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Draft Pulling Contest, 1999
The Draft Horse Pulling Contest is an old-time event that has recently been re-established at the Sandwich Fair. Photo: Michael Maroscia

Sandwich Fair (100th Anniversary)

An old-fashioned agricultural fair held annually during the week after Labor Day, this Sandwich, Illinois, event is the last county fair in northern Illinois, and the oldest continuous fair in the Midwest. Spread over more than 170 shaded acres in DeKalb County and dotted with many historic buildings, the event boasts the largest number of exhibitor entries of any Illinois fair. Sandwich Fair offers two large midways with the latest carnival rides, harness races, and home-cooked foods prepared by civic, church, and school groups. The event hosts the Midwest's largest display of agricultural and home arts exhibits, a large variety of displays, and family entertainment.

Sandwich Fair originated in 1887. In 1889, when the nearby World's Columbian Exposition was thrilling Chicagoans, Sandwich Fair-goers were more interested in the prize-winning cattle and hay press being exhibited. In 1902, the Sandwich Free Press boasted: "The fair is a good, clean, live show from start to finish. Gambling fakes are cut out, booze is tabooed, and the fair grounds are properly the place for family reunions." Special excursion trains running on the Chicago and Northwestern and Burlington Lines brought young and old to visit the Sandwich Fair. To insure the good reputation of the Fair, a Chicago detective was hired to meet the trains in Sandwich. It was his job to "spot the hoodlums and tell them to get back on the train."

World War I brought its hardships to the Sandwich Fair: there was no midway because there wasn't enough manpower to move the merry-go-round to the fairgrounds, resulting in decreased attendance and a large deficit. In a fit of patriotic fervor, however, Fair proceeds of $682.50 in 1918 were donated to the Red Cross. In 1915 the first automatic corn popper was set up in Sandwich. It was the main attraction on Railroad Street on Saturday night as shoppers watched kernels of corn exploding into fluffy white morsels. During the years between 1910 and 1919, the Chautauqua Circuit brought high-quality entertainment and outstanding speakers to the Fair.

During the 1920s, parking spaces for cars became an increasingly important consideration. In a first, thousands of people took advantage of a free health test offered at the Sandwich Fair in 1923, courtesy of the State of Illinois. The 20s also saw the first night fair (1923) and first dance marathon. During the Depression years of the 30s, the Fair staggered under decreased attendance and deficits, but the Fair Board kept the action going; a few days of diversion were necessary in the bleak circumstances of the decade. In 1937, the Fair celebrated its 50th anniversary. For 40 cents admission, it promised good baseball games between local rival teams, the best draft horses in the area, band concerts every day.

Despite, or perhaps because of, wartime restrictions on civilian consumption during the early 1940s, people came to the Fair, where they were sold war bonds and asked to contribute to "Smokes for Yanks Overseas." There was a new Victory Garden exhibit. When the war was over, the Fair Board recognized returning veterans by allowing them free admission to the event. During the 1950s, the Sandwich Fair Board catered to the excitement of the times by providing grandstand entertainment with stunt drivers crashing through blazing barriers and playing leapfrog on motorcycles. Ostrich races and camel races added a new twist to Fair entertainment. During the 50s, childrens' events were added: clowns, trick mules, circuses and wild west shows.

The 60s saw area teens dance to the music of rock n' roll groups at the Fair on Thursday nights from mid-June through Fair Week, and the Home Arts exhibits featured the new microwave. Reacting to the cynicism of the popular media during the 70s, the Fair responded by recognizing the institution of marriage by admitting free Golden Wedding Anniversary couples. Each day of the Fair was dedicated to those who represented quintessential American values and traditions: Wednesday was Family Day; Thursday was Senior Citizens Day; Friday was Armed Services Day; Saturday was Youth Day; Sunday was Neighbors Day. During the 70s, too, the Fair Board began to provide free grandstand entertainment: harness racing, and tractor and truck pull competitions.

In the decade of the 80s were added thrill-inducing amusement park rides, and a "Sandwich Fair 10,000 Meter Road Race," attracting 150 runners from nearby communities. In 1987, the Sandwich Fair celebrated its 100th anniversary. A variety of music, a petting zoo, harness racing, powerful noisy trucks and tractors, clowns and craft demonstrations were just a few of the events that entertained fairgoers, but centennial activities emphasized that, at heart, the Sandwich Fair was still an agricultural fair. The decade of the 90s witnessed the growth, both literally and figuratively, of machinery and equipment displayed at the Fair, as the number of farmers in the region declined and each cultivated more acreage. Yet attendance at the fair surged, and the Fair Association purchased new land and developed a new traffic plans for the fairgrounds.

As the last Sandwich Fair of the century closed on Sunday, September 12, 1999, it was a time to celebrate the dedication that has made the DeKalb County Fair at Sandwich, Illinois, so successful for the long 112-year history, and to look forward to its continued success in the new millennium.

Project documentation includes 21 pages of text outlining a decade-by-decade Fair history; twenty-nine 8 x 10 photographs and accompanying descriptions; a videotape; postcards, brochures, flyers, bookmarks, a Sandwich Fair lapel pin, and other promotional materials; a Fair newspaper; and several premium list books (1888 and 1999).

Originally submitted by: J. Dennis Hastert, Representative (14th District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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