Whiteside County Fairs
The Whiteside County Agricultural Society was organized February 26, 1856 at Union Grove. Beginning that year the group
sponsored annual fairs and the first few were held at Morrison. The association prospered until the seventh annual fair in
1862. Even though there were good crowds in attendance, the officers paid the premiums and prized with difficulty.
New grounds were obtained at Sterling and the following year the fair was held there. The tract of land was a little southwest
of the city on the bank of Rock River. There were good times and bad and the fair continued to be one of the big events in the
county for many years. It closed after the 1888 season.
In 1866, the fair at Sterling offered prizes of one dollar for the best evidence of taste and skill in hair-work, wax-work and sell-
work; a prize of one dollar for the best building bricks; and two dollars for the best six pieces of dentistry. The best three-year-
old bull receive a prize of ten dollars and other agricultural awards were in proportion with an over-all prize of $50 for the best
and greatest number of articles shown by one contestant.
The fair held in Sterling in 1880 was one of the all-time greats and the attendance on Friday was estimated at about 20,000
persons. The huge crowd gathered to meet and hear General U. S. Grant and other speakers at a big political rally. Also
present were Senator John Logan and Illinois Governor S. M. Cullom.
The same week, a Miss Thurston thrilled the crowds with her daring ascensions in a balloon and all the regular exhibits were
shown successfully. Receipts that year were $8,871.05 and expenses were $6,504.17. The fair association was out of debt.
The Whiteside County Central Agricultural Society was organized May 28, 1872, and its avowed objects were to “promote all
the industrial pursuits of the county, especially the agricultural, horticultural, floricultural and mechanical interests and also
the fine arts and domestic manufactures.”
The first fair was held September 24,25,26 and 27, 1872, and there has beena a fair every year since. Usage has changed its
name to the Whiteside County Fair and its purposes have remained the same.
A map of the city of Morrison, printed in 1872, shows the fairgrounds located where they are now but smaller. Then the race-
track ran around the perimeter of the park, conforming to the diagonal alinement of Winfield Street. Later, additional ground
was added to the south and the track was re-located. The shape of the racing course then became oval.
In September, 1873, the fair at Morrison was declared a success and it included among its attractions a 2,400-pound steer
owned by R. E. Logan. Nearby was a two-year-old bull weighing 1,700 pounds. It was shown by Mr. Goodenough of Garden
Plain. L. Eddy of Prophetstown showed three hogs which weighed a total of 2,400 pounds. The Morrison Sentinel issued a
Daily Fair Reporter during the week.
In 1874, Dan’s Female Brass Band was a popular attraction at the Morrison Fair which was having a difficult time competing
against the popular fair at Sterling. It was slowly successful and gradually acquired the prestige necessary to display to an
outside world the accomplishments of Whiteside County.
In 1885, a project was planned which caught the public’s attention and resulted in one of the most successful celebrations
the county ever enjoyed. The title, Old Settler, was reserved, by common consent, for settlers who arrived in the county prior
to 1841. J. N. Baird, secretary of the association, requested each of the Old Settlers to donate a log which would be included
in a memorial cabin. Old Timers cooperated with enthusiasm and, on August 20, 1885, the fair grounds were the scene of an
old-fashioned log-rolling. 121 logs were donated and the name of the donor and date of his arrival was put on each log.
Each log was to be at least 16 feet long and from 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Butternut, walnut, white oak, red oak, blue ash,
burr oak, hackberry, cherry, red elm, chestnut, black oak and cottonwood were included in the varieties and there were
timbers sufficient to build a two-cabin house with a roofed porch between and a separate cabin. The one with the open
shelter was described as Texas style for the term breezeway was not to be thought-up for many years. The cabins had
“shake” roofs and stick chimneys.
The year 1885 was notable for the dedication of the famous statue, Liberty Enlightening the World, in New York Harbor.
Officials of the Morrison fair advertised reasonably, “Why go the see Bartholdi’s statue when you can go the Morrison and see
a monument to 121 Whiteside County pioneers?”
On September 2, the big day arrived and it was marked by a feeling of pride that was tempered by a gentle nostalgia; for the
early days of hardship had acquired a sort of romance with the mellowing action of time. Mrs. Phebe Vennum sat in an
ancient armchair and watched over all. Strictly speaking, she was not an Old Settler as she came with her husband to
Whiteside County in 1846. However she had lived to the amazing age of 101 years and had not laid aside her work until she
was 98. Mts. Vennum still read her Bible, and she presided with dignity at the celebration. The Old Settlers’ Chorus sang
America, Auld Lang Syne and Old Hundred to the accompaniment of a cornet; and Professor M. R. Kelly was the orator for the
The fair grew and prospered, probably because one could go there and be reasonably sure that he would meet almost
everybody he knew and look at exhibitions that gave a comforting sense of familiarity. One of the exciting attractions was the
Shoot-the-Chute ride. The set-up included a high platform, a steep chute, two or more flatboats, a shallow lagoon and an
engine to pull the boats aloft.
When a sufficient number of adventurers had been lured aboard, the boat was released to hurtle down the runway and hit the
water with a tremendous splash. The small pond was disturbed mightily and then peace resumed until another boatload went
down. The ride would seem tame to present-day sophisticates but it was a big thrill to the youths of that time. The chute was
finally dismantled and two of the flatboats were taken to Spring Lake near Savanna to be made into a fishing barge.
The race-track always attracted large crowds and the purses became bigger as money became more plentiful. There was an
incident which was perhaps unique in the history of the ancient sport. Rain is always the great threat to a successful fair and,
that time, a shower fell before a scheduled race. At a conference among the association’s officials, it was agreed that there
was only one way to make a track usable. Maintenance workers obtained sponges and pails and carefully sponged dry the
shallow puddles that were left on the track.
About 1932, a public wedding was conducted in front of the amphitheatre and elaborate stage shows and hill-billy-type
entertainments have drawn large crowds. In 1965, premiums, prizes and purses amounted to more than $35,000 and each
year the venerable celebration becomes “bigger and better” than ever.
The Spring Creek Union Agricultural Society. The third fair held in Whiteside County was managed by the Spring Creek Union
Agricultural Society. It was organized in 1875 and included the townships of Albany, Garden Plain and Newton in Whiteside
County and several of the adjacent townships in Tock Island County. The fair were held first in Booth’s Grove about one mile
south of the village of Albany.
In 1879, it was announced that the fair would be moved and it was located on the Albany-Fulton road above Albany. The Spring
Creek association continued until 1889; the amusements were diversified and conventional. Racing was one of the stellar
attractions. Exhibits were of the usual kind and a patented, portable commode-seat for small children, easily adapted for
home use or travel on the cars and steamboats, seemed to promise much.
At that fair as well as the others, balloon ascensions were high on the entertainment list; people were intrigued by the daring
exploits of the “professors” who soared through the heavens. One of the great acts was shown in Albany in 1886 when the
phantasmagoria was exhibited, It was a chariot drawn by “four noble equines” and far up in the air an athlete performed
breath-taking stunts. It may have been driven by a beautiful woman who wore a dazzling gown and managed the four horses
The Great Northwestern Fair . About 1898, a group of business men bought the Woodlawn Mineral Springs Resort in Sterling
Township from Samuel Albertson. It was l0ocated on section 14. It became the location of the Great Northwestern Fair, an
annual event that attracted people from near and far because its healthful waters were still available to those who believed in
hydropathy-the water cure. Shade trees and the nearby Rock River justified the claim that it was one fo the most beautiful fair-
grounds in Illinois.
All of the standard attractions ere offered and, in 1901, the customary balloon made its ascent and fine racing horses
strained to win the purses which totaled $300 that year. Among the cultural events was a contest among students for the
best composition on What I would Do With $1,000. The winner received a prize of three dollars. There were also monetary
awards to the youthful artists who drew the best pictures of hearts, lungs, Liberty Bells, pontoon bridges and schoolhouses.
The fair was one of the big events at the park but there was another which was almost as popular-the annual Chautauqua.
Harry Holbrook of Chicago started it in 1903 and its aims were high: for the cultivation of higher thinking and distributing
information on current issues, art and music.
Nationally-known speakers were presented and they included such favorites as Willian J. Bryan, Father Vaughn, Colonel Bain
and Billy Sunday.
Camping facilities were offered and a patron could take his tent or rent one. Rates were reasonable; a season ticket cost two
dollars. Three-room tents were rented for five dollars each and many families made them their temporary homes while they
absorbed culture. Changing times brought an end to both of the entertainments but they were running a least as late as 1910.
From Whiteside County history book by Wayne Bastian, 1966
The 1877 Bent history of Whiteside County gives a little less information although the same dates for the formation of the
fairs. The bent history gives the first officers of the fairs.
The 1885 Portrait and Biographical Album of Whiteside County says of the Whiteside Central Agricultural Society its objects
were to aid all kinds of industries, especially the agricultural, horticultural and mechanical branches, by stimulating
competition, in gathering together the various products of the county and awarding premiums to the most deserving. It also
gives the officers names, besides the executive committee names. The date of the first fair. The fair grounds are located in
the southwest part of the town, on the banks of Rock Creek, and enclose about 15 acres. A half-mile track has been made.
exhibition buildings erected and apartments for stock provided.
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