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History made at, by Mercer Fair

ALEDO -- When 104-year-old Hope Fender was 5, she made her first trip by horse-drawn buggy to the popular Mercer County Fair outside Aledo.

Like thousands of others that day in 1898, she had fun walking the crowded fairgrounds from dawn to dusk with her family, the Aledo woman said recently.

Mrs. Fender still recalls eating her dinner from a bucket stored in their buggy, which was parked in a nearby pasture. Nearly everyone brought along meals so they could view fair exhibits all day without interruption, she explained.

``We'd spread a tablecloth on the ground and eat,'' Mrs. Fender said. ``Yes, everything was all right then.''

Such long-ago moments paved the way for the Mercer County Fair's inclusion in June on the National Register of Historic Places. This county fair, with a past stretching to the 1850s, is only the second one of its kind accepted on the national list.

Illinois added the 54-acre fairgrounds to its historic register in March, making it the first county fair in the state to receive such recognition.

Chuck McCaw
``It puts kind of a seal on the thing,'' said Chuck McCaw, Mercer County Fair Board director and leader of the historical drive. ``It tells everyone in the community that this isn't just a bunch of old buildings. This is a historical place.''

Many members of the Mercer County Agricultural Society, which owns the fairgrounds, have wanted to research the fair's history for years. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Mr. McCaw and Aledo High School English teacher John Malone began studying its background in earnest.

Mr. McCaw said finding the historical records involved ``an awful lot of legwork'' at the Essley-Noble Museum in Aledo. Two years and a ``thick pile'' of research documents later, they had enough information to petition Illinois for state historical status. The Springfield-based board immediately accepted the fair on its list and, soon after, the national board followed suit, he said.

The first Mercer County Fair was held in the fall of 1853 in Millersburg, a former Mercer County seat. The fairgrounds remained there until 1869, when the society sold the property to buy 27 acres on Aledo's western edge from D.V. Reed for $2,700.

Most people don't realize the grandstand was built from wood moved from the Millersburg fairgrounds, Mr. McCaw said.

The railroad, which moved into town the same year the fair relocated, played an important part in the fair's development through the 19th century and early 1900s. Special trains were scheduled during fair week, Mr. Malone said.

The fall fairs became popular social events and showcases for the latest agricultural developments. Although some fairs were skipped during the Civil War, the event drew daily crowds in the tens of thousands every year.

``Fairs were huge,'' Mr. McCaw said. ``It was easy and cheap. You could spend the day at the fair for pennies.''

The fair's success screeched to a near halt when the depression of the 1930s hit. As attendance dropped, the fair began losing money and soon was more than $12,000 in debt.

The fairgrounds were foreclosed upon by 1938, and that year's fair was canceled. However, Courtney Willits bought the land in a foreclosure sale and leased it back to the society for $750 so the 1939 fair could be held. By the mid-'40s, the society bought back the grounds from Mr. Willits on an installment plan.

The fair has slowly rebuilt itself financially but has never regained its once-soaring popularity. Automobile technology lured people away from their closely-knit communities by giving them access to a larger choice of social events, Mr. McCaw said.

``It's just not the excitement that it used to be,'' he said.

The fairgrounds has seen its share of excitement -- not all of it pleasant. Scandals have ranged from the entry of stolen needlework in the 1895 fair to the murder of a rumored prostitute in the early part of the century.

Two other murders at the fair were attributed to fights over horseracing, once a big attraction.

Now all the fair's moments, good and bad, will be preserved by its new historical status. The titles will allow the society to get government funds to restore old buildings and just might keep the fair alive, Mr. McCaw said.

``We're trying to preserve our community fair from just going extinct,'' he said.

-- By Kay Yadon (January 26, 1998)

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