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Friday, July 31, 2009

Let's All Go to the Fair

The Lake County Fair opened this week in its new digs on Route 137 in rural Grayslake. The move has been controversial. However, the Fair has had many homes in its' 157-year history, including Waukegan, Libertyville, Antioch, Gurnee, Wauconda, and of course, Grayslake.

The Fair got its start as the Lake County Agricultural Society in the 1840s, by local nurseryman and horticulturalist Robert Douglas, who held arbor and floral exhibits at the county courthouse in Waukegan.

In 1852, the first county fair was held at the McKay race track in Waukegan. The fair's purpose was to encourage "better farming and livestock raising by holding annual exhibitions of all sorts of farm produce: fruit, vegetables, dairy products, items of home manufacture, poultry and livestock."

This artful arrangement exemplified what the fair association promoted--beautifully grown produce. This display was made by Fremont Township farmers and Prussian immigrants, Christian and Catherine Thomas, and exhibited at the fair, circa 1880. At the center of the apples and grapes are the Thomas's portraits, who were rightfully proud of the fruit of their labor. 

Tom Thumb (1838-1883) in 1863. Encyclop√¶dia Britannica online.

The fair also featured entertainers and horse harness races. In 1855, General Tom Thumb appeared at the Lake County Fair in Waukegan.
Horse harness racing at the Waukegan Fair, McKay's racetrack, circa 1878. Dunn Museum Collection

The McKay race track was located west of the County buidling on the north side of Washington Street. This image shows a harness race at the track, probably during the Waukegan Days Fair, circa 1880. The courthouse can be seen in the center distance.

Having the fair on the east side of the county was probably a burden for farmers and visitors. In 1854 it was moved to French's Farm in Libertyville, a more central location, but went back to Waukegan from 1855 to 1857. Farmers then convinced the county board to lease 10 acres in Libertyville for the fair's use. It was held at the Lake County Farm (Winchester House) location from 1858 to 1881.

In 1882, the fair moved to Appley Avenue (now Lake Minear) in Libertyville. This location was popular and used until 1925.

Shown at left are the Libertyville fairgrounds which included a racetrack, circa 1910.

In 1928, the fair was reborn in Antioch, where it remained through 1947. In 1948-49, it was again held in Libertyville at Memorial Field; 1950 in Gurnee; 1951-55 in Wauconda; and had its longest run in one location from 1956 to 2008 in Grayslake at Routes 45 & 120.

The Grayslake location was the former property of one of the fair's founders, John Gage (1802-1890). Gage's farm was often praised as being a "model for eastern and western farmers."

This photo shows the Fine Arts Department building at the Grayslake fairgrounds, 1968. Each year, local artists are encouraged to enter paintings and photographs to be judged for fair ribbons.

With the exception of four years, the fair has been held each year from 1852 to 2009. In 1861 and 1864 it was not held due to the Civil War. The fair board stated: "the times are too troublesome for holding of airs successfully on account of the volunteerings of so many of our labouring men for the war, and on account of the general depression all over the land, our people have no heart for such shows." And in 1926 and 1927 there was no fair, for unknown reasons.
Bud Slusser with his "team of pigs" at the Lake County Fair in 1968. Dunn Museum Collections.

There's something for everyone at the fair!

Diana Dretske 


Phil said...


I find your blog fascinating - always something new and interesting.

As someone from a long way away (I'm in the UK!), I wonder if you would be able to tell me something more about the "Step Right Up" circus exhibition.

My main interest is Ray Bradbury - see my website at - and I'm just wondering whether there is anything in the exhibition relating to circuses or carnivals in Waukegan in the year 1932. This is a year of great significance for Bradbury: it is the year he claims to have encountered "Mr Electrico" at a carnival, influencing much of his future writing career.

If it's more appropriate to take this conversation away from your blog, feel free to email me directly:

Many thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

Bob Slusser is my father, but you have his first name wrong its Bud. My dad and I trained those two yorkshires on the Quaker Oats Farm in Barrington, ILL in 1968.


D_Dretske said...

Thanks for the correction! I checked the back of the photo again, and sure enough I mis-read his name. Duly noted and corrected.

Collector of Special People said...

I am writing to tell you that the photograph you show is not Tom Thumb and Lavinia. I collect photographs of "special people" and have several of Tom and Lavinia. My name above is a link to one of my photographs on flickr. You are welcome to use it if you wish.


Diana Dretske said...

Hello Beverly,

Thank you for your comment on the photo. On the back of the copy of the photo I have is written: "Tom Thumb and wife at old Fair Grounds 1855." (Definitely before they were married).

Any ideas who these people are?


Laura H said...

Nice job!!! Thank you!!