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Thursday, July 9, 2009 12:27 pm

State Fair history needs a home

July 11 Corndog Kickoff to raise money toward museum

Local dignitaries gather at the fair in the 1970s. Springfield Mayor William Telford is fourth from right.

What do you do with 156 years of photos, programs, ribbons, exhibits and other memorabilia collected from the annual Illinois State Fair? Ask Pam Gray and she’ll quickly respond, “Build a museum.” While the answer seems simple, raising the $5 million needed for the building is anything but. Yet Gray, who helped found the Illinois State Fair Museum Foundation in 2006 and serves as its board chair, will not back down from the challenge, as the foundation begins its first major fundraiser to move the museum from a dream to reality.

On July 11, the Illinois State Fair Foundation will host its first “Corndog Kickoff,” a benefit featuring an auction, live entertainment, carriage rides, and “fair food grazing,” with food from some of the fair’s most popular vendors. The kickoff will include performances by winners of the state fair’s past vocal competitions. Among the items to be auctioned are hot air balloon rides, a plane ride in a restored 1947 Luscombe airplane, Sky Glider rides, and dinner at various Springfield restaurants.

The idea for the event came from the Iowa Blue Ribbon Foundation, which held its first Corndog Kickoff in 1997, raising more than $67,000. Last year’s Iowa event raised $251,000. In the past 12 years the Iowa foundation has built a state fair museum, a state-of-the-art amphitheatre, a livestock pavilion and an animal learning center.

According to Gray, the Iowa Blue Ribbon Foundation has raised approximately $80 million, with its Corndog Kickoff and other fundraisers. “If they’ve been able to raise $80 million, we should be able to raise a few million dollars,” stated a confident Gray. In addition to building the museum, the Illinois foundation, which receives no state funds, hopes to be able to raise enough money to improve state fair buildings and grounds.

At the 1954 State Fair, President Dwight Eisenhower chats with 4-H Club winners. Left to right are Margaret and Harold Jepson, Elgin, with their Holstein calf; Gov. William G. Stratton; Eisenhower; and Bonigail Bivin of Waverly with her grand champion sho

While the foundation’s idea of raising millions of dollars and having a completed museum in five to seven years may sound nearly impossible in today’s economy, a look at the current site reveals why the foundation is embarking on such an ambitious endeavor.

For the past 16 years, memories of agricultural shows, horse and truck races, concerts and other state fair memorabilia has been prominently displayed for public viewing in an area under the grandstand during the fair, and quickly boxed up immediately following the event. Currently, most of the items are stored in stacks of boxes in the hot, stuffy, leaking space.

“Fortunately we’ve been able to save all of our material, despite the leaks,” Gray said, while carefully making her way around puddles of water. She added: “This is not a way to house this material. It needs to be in an air-conditioned space year round. I want this material to still be around for viewing 150 years from now.

“To me, these items are about the people,” says an enthusiastic Gray, as she rifles through the collection. With hundreds of newspaper articles and state fair programs, and thousands of photos of past beauty pageant queens, politicians, including several U.S. presidents, and ordinary people enjoying the fair, it’s easy to conclude that the Illinois State Fair is indeed about the people.

The fair has always been the place for urbanites to learn about life on the farm, as in this photo from 1965.

Gray eagerly recounts stories of excited fairgoers viewing old photographs of themselves or their relatives. A few years ago while working the fair, Gray heard the loud screams of two women who noticed a 1970 photo of themselves dressed in their cheerleading uniforms. The women returned with their husbands the following day and had photos taken of themselves standing next to the old picture. “People get excited when they recognize themselves or other people they know in the photographs. That’s what the museum is all about,” she added.

Most recently, an 80-year-old man donated boxes of ribbons won by his grandparents, parents, children and great-grandchildren, dating as far back as 1899. Other memorabilia includes postcards of past state fairs, a photograph of President Rutherford B. Hayes giving a speech during the 1879 fair, a 1940 picture of a cow carved out of butter, and a group of tents set up on Eighth Street in 1940. Fairgoers could rent tents for $4.50 to $18 a week, and blankets and cots for 75 cents.

To add to the museum’s collection, the foundation, along with the Illinois State Fair, is starting a new tradition, “Illinoisans of the Day,” created to recognize Illinoisans who are making a difference. Each day of the fair, a different individual, chosen from nominees from the public, will be honored during an award presentation. They will also receive free admission to the fair and grandstand show, hotel accommodations, and other gifts and accolades. The winners will be announced at the Corndog Kickoff. Nomination forms can be obtained from the foundation’s Web site, www.statefairmuseum.org

The Corndog Kickoff, to be held in the Orr Building, begins at 5:30pm. Tickets, obtainable online or by call 866/996-1853, are $40 in advance, $50 at the door.

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