A century ago there were not only county fairs in this stretch of Central Illinois, but there were also a number of â€œcountryâ€ fairs run by independent associations. One of the longest-running and most respected and successful was the Rock Creek Fair in the northwestern corner of McLean County. â€œThere is no disputing the fact that the real thing in the way of country fairs is at Rock Creek,â€ noted The Pantagraph in 1908.
From 1874 to 1922, this â€œgrand display of horses, cattle, sheep, swine and products of the farm, garden and workshopâ€ was known as â€œone of the best of the purely agricultural shows in the state.â€
Located about four miles north of Danvers, the fairâ€™s beginnings date to the 1860s when John A. Ewins and Peter H. Vance, â€œtwo public-spirited, energetic farmers,â€ organized a club and began holding semi-monthly meetings to promote agriculture. Each fall they gathered to display the harvest time bounty, from blue ribbon-worthy ear corn to blooded stock. After a few years of these makeshift get-togethers it became apparent the club would need some sort of permanent grounds to accommodate the increasing number of participants and interested parties.
Accordingly, club members agreed to organize a fair association and issue 50 shares of stock at $5 each. The association then leased 10 acres from John Ewins, and soon thereafter enclosed the grounds, which were later enlarged. Eventually, the fairgrounds featured a number of buildings and structures, including a grandstand, floral hall and stalls and pens. The fair was but one-quarter mile from the Woodford County line, so most of the associationâ€™s stockholders were from Danvers and White Oak townships in McLean County and Montgomery and Kansas townships in Woodford County.
The Lake Erie & Western Railroad soon ran just east of the fair site, and special excursion trains carried fairgoers back and forth from Bloomington. Carriages or â€œhacksâ€ then met the disembarking passengers to transport them the short distance to the grounds.
The popularity of the annual Rock Creek gathering mightâ€™ve had something to do with the struggles of the McLean County Agricultural Society, which held a fair on the far west end of Bloomington from the mid-1850s to 1884. Financial problems led to the collapse of this society, and until the first 4-H fairs in the 1920s, there were no countywide agricultural gatherings in McLean County.
In addition to Rock Creek, there were other â€œcountryâ€ fairs in McLean and adjacent counties willing to fill the vacuum, including ones in LeRoy and Saybrook, as well as Atlanta in Logan County, Fairbury in Livingston County and El Paso in Woodford County.
In the early years at Rock Creek there were 10 premium classes with cash prizes: horses and mules, cattle, swine and sheep, farm products, textiles, preserves and canned fruit, bread and cakes, horticulture, poultry and manufactured articles.
Stock premiums for horses and mules alone included best span of mules (â€œspanâ€ here meaning two of similar color and appearance yoked together); best draft horse; best draft stallion; best stallions at one, two and three years old; best roadster stallion; best gelding; best span of carriage horses; best span of buggy horses; best â€œsuckingâ€ (or nursing) colt, among a seemingly endless array of other prize categories.
Generally speaking, fair activities were highly segregated by gender, with men and boys dominating the premium classes involving stock and crops, and women and girls enjoying a near monopoly on classes related to home and garden. â€œThe fair ladies deluged the superintendent with canned and pickled fruits of every sort till there was scarcely room to exhibit them,â€ read one typical notice from the 1883 fair.
And at a time when horseracing and gambling were inextricably tied to county and country fairs, Rock Creek had no racetrack for such activities, and intentionally so. Likewise, questionable amusements such as gambling devices, sideshows and â€œhitting machinesâ€ were prohibited on the grounds.
On Sept. 27, 1878, the final day of that yearâ€™s three-day fair, some 3,000 visitors crowded onto the grounds. Despite the throng, â€œnot a single fight or disturbance of any kind occurred, which speaks well for the citizens of this part of the county,â€ observed The Pantagraph. The newspaper also noted that â€œnot a single article was stolen, such as whips, shawls, etc., they being left in the wagons or carriages with perfect safety.â€
The following year, 1879, attendance reached 3,500 visitors on Sept. 18, though the fairgroundâ€™s water supply failed around the noon hour, â€œoccasioning much inconvenience.â€ The crowd was once more well-behaved, though there were whispers of some â€œwhiskey smuggling.â€
A tradition emerged to hold a parade of premium stock at the fairâ€™s finale, with a community band out front to give the procession a festive air. â€œOne might think he was at some state fair, so great is the quantity of horses, mules, cattle, etc.,â€ commented The Pantagraph during one such parade.
Much like today, the weather could play havoc with the best laid plans of fairgoers young and old. On Sept. 9, 1910, for instance, The Pantagraph reported that the previous day was â€œrainy, muddy and hot and the perspiring fairgoers felt like losing their religion, even if all did not show evidences of it.â€
The 1922 fair, the 48th annual, proved to be the last. The final day of the final fair featured special premiums for beef and dairy cattle, and an 11-6 Carlock victory over Stanford on a makeshift baseball diamond. No fair was held in the fall of 1923, and that December, Rock Creek stockholders voted to discontinue the annual gathering.
Even so, the fair association had given thousands of folks, including area farmers, small town shopkeepers and even city slickers, a half-century worth of memories. â€œDroves of stock. Crowds of people,â€ promised fair organizers in 1907. â€œSomething to see, admire and remember.â€