Trying to hold a county fair in suburban DuPage County

DuPage County now has over 915,000 people and has little open land left for development. Amidst rapid suburbanization after World War II, there has always been a DuPage County Fair. Now, there is public debate about whether it makes sense to continue having this event:

The DuPage County Board should examine the long-term viability of its county fair and how distribution of state funding for the event is handled, a consultant has recommended.

And if the fair continues, the county should consider a new location, even if it means sharing a site with another county, the consultant recommends…

The fair, held each July on county-owned land in Wheaton east of DuPage’s government center, is run by a nonprofit association that relies heavily on funding that is funneled from the state Department of Agriculture through the Fair and Exposition Authority. Transferring that responsibility to the County Board would remove a layer of government by in effect eliminating the need for the seven-member fair authority, and that would “relieve the county of any associated risk,” the firm said.

Crowe Horwath pointed to decreased funding from the state and declining fair attendance as reasons why the county should consider whether the fair makes sense at all in the long run. The fair received an average of $300,000 a year in 2005-07. The figure in 2011 was about $198,000. The firm also noted that the fairgrounds are valuable property for which a better use might be found. The fair leases the land for $1,375 a year.

It is not surprising that this discussion has arisen in an era of fiscal issues at multiple levels of government.

The best argument I could imagine for the fair is that it is a reminder of what DuPage County once was. For the first 100 years of its history, DuPage County was primarily farmland and small towns that were within the orbit of Chicago. Produce from the farms could be shipped by rail or road to Chicago, destined for eastern markets through the Great Lakes, or to the southwest, eventually bound for the Mississippi River and points due south. One farm in the county even became the focus of a television show during the early 1950s:

In the spring of 1953, the Illinois Depart­ment of Agriculture began a search for a farm and a farm family who would become the stars of a new television show on the National Broadcasting Company. One of the thirty-five farms on the itinerary was the Harbecke Farm on Gary Avenue, rural Cloverdale in Bloom­ingdale Township, operated by Harbecke’s daughter and son-in-law, Bertha and Wilbert Landmeier. Tracing their roots to pioneer German farm families, the young couple had moved to the Harbecke Farm to operate a dairy farm. They had recently installed dairy equip­ment which carried the milk in refrigerated tubes from the milking machine to cooling tanks on the milk truck, which transported the commodity to an Addison dairy. The farm also had a hay drier which was another piece of modern machinery not found on every farm in  1953. These advantages, plus the fact that the location was considered one of the best be­tween Chicago and the Fox River for beaming the television waves, made the selection of the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm ideal for the show.

Thus, “Out on the Farm” began the first of a two-year run from the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm in the summer of 1953.  During the second season the first outdoor network colorcast originating from Chicago was the pickup from the Landmeier Farm. At the end of the 1954 season, the show was over, as Cloverdale and all of DuPage County were due for rapid change.

Here is a short description of the transformation from farmland to urban county:

The DuPage County Fair is the only county fair in Illinois located in a completely urban setting. Historical research showed that when the first DuPage County Fair was held in 1955, the county was 85% farmland. By 2000, the last farm vanished as DuPage County was absorbed into Chicago’s urban sprawl.

Today, the only farms DuPage County residents are likely to know about are Forest Preserve properties such as Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago or St. John’s Farm in Warrenville.

In the end, it sounds like it will be difficult to reserve valuable land for a week of nostalgia and history every year.

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