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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003 02:20 pm

King Korn Dog

Bob Vose has been a state-fair fixture for more than three decades

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Bob Vose says a lot of folks think of just three foods when they hear the words "Illinois State Fair": Sutter's Taffy, Culler's French Fries, and Vose's Korn Dogs--not necessarily in that order.

No matter what they're called--cozy dogs, corn dogs, pronto pups--there's no denying that those hot dogs dipped in cornmeal batter, fried, and served on a stick are a staple at the state fair. In fact, Ed Waldmire created the "Cozy Dog" at the 1946 fair.

"It's a good fair food," Vose says. "You can pick it up and walk with it."

The 74-year-old Springfieldian has had a life-long love affair with the Illinois State Fair. While growing up in the Northend, he would bring his own sack lunch to the fair, drinking free A & P coffee and stocking up on samples of paper, pens, and other school supplies. He worked 30 years at City Water, Light & Power, labored a decade for the state, and served 12 years on the Springfield City Council. But when most people hear his name, they think of those deep-fried wieners on a stick.

Vose has cooked corn dogs for governors and famous entertainers, witnessed severe thunderstorms that ripped through the fairgrounds, and seen the fair's food offerings expand from snow-cone stands and hamburgers to everything from shrimp-on-a-stick to ostrich jerky and fried Twinkies.

On a recent late July morning, he took a break from working inside his small concession stand with no air-conditioning and greeted customers and friends who are as eager to say hello as they are to bite into that first corn dog of the day. He sat on one of the red, white, and blue picnic tables on Grandstand Avenue and reminisced about the changes he's seen over the last 36 years at the fairgrounds.

In the 1940s Vose worked for Vetter Ice and Coal, which brought him regularly to the fairgrounds. "There was very little refrigeration back then," he says. "There was sawdust on the floors." His years hauling ice not only led to his venture selling corn dogs--it introduced him to the boss's daughter, now his wife, Virginia.

He credits the city and state health departments for raising the standards for food at the fair. "The biggest change has been the health requirements," Vose says. "It has really been cleaned up in the last 20 years."

A friend of his operated a corn dog and lemonade stand across the street from his current operation, and Vose and his brother Paul bought it. Eventually Vose purchased his own stand, and his wife and their six children manned it. Now Vose, his son Ken, and his daughter Sandy--along with his 16 grandchildren--keep the business in the family. Ken also sells funnel cakes and elephant ears next door.

"We open the first of July, for the fair workers and also to give my grandkids a summer job," Vose says. His 17-year-old granddaughter, Kelsie, has been working at the stand for nine years and this year she's one of the cooks.

There are plenty of customers who know Vose opens up early and drive out to the fairgrounds for their first corn dog of the season. Some senior citizens who don't like the crowds also come out to visit and have a corn dog. "That's their fair," Vose says. "It's a lot of work, but I enjoy the people."

Vose's red truck with "Korndog" license plates is usually parked behind the concession stand, next to the barns that will soon to be filled with draft horses and other livestock. Customers start showing up at 8:30 a.m., ordering coffee and a corn dog for breakfast. There's a steady stream of customers throughout the day, but once the fair opens the busiest times are during lunch and before and after Grandstand shows on the first weekend. Vose can usually be found in the back, washing dishes and keeping the production going. "My main job now is to stick the wieners," he says, laughing.

While corn dogs have become as common as livestock and carnival rides, many fairgoers head straight for Vose's stand. Lines sometimes stretch across the street. So what's the secret? Vose laughs and says he tells everyone it's "Grandma's recipe." The truth is, he buys the batter mix, which is slightly sweeter than you'll find at most stands. And Vose uses larger hot dogs, which are hand-dipped, fried in vegetable oil, and placed upright in a basket for 2 1/2 minutes, which makes the outside coating crispy. "I've had salesmen want to sell me chicken dogs, turkey dogs, or smaller dogs," Vose says, shaking his head. "But it's been a good seller, so we don't change." He estimates he sells up to 20,000 corn dogs a year.

This year, for the first time in ten years, the price has been raised--from $2 to $2.50--because of the cost of supplies. Vose sells hot dogs, ham-and-cheese and barbecue sandwiches, lemonade shake-ups, and other beverages. But the corn dogs--followed by the lemonade--are his best sellers.

"Years ago, it was hamburgers and hot dogs," he says. "Now corn dogs have kind of taken over as the fair food."

Vose didn't set out to become one of the most popular food vendors at the fair, but he's not complaining. In fact, once the fair closes, he brings home his fryer and cooks up corn dogs in his garage, which he serves with chili or soup to friends or in return for favors. Though he's now retired, he works at the concession stand two months before and during the state fair and is open during major events at the fairgrounds. He also prepares corn dogs for charities and fund-raisers.

Despite his love for the fair, manning his concession stand keeps him so busy he rarely ventures elsewhere. He says it's been 15 years since he visited the Exposition Building, where he used to stock up on school supplies as a child.

So what does he eat at the fair? He laughs. "I like the fries."

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