The Lake County Fair

written by C.E. Carroll


[This essay was written ca. 1955 by one of the original members of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.]

Fairgrounds16The Lake County Agricultural Society was organized on October 15, 1851, at a meeting held at the Court House in Waukegan.

Some time prior to 1850, an organization known as the Waukegan Horticultural Society had been formed. The prime mover of which was Robert Douglas and it had been the custom of this association to hold summer exhibitions at the Court House. At such a meeting, held October 4th 1851, it was proposed to change the name to the Lake County Horticultural Society. As a result of this suggestion the later meeting was held at which the scope of the society was enlarged to take in all branches of Agriculture and the name was changed accordingly.

Some sixty-nine members were enrolled and officers elected were John Gage of Avon, President, H.P. Nelson and John Easton, Vice Presidents, Nathan C. Gear, Secretary, Samuel Dowst, Treasurer, Hurlburt Swan, Nelson Landon, Thomas H. Payne, Elisha Gridley, and Philomen Cadwell, Directors. The Members paid a fee of one dollar each.

The purpose of the societywas to encourage better farming and live stock raising, by holding annual exhibitions of all sorts of farm produce, at which, the various classes would be judged and awards made for the most excellent a member was privileged to exhibit, at the next fair, such items as fruit, vegetables, dairy products, items of home manufacture, poultry and live stock. It was also the intention of the society to judge the farms in the County as well as their products. Thus a member could enter his farm, in its' proper class, according to size and it would be visited by the judges and compared in the others of similar size.

The first fair was held at Waukegan, September 22, 1852, at the McKay track. The second was held at Libertyville in 1853, on the farm of Roswell French, on Milwaukee Avenue and just about opposite the present North Shore Station. And annual fairs were held there after, with the exception of two years during the Civil War, until 1925.

[Historical correction: The third fair, in 1854, was held at French’s Farm in Libertyville. The 1852-53 and 1855-57 fairs were held at Chapel Street in Waukegan. With the exception of the Civil War years, the fair was then held annually in Libertyville, first at the Lake County Farm and then at Lake Minear, from 1858 to 1925]

The Secretary's reports were published in the Waukegan Gazette after each fair and these have been preserved in an old scrapbook, presented to the Library, some years ago, by Mrs. William Davis and they are very interesting to read now a hundred years later. The committee appointed by the Society, to examine farms presented for premiums in 1859 states: "Not that we were governed by the extravagance or extent of buildings, beyond the wants of the farm, but always having reference to those needful for farming purposes. A more controlling influence has governed us in our conclusions, to wit: The farm wearing the appearance of the most skillful landlord, which is exempt from serious omissions, such as the want of fences, loose stones in meadows, grubs, etc. In fact, that farm, however large or small, that by industry, has been made to produce the greatest abun­dance with the same outlay. Your committee is aware that the cultivation of fruit, shade and ornamental trees are among the first duties of the farmer. In the same connection, we regard the introduction of improved stock, which is only done by these who have the means at command. Those without means, who have subdued infavorable lands and brought theirs into profitable use--such at least, as have observed a strict adherence to the rules of a judicious farmer and thus enabled himself to realize more profit from the same number of acres--has governed, mainly, the action and conclusion, to which your committee have arrived, industry profit and good taste being the controlling objects.

If we are right, in this respect, we are induced to award the first premium to David Gilmore and the second to Eric Hedstrom. The distinction between the two was scarcely apparent, except in fruit and out buildings, in which Mr. Gilmore far excels. - - Were we governed by the culture of fruit - - John Gage Esq. would excel. It is but justice to Mr. Gage to say, that when his plans are fully executed, in regard to the fixtures, ultimately to be put upon his farm, it will be a model for both Eastern and Western farmers. Mr. E.C. Stevens has the assurance of a well merited application. His evident assiduity in the arrangement and culture of his farm, his care for the implements of agriculture, the short period his energies have thus been bestowed - - merit the admiration of the community - - Messrs. Swan and Stratton are known as among the best farmers in the county. It would be unjust not to say their farms are conducted skillfully and profitably.

In conclusion, we give you the average raised as reported, per acre, for the last and the present years: wheat, 20 bushels; oats, 55 bushels; and corn, 55 bushels; All of which is respect fully submitted." 
Elisha Gridley 
Proctor Putman 
J. Moulton

We find recorded also, that in 1854, Roswell French entered his farm in the class for 80 acres or less and won 1st prize. He also won again in a subsequent year. The French farm was in what is now the heart of the village. The house stood just North of Park Avenue, on the West side of Milwaukee and still exists as the home of Mrs. Paul Ray Jr.

[Historical note: According to the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society, “the Roswell H. French house stood originally on the west side of Milwaukee Avenue, just about 300 feet north of Park Avenue. This was the French farmhouse when the farm extended along Milwaukee Avenue almost to McKinley Avenue.” In 1947, the house was moved about ½ block west and turned to face Park Avenue. It was later demolished, some time after 1972.]

An old record shows the receipts of the Society at their first fair as $77.50 for membership fees and $75.00 for admission fees, total of $152.50 and disbursements of $158.09. Thus the first year ended with a deficit but subsequent years show greatly increased interest and revenue.

One would surmise that the summer and fall of 1854 were very dry from the following, gleamed from the Secretary's report for that year, when he says: - "Mr. T. Palmeteer exhibited a number of Durham bulls and some other stock. He has lately come among us from Chatauqua County, New York and brought his stock from those parched hills to our, now, almost desert plains and consequently they are all very poor in flesh but they show unmistakable signs of good blood."

John Gage served as chairman of the committee on stock in 1854 and in his report, makes some very significant remarks. After describing the fine animals shown in each of the different classes he asks. "And now, who is the great man to whomwe should award the premium? - - The starting point is the man: he should be improved first and with his improvement all the rest will follow. Build colleges and endow them in the means of furnishing instruction in all branches of practical and theoretical farming and all science underlaying it.

The rest of the world is advancing and why should we not advance also. - - Are not our sons and daughters as capable of improvement as our cattle, and if so, where should we begin first?"

Mr. Gage's plea for education was made at a time when there was not a single Agricultural School in the whole United States. Scientific farming as such, did not exist and such improvement in farming methods and livestock raising as had been made, up to this time, were the result of efforts such as those made by our Lake County Agricultural Society and the experience and horse sense of the farmers. That there were other thinking men among the country's farmers is indicated by the fact that in 1857 the State of Michigan opened the first successful Agricultural school, with State aid. This was followed, by Pennsylvania University and the University of Maryland in 1859, also state supported. There were no Agricultural schools in the middle and Western States until several years later. Maybe our Mr. Gage started something.

Canada thistles, which became the great scourge of the county in early days and which still plague the farmer were, in 1855, a serious problem. The Agricultural Society, in that year, petitioned the Legislature to enact a statute making the cutting of thistles mandatory and suggested that fine of $5.00 be levied for each and every thistle allowed to go to seed.

The Lake County fair was held in Waukegan in 1852 and 1853 but was not a financial success. Waukegan was too far away for the farmers west of the Des Plaines and that is where the best farms were and are, so there was a good deal of agitation to move the exhibition to Libertyville. A fair was held there in 1854 but the opposition from Waukegan was too strong and the society voted the fair back to Waukegan again in 1855 and that city made great efforts to make the move a permanent one. Fairs were held there in 1856 and 1857 but by that time the Western members had mustered sufficient strength to bring the fair back to the center of the County. By arrangements with the County Board, ten acres of land was leased at the County farm, some modest buildings erected and a 1/3 mile track laid out. This was the site of the fair until 1881, when 16 acres were purchased on the Appley farm and later 6 acres from the Galloway farm were added. Nathan C. Geer had been succeeded by J.Y. Cory, as Secretary of the Society. His report of the 1859 fair is worthy of note. Reviewing the exhibitions in the "Miscellaneous" department he says: "Elconah Tingley entered a lot of home made cigars, made from tobacco of his own growing. They look very fair but we must confess to having smoked better ones, in our day." Fairest praise indeed. He thought more highly of the next item when he says, "Five good looking horseshoes are entered by Jones and Patten of " Waukegan."

The treasurer had his troubles in those days. In listing his receipts after each fair he reports 
for 1858--By broken bank bill taken--$3.00 
for 1859--By counterfeit money received--$6.00 
for 1860--Less counterfeit bills--$8.00

The committee on farms, entered in competition for prizes, in 1860, reports: "Your committee is happy to say that neither Charlock or Canda Thistles were allowed to grow, unmolested, on farms they examined and would recommend that the Society make a rule that no farm on which these pests are allowed to grow, should at anytime, receive a premium; for we believe that the farmer who will allow Canada Thistles and Charlock to suck the life blood of his land is too lazy to wash before breakfast."

In reporting the results of the 1860 plowing contest, in which Hurlburt Swan won 1st prize, the committee comments: "Mr. Swan, tho an old man, being now about 62 years of age, did his plowing in good style, much to the delight of the committee."

The board of directors of the Lake County Agricultural Society met on September 9, 1862, at which meeting it was unanimously resolved to postpone the holding of the fair until the next year. "The times are too troublesome for the holding of fairs successfully and this coupled with the fact that the work on the farm is badly behind, on account of the volunteering of so many of our laboring men, for the war, renders the necessity of the adjournment more apparent than it might, at first, seen. On account of the general depression, all over the land, our people have no heart for such shows."

There was a fair in 1863, but, in 1864, a schism developed. A meeting was held at the County Clerk's Office, in Waukegan June 8th 1864 --called by the Secretary James Y. Cory. At this meeting, James Nottingham was elected president: E.D. Ferry and E.M. Dennis, vice presidents; W.H. Ellis, treasurer; James Y. Cory, secretary; thus the old Waukegan clique were in the saddle again and they decided that the next fair should be held in Waukegan. A meeting was held in Libertyville, July 30, 1864, called by the president, Hurlburt Swan. At this meeting, Hurlburt Swan was re-elected president, L.E. Penniman and William Skinner, vice presidents, Edwin B. Messer, secretary, Lyman Sprague, treasurer. Due to lack of harmony, no fair was held in 1864.

A meeting on January 3, 1865, at Waukegan, elected John G. Ragen, president, John Herrick and E.A. Ferry, vice presidents. This apparently was a compromise and restored harmony. Anyhow, the fairs were held there after at Libertyville.

In the earlier years the Lake County Fair was an exhibition only but it gradually became an entertainment project also. A half mile race track was built on the Libertyville grounds which, in time, became known as a very fast track and attracted some of the best harness horses in the middle West and was probably instrumental in bringing some of the owners to Libertyville to establish their breeding farms. Like all other County fairs, ours offered a "Midway" with carnival features and shows of various sorts and attracted visitors from a wide area. It was usual, to provide some special event such as a balloon ascension each year. Lake County had the reputation of having the best county fair in the State.


Postcard images provided by the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.