- and hog-calling contests (not necessarily in that order), corn dogs and turkey legs and ears of corn consumed, varieties of honey sold, even more corn dogs, agriculture product displays, as well as the crowds filing onto the grounds, led the 2017 event to keep its proud traditions alive.

But what happens after the curtain rings down? We know fairgrounds maintenance crews sprang into action following the John Mellencamp grandstand performance on the last night, and had to grade and clear the circular track of the asphalt-consistency burned rubber left from the auto races to make it suitable again for horse racing, in addition to cleaning the entire area.

There are vendors packing up, displays that must be torn down, enumerators compiling the data acquired from the fair itself … now, the real activity really begins.

Although, sleep is a big component for many fair workers that retired to their hotel rooms, mobile homes, or residences for a well-deserved rest from the Aug. 10-20 event, preferring to leave things for the next day.

The Springfield-based fair comes under the umbrella of the Illinois Department of Agriculture for its operations and budgeting. The top administration personnel continue the party and attend the Illinois State Fair, from Aug. 25-Sept. 4, in Du Quoin. Personnel in Springfield add up the totals for 2017, and the most immediate fact was the success of the grandstand entertainment.

The major shows hit an all-time mark, featuring Mellencamp, Herman’s Hermits with Peter Noone, and Alabama, among others. A total of 59,023 grandstand tickets were sold in 2017, besting the 2016 record of 58,540 tickets.

“With such a diverse grandstand lineup, it’s no surprise that this year we broke the all-time record for number of tickets sold, previously set in 2016,” said Morgan Booth, the Department of Agriculture’s public information officer.

“We exceeded our goals for the grandstand this year with tickets and revenue. The Illinois State Fair had another successful year in 2017,” she said. “We had great weather, strong exhibitor numbers, and record grandstand ticket sales.” She said other statistics will be released as they become available.

The 2017 Illinois State Fair Butter Cown was carved out of an 800-pound reserve of milk and churned cream. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

Food vendors also follow the circuit to Du Quoin, although their own routes can carry a set itinerary, as the staggered fair dates can accommodate travel and residency at a pre-paid location. Culler’s French Fries has a five-month tenure on the road, from July-November, and was next heading for the Lincoln (Ill.) Balloon Festival.

“We’re based in Florida, and travel everywhere,” said Manager Jamie Grant. “The Illinois fair is a great time, we go through 12-14 50-pound bags of potatoes every day that we were here. The owner had a farm in Dayton (Ohio), where he grew the spuds. Now, we get them from Holten’s in Idaho.”

Dave O’ Brien, who mans the sales window, noted, “You have to be prepared to live on the road, it becomes your home. The trade-off is being somewhere different and seeing so many different thing … and the French fries in your sleep thing, it fades after a while.”

A staple of any state fairs is the Sutter’s State Fair Taffy booth. Every fair goer has to bring home a box of taffy, which is made on site and more fun comes in with watching the taffy turned on large spinners, then cut and sorted into batches. Sutter’s has been at the Illinois State Fair since 1933, and sells approximately 230 boxes per day at one stand, according to one worker. There are also three other stands at the fair, and they all move along to Du Quoin.

Another fair staple is the “Butter Cow,” a sculpture carved from an 800-pound stockpile, donated by Carlinville-based Prairie Farms, and shown in a revolving, refrigerated cubicle in the 114-year-old Dairy Building. This year’s annual salute to the spreadable use of milk and churned cream depicted a milk cow and calf, and contained a secret: nine hearts hidden in various places of the sculpture.

This bovine renderings took 90 hours to create, and the artist is Des Moines, Iowa-based Sarah Pratt. Springfield is just one of her many state fair stops and learned her skills under another famous butter sculptor, Norma “Duffy” Lyon. Pratt took over for Sharon BuMann, a revered cow sculptor, when the upper New York state native announced that 2015 would be her last summer of work.

When the fair closes, what happens to the cow? “It’s recycled for next year, and kept in the Decatur Prairie Farms’ Ice Cream plant, in their cooler,” said Marla Behrends, the Midwest Dairy Association’s industry relations manager. “It’s softened, then all the product is tossed into buckets, and packed down. Then it’s stored until they’re ready to use it again.

“Milk production is what dairy farmers do, and what keeps us together in promoting the industry,” she said. “The association covers a 10-state region within the Midwest, and we want to promote the products, and use an integrated marketing strategy to create a demand, and also encompass the nutritional education elements. The Butter Cow is a wonderful calling card.”

Historically, the first butter cow sculpture ever to appear at a state fair was at the Ohio State Fair, in 1903. Illinois’ version celebrated its 95th birthday this year.

The 2018 Illinois State Fair runs Aug. 9-19, and it all starts over again. All the activity, vendors, carnival rides, and bustle will again be heard over the fairgrounds. There are less than 345 days to go, and counting down.





— What happens when the Illinois State Fair ends?  —-