Clutching a black-and-white photograph of a young child posing for the camera, Lowell Hines shares an image still ingrained in his mind 83 years after his first Illinois State Fair. It was 1925 or 1926; he’s not exactly sure which. But the impressively preserved photograph clearly shows a young boy dressed in formal attire. Hines hasn’t missed an Illinois State Fair since, apart from 1942 when he enlisted in the Army during World War II.
Clutching a black-and-white photograph of a young child posing for the camera, Lowell Hines shares an image still ingrained in his mind 83 years after his first Illinois State Fair.
It was 1925 or 1926; he’s not exactly sure which. But the impressively preserved photograph clearly shows a young boy dressed in formal attire.
“I was either 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “My parents brought me into town — we lived on a farm — bought me this outfit, had my picture taken, and we went to the fair.”
Hines hasn’t missed an Illinois State Fair since, apart from 1942 when he enlisted in the Army during World War II.
The trek from Salisbury to Springfield left a lasting impression on a man who remembers a simpler time when the fair was something young children looked forward to each year. Older men would dress in their best suits, women wore dresses, and even the children put on slacks and ties.
“I can go back to when it was really something special to go the fair at night because people weren’t used to anything like that, with the lights on,” he said. “That’s when the midway was in the midway, and Happy Hollow extended up out of Happy Hollow and went across the street.”
In the late 1920s and early ’30s, people took streetcars out to the fairgrounds because it was the only way to travel from downtown, he says.
“When you went to the fair, they took the whole family,” Hines said. “You probably got there at nine o’clock and you stayed until it started getting dark, and then you wanted to go down to Happy Hollow with the lights on, (though) there was nothing to see because they closed the buildings.”
And unlike the cacophony of fried foods offered today, Hines said families prepared their own meals beforehand and packed picnic lunches.
“Chickens really caught hell during fair week because that’s what people usually brought in their picnic baskets,” he said, smiling at the thought.
Fried chicken was about the only meat that could be stored outside during summer months back then, before the advent of coolers. It wouldn’t spoil and could be eaten at room temperature.
Prairie Farmer, a Chicago-based magazine at the time, had a radio station, WLS, Hines said. Each year, the station pitched a large tent at an area where the fire department is now. At that tent, they put on radio shows and broadcasts.
They also stored picnic baskets for the fairgoers.
“People carried large picnic baskets, and you would take it up there and check it in and they’d give you a ticket, like anything else,” Hines recalled. “You’d tour the fair until noon and went up to get your basket and went down to southwest of the Coliseum… This was a hillside, a grass hillside, and people would sit there and have their lunch.”
Instead of vendors, churches erected tents and served food just north of the Coliseum, he said.
“They would have the canvas up over it, but on the sides they would frame it and then they would use cheesecloth to keep the flies out,” Hines said. “The church women would cook right there, and then they’d have a barker out in front at noon or in the evening and he’d put his spiel on about what they were serving.”
There were rides, for sure, but not many people could afford them because of the Great Depression, he says.
“Back in the depression, you didn’t have any money so you just went out there and walked around,” he said. “People would walk up in the east end and come back down through the midway, and you looked for people that you knew.”
There was twilight dancing, which consisted of people twirling atop the Illinois Building while an entire orchestra played live.
Much has changed through the decades, Hines says. Beer tents didn’t appear until the 1950s or ’60s. Veterans Day at the fair used to draw the biggest attendance with competitions in front of the Grandstand.
“Right after World War II, Veterans Day Sunday was a very big day because you had drum and bugle corps from all over the state,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of these AMVETS and American Legions has those anymore.”
Now, he says, Veterans Day at the fair isn’t observed nearly as much as it used to be.
“My dad was a stickler for wanting to park in the parking lot outside the fairgrounds, and he had one particular place where he’d park that cost you 25 cents,” he said. “This year, it was $7 or $8 for the exact same lot, which is close to Gate 1.”
Rhys Saunders can be reached at (217) 788-1521 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How technology has changed the Illinois State Fair
Before television, the Illinois State Fair was the place to see the exciting, the unusual and the exotic.
Lowell Hines, who will be 89 on Sunday, says he remembers sideshows featuring the tallest man, two-headed snakes and bearded women.
There were pitchmen who tried to show you the latest, greatest contraption that would save gas while driving.
Now, those pitchmen aren’t nearly as impressive as they used to be because of TV, Hines says.
“Saturday, I was out there at the Exposition Building,” he said. “The guy has a pan of water, takes his cloth, puts it in there, and the cloth absorbs all the water. It didn’t interest me because I’ve seen it on TV.”
Before television, these types of novelties were more exciting, and because people didn’t have access to television, the state fair often provided a rare glimpse of them, Hines said.
“A fella would come to the fair with that idea, and he’d have a crowd of 20 people around him,” Hines said. “I saw a fella Saturday, and he had five or six people around him because they had already seen it on TV.”
— Rhys Saunders