Peoria’s Fair has undergone a ‘fair’ amount of change in 74 years, but has always stayed rooted in agriculture
The Heart of Illinois Fair isn’t the same as it was when I was a kid.” That phrase has persisted as the Heart of Illinois Fair heads into its 74th year this month.
The Heart of Illinois Fair at Exposition Gardens remains a not-for-profit that, today, is primarily run by a volunteer board made up of everyone from pig farmers to local small business owners, from those in leadership positions at Peoria’s top employers to members of the Farm Bureau.
The mission of the fair is still the same as it was at its inception: It is a celebration of our community and its citizens and their achievements in the areas of agriculture, livestock, gardening, floriculture, food and textiles and some good old-fashioned family fun.
A Community Collaboration
The vision for the Heart of Illinois Fair at Exposition Gardens was unofficially created in 1945 through the fundraising efforts of the Peoria District Fair. The community responded well, with more than 24,000 people contributing.
By April 1948, enough had been collected in donations to purchase and break ground on 160 acres of farmland owned by Walter Poppen waaaay out in the county. The city of Peoria grew around Exposition Gardens as the years passed, with Richwoods High School sprouting up on half of the original property (but more on that later).
The terrain was rough and rugged and needed to be made more usable for a regional county fair. So where oh where would a blue-collar town that was home to a global tractor company’s headquarters ever find the resources to take on the task of leveling all that dirt?
With the assistance of more than 100 volunteer workers, a quarter of a million cubic yards of dirt were moved in slightly more than 40 hours! How was that even possible? The soil-shifting feat went down on April 24-25 of 1948, and 150 earth-moving machines donated by a variety of contractors, county highway departments, private industry and leading equipment manufacturers leveled the 160 acres in record time, even garnering national attention from Time and Life magazines.
It was a global record at the time and a beautiful show of community support and care!
Volunteer workers, including those from Local 649 International Union of Operating Engineers, still in operation today, worked alternating six-hour shifts around the clock to move enough dirt to make a pile as high as a 51-story building!
It was a feat that attracted quite a few lookie-loos. According to an article written by the late Peoria journalist and historian Norm Kelly, who was one of them, Northmoor Road was blocked off, and a total of 65 state troopers handled what little traffic they were allowing through.
Longtime Fair board member Phil Salzer was there, too, as a young boy. Salzer’s father was part of the 649 Operators Union. Flash back to 1979, the year Salzer became a part of the Fair Board as a director. Through the years he was at the helm of many tasks, including transporting the big-name fair talent, including Tiny Tim, Jan and Dean, Connie Stevens, Tanya Tucker, Leann Rimes, Charlie Pride, Glen Campbell, Eddie Rabbit, and Gloria Estefan — who asked for an ironing board and ironed her own clothes!
Due to financial issues, the big-name acts in the Grandstand would come to an end in 2003.
There was an attempt to pivot by putting bands under a tent on the fairgrounds and in the Opera House. That did not quite live up to past successes.
For nearly a decade now, the fair has focused on showcasing up-and-coming artists from all across central Illinois, a necessary move given the stiffer competition in the local venue world and increased prices of national touring acts.
Fair struggles, not a new issue
The first few fairs were hit with strong storms that wrecked the tents that held the vendors and competitors and that led to the construction of several permanent structures that still stand today.
Much like today, financial struggles hit the fair on multiple occasions. Half of Exposition Gardens’ acreage was sold in 1955, along with the Grandstand, which became the future home of Richwoods High School. The influx of money led to the construction of five barns and the Youth Building.
The people behind the show
While the Exposition Gardens/Heart of Illinois Fair Board is made up of volunteers, the backbone of the property has been its loyal employees. In 1973-74, a young man from Brimfield named Tim Tucker worked part-time at the fairground, going full time in 1977, the same year that a longtime office worker, Eileen Frye, took the reins as fair manager.
Frye stepped into a role that was traditionally dominated by males and served 30 years until her retirement in 2007. Tim Tucker retired this past December after a nearly 50-year relationship with the Fair. Joann Jackson also was an integral part of the Expo/HOI Fair office from 1986 to 2020.
Frye’s legacy lives on with her granddaughter, Erica Abenroth, now serving on the board. She also was president during some of the most difficult times in our history, the COVID era.
A personal connection
I have been a member of the Fair Board for more than a decade and am currently serving as its president, now in my second year of a three-year term. But I fell in love with the Heart of Illinois Fair back in the mid-1970s. As for many central Illinoisans, it was what my family did for a vacation during the Caterpillar summer shutdown.
My Mom entered her excellent sewing projects, which became clothes for me and my sibs. She even won a Grand Champion blue ribbon for a baby blue, three-piece suit complete with a handmade bow tie for my 3-year-old brother. He had his photo taken in one of the carnival game tents with all the stuffed animals, for the front page of the Journal Star.
I fell in love with the fairgrounds again as an adult in 2002 as a Peoria Jaycee. The Jaycees hosted several long-running events at Expo Gardens, and it felt like home.
“The Heart of Illinois Fair isn’t the same …” And yet it is. Livestock shows, home arts competitions, truck and tractor pulls, carnival rides, food vendors and live entertainment have been the anchors of the fair and are still thriving. We also have the Celebrity Swine Showmanship Competition, the HOI Heroes Program to recognize those in our community who go the extra mile, the Mobile Open Mic for local artists, a pie-eating contest, our racing turkeys, a petting zoo, a sky-high circus act, and of course corn dogs and lemon shake-ups.
This year’s fair runs from July 18-22. Tax-deductible donations are always appreciated and sponsorships are available. For more information, please visit our website at heartofillinoisfair.com.