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Looking Back: Building a new county fairgrounds

January 6, 2019

More than 12,000 cubic yards of soil was moved. A thousand postholes were dug, and 2,500 feet of fence was erected. More than a mile of drainage ditches were excavated. Ten acres of brush and trees were cleared. Those impressive numbers were achieved by more than 250 volunteers working 10-hour days in a single weekend to create the new fairgrounds for Kankakee County.

It was called “Operation Fairgrounds,” and was hailed as a “great success” by county fair board president Percy Loiselle. He described the project as “a great demonstration of community spirit,” showing “that farmers and city and village residents can work together toward a common cause.”

Early on Saturday morning, June 26, 1948, the volunteer workers gathered on the former Elmer Look farm along the west side of Illinois Route 49, about 3 miles south of downtown Kankakee. Shortly after 7 a.m., the engines of more than two dozen borrowed bulldozers, draglines, graders and other pieces of heavy equipment roared to life.

Soon, they were spread out across 60 acres of the 168-acre property, converting former cornfields and the old farmyard into a site where the 1948 Kankakee County Fair could be held just two months later.

“The work to be done,” the Kankakee Republican newspaper noted the preceding day, “includes improving drainage, laying out of parking lots, construction of fences, trimming of trees, digging of a well, cutting of a roadway through the grounds, development of a (horse show) ring, building of a fifth-of-a-mile track for midget auto racing and a half-mile track for (horse racing) and motorcycle racing.”

On Saturday, the volunteers labored from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., taking an hour off for lunch (with donated food served by still other volunteers, the women of the Kankakee County Home Bureau).

Work on Sunday morning was halted for an hour to allow volunteers to attend church services in a tent on the grounds. Tents also were set up for the project headquarters, food service and a first-aid station staffed by Red Cross volunteers.

After the massive two-day effort, Loiselle calculated that if the Fair Association had to pay for the labor, materials, supplies and equipment use, the cost would have been exactly $14,466.

“Everything for ‘Operation Fairgrounds’ was donated, however. Not a single item was paid for,” he told the Republican.

“Labor would have accounted for $6,376 of the total amount. Materials and supplies would have cost $1,900. The equipment valued at a quarter-million dollars would have been an expense of $5,690, and food and beverages consumed was worth $500.” (One of the most welcome food donations came from produce-stand operator John Panozzo, who arrived during the hottest hour of Sunday afternoon with a carload of chilled watermelons.)

The new fairgrounds would replace one that had served the community for more than 70 years.

The former fairgrounds had been established in 1860 on the northern edge of the city, just to the west of Mound Grove Cemetery. Initially, it occupied 15 acres, but would later spread over much more land. By the year 1912, it was known as the Kankakee Inter-State Fair and was the largest and most popular fair in Illinois after the State Fair. That fair ended its run in 1932; for the next 15 years, the county fair was held in smaller locations, including Kankakee’s Waterman (now Beckman) Park.

After the “Operation Fairgrounds” weekend, work continued at the new site, especially grading and putting the finishing touches on the three tracks that would occupy the north end of the grounds. Muddy conditions had delayed that work.

To provide water at the fairgrounds, a 150-foot-deep well was dug; work also continued to improve drainage so that rainstorms would not flood the grounds.

By the first week in August, the new fairgrounds was ready to host its first Kankakee County Fair. Since permanent buildings still were in the future, the 1948 fair would be “a canvas city.” Large tents were erected to house the commercial displays, livestock stalls and judging rings, midway attractions and food vendors. Alongside the tracks for horse shows and racing events, a ground-level “box seat” area and tiers of wooden bleachers served as the grandstand.

On Monday, Aug. 9, the first fairgoers parked their trucks and cars in the new parking lots, and poured through the entry gates at the south edge of the grounds.

For the next five days, they would enjoy livestock and domestic arts competitions, horse shows, an amateur radio contest, midway rides, refreshments and nightly dancing to local bands. On Friday evening, the fair would wrap up with a western horse show, a performance by the Musical Majorettes (“the Official All-Girl Band” of the Cleveland Browns football team) and an amateur baton-twirling contest to select “Miss Majorette of the Kankakee County Fair.”

Attendance for the week topped the 50,000 mark, prompting fair officials to declare it “The greatest fair in Kankakee County since the old Inter-State Fair terminated in 1932.”

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