A Century of Tradition: Winnebago County Cruises into its 100th Anniversary

Family history and family values abound at the county fair, and they’re on full display in this year’s centennial celebration, from the livestock shows to the contests and the grandstands.

Kyah Bean literally grew up at the Winnebago County Fair.

Her first visit came at just 2 months old, and she hasn’t missed one since.

Bean’s first job, at 18, was as office manager of the Winnebago County Fair Association – a position she held for six years.

Now, the 27-year-old farm girl sits on the fair board, following the footsteps of her father, Rich Bean, a past president of the fair association and former board member. The younger Bean is part of a new generation that’s shaping the future of this fair, much like her predecessors have done successively over the past 100 years.

This year’s Winnebago County Fair, which runs Aug. 18-22, is truly a special occasion: this is the 100th anniversary celebration at the county fairgrounds, located at 500 W. First St., in Pecatonica, Ill.

This year’s centennial celebration promises to be a time for friends and families to meet, explore farm life, eat food, enjoy carnival rides and live entertainment, and reminisce about old times – as they’ve done for over a century.

“It’s always been a place where the summer memories are,” says Deb Runte, president of the fair association. “It was always a place to network, where you made lasting memories and you’d find somebody and say, ‘Remember when we were 10 and we went on the Tilt-A-Whirl?’ Those are the memories you make when you’re doing something fun.”

Family History, Family Values

(Local History at the Rockford Public Library photos)

Ellie Lenkaitis, a 24-year-old dairy farmer from Winnebago, Ill., is a fourth-generation exhibitor at the fair.
Her mother, Jodi Stahl, showed at the fair; so did her grandmother, Patricia Stahl; and her great-grandfather, Bill Brown.

Her sister Emma, 12, currently is a member of the Seward Determination 4-H Club – the same club to which Ellie and their mother once belonged.

“To us, the fair is like a family vacation – it’s something we look forward to all summer,” Lenkaitis says. “We love it. It’s a great time with lots of friends who have turned into family, the same people you see every year in the barns.”

For many, this has always been a family affair.

Fair association president Deb Runte’s stepbrother, Jim Anderson, 83, was a board member for 40 years and is now an honorary board member who still volunteers. His father, Floyd “Dobby” Anderson, was on the board before him, and his sons, Brian and Ryan Anderson, are involved in the fair today.

“The Andersons have been involved in the county fair since about 1956, 1957,” Jim Anderson says.

As a “daddy’s girl,” Kyah Bean spent many a night “helping” her father around the fairgrounds getting ready for events. Those are fond memories, she says.

And she remembers seeing entire families – like the Lenkaitises – participating together in contests, displays and livestock shows.

“These multi-generation families will exhibit other things, too,” Bean adds. “A couple of families have a competition where, for example, each will be assigned a type of cookie to bake. They’ll enter it, and whoever wins gets bragging rights for the family. A lot of people just look at the fair as rides and food, but they don’t see what is important to some: family values.”

Look hard enough and you’ll see those values on full display, especially around the livestock displays, where plenty of behind-the-scenes work leads up to the county fair.

“Probably one of our main goals is educating people about what happens on a farm: how the animals are raised, how they’re treated from beginning to end,” Runte says. “We hope people get a better understanding of what goes into raising an animal.”

Lenkaitis and her father, Albert, live and work on Five West Dairy, just outside of Winnebago, Ill. Together, they and two hired hands take care of 120 milking heifers. She notes that it takes a dedicated person to show an animal at the fair.

“It starts all the way back in early spring,” Lenkaitis says. “You have to pick a calf that you think has potential to do well at the fair. You have to walk her, feed her different food. Every day, I’ll catch our heifers and we’ll walk them and wash them. They’re used to people, but I’m with them constantly. We want them to be calm and friendly, not scared of people, of course, so if they’re at the fair and some kid who has never seen a cow before comes to pet them, they’re OK. To me, that’s one of our favorite parts: the people who have truly no idea about animals other than from the books they’ve read. They see our animals and you see their amazed faces.”

A ‘Duel’ Affair

(Local History at the Rockford Public Library photos)

The Winnebago County Fair actually dates back to 1841 and the founding of the Winnebago County Agricultural Society. Back then, it hosted the Cattle Show and Fair in a grove near First and Oak streets in Rockford, according to Rockford Public Library’s local history pages.

The fair alternated between the east and west sides of the river, but it faded out. The Winnebago Agricultural Society took over in 1852 and set up west of the river.

The property became known as Fair Grounds Park, and it notably was home to the Rockford Forest City Base Ball Club – a member of America’s first professional baseball league, writes Jim Nitz, a Milwaukee native who writes for the Society for American Baseball Research.

History is quiet about the fair until 1875, when Jefferson Davis – the infamous Confederate president – was invited, and accepted the invitation, to not only attend the fair but also give its annual address.

“This invitation and its acceptance stirred up such a furore (sic) of excitement among the people of Northern Illinois as to induce Mr. Davis to withdraw his acceptance,” as written in “The History of Winnebago County, Illinois: 1877,” which was published by H. F. Kett and Co., Chicago, in 1877. “The correspondence thus necessitated became a matter of national notoriety, and as such is made to form a part of the history we are writing, and is therefore included.”

Apparently, it became a national controversy, spotlighted by a duel between two St. Louis newspaper editors: Col. Emory S. Foster of the Journal, and Major John N. Edwards of the Dispatch.

After hearing the Davis address was canceled, Edwards – who had been part of a famous rebel brigade and later escaped to Mexico before returning to St. Louis – wrote a “very malignant editorial article” against Illinois soldiers, while insinuating many women had in their households “pianos and other articles that were stolen from Jeff. Davis’ Southern neighbors.”

Foster, who commanded a federal regiment, took the insult personally and challenged Foster. Both men escaped the pistol duel unscathed and went on their ways, but the entire episode put a spotlight on Winnebago County.
After that, things resumed as usual, for awhile.

“The slump in popularity of old-fashioned county fairs caused the Winnebago County Agricultural Society to sell the Fair Grounds to the City of Rockford in 1904 for $5,520,” writes Nitz. “The property was then developed into a public park. Since 1910, the Rockford Park District has managed what is now called Fairgrounds Park.”

Not much is known about the years that passed between the sale of the old fairgrounds and the move to Pecatonica, located 16 miles west of downtown Rockford.

However, news articles of the time state that the Winnebago County Fair Association incorporated in 1921, and its first fair – a nonprofit event – took place Aug. 24 through 26 that year.

“Interest in the Pecatonica fair is running at a high pitch,” reads an article published July 30, 1921, in The Rockford Republic. “Especially is this noticeable in Rockford, where memories of the annual fairs held on the site of the present Fairgrounds Park still linger pleasantly in the minds of residents.”

The Modern-Day Fair

(Winnebago County Fair Association photos)

This year technically marks the 95th fair – due to wartime and pandemic pauses – but to those who lead the modern fair, this year is special nonetheless.

The Winnebago County Fairgrounds now include more than 108 acres on the west side of Pecatonica, a town with about 2,000 residents.

Thousands come to the fair every year. The 2019 fair hosted 95,000 visitors, and Runte expects a similar turnout this year.

That’s light years ahead of how the modern fair started out. According to the Rockford Public Library history database, a Rockford Morning Star advertisement on Aug. 18, 1923 – just two years after the fair’s renewal – called the Winnebago County Fair “the biggest and best fair in Northern Illinois.”

Exhibits included agriculture, manufacturing, domestic science, art, autos, livestock and more, with free attractions like a Ferris wheel. An extensive horse racing program and free music were on the docket. On Aug. 25, the paper reported 9,000 had attended closing day.

Into the 1960s, animals were still a main attraction, says Jim Anderson, who started working at the fair in 1960 as the dairy superintendent. But over the past 50 years, the fair has broadened its appeal.

“When I got on the fair board in 1965, there was a 1,600-seat wooden grandstand,” Anderson recalls. “We had no running water bathrooms; we had outhouses. Since then, we’ve built up, and we have five or six big display buildings … and a petting zoo for the kids.”

There was also a time when the fair drew huge music acts.

“We had Jimmy Dean before he knew how to make sausage,” Anderson says. “He came and sang – he filled that grandstand twice. And we had Doc Severinsen from Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show.’ We’ve had some real name-brand entertainment.”

Later years saw acts who eventually blossomed into superstars, including Toby Keith in 1997 and Dierks Bentley in 2004.

Nowadays, the fair focuses on local talent, to the joy of many visitors.

“The local bands, they have their following,” Runte says. “People do come and enjoy themselves. There are people for whom the fair is where they meet. Mini class reunions have happened at the fairgrounds.”

The Centennial Celebration

(Winnebago County Fair Association photos)

To commemorate 100 years of fair history, the Winnebago County Fair is trying to restore some forgotten traditions while also bringing in new attractions.

“Reaching 100 years is quite an accomplishment,” says fair office manager Michelle McCabe. “We’re trying to make it bigger and better than ever. Coming off a year of pandemic, it’s a little more complicated. But we’re trying to add some nostalgia to it and some things people would have seen 100 years ago.”

The Stephenson/Winnebago County Beef Association plans to host a steak dinner on Saturday, bringing back a yearly tradition that ended sometime in the 1980s or 1990s.

A greased pig competition also is planned. “Several years ago, that used to be a big 4-H thing,” Runte says. “You’d have an enclosed area with 20 people in there trying to wrangle the pig.”

A commemorative wall hanging made exclusively for the centennial will hang in Building 5. It’ll be joined by a new category under Crafts and Hobbies, this one dedicated completely to displays that celebrate the anniversary.

Several new competitions also will be introduced, like Oreo stacking, Chicken Bingo, an obstacle course and a fair scavenger hunt.

Fairgoers can also try their hand at fair trivia, trying to figure out things that happened at the fair in years past, McCabe says.

Entertainment Lineup

(Winnebago County Fair Association photos)

Once your admission ticket is paid, most of the entertainment is free. And there’s plenty of it this year.
Moss Hall, a 36,000-square-foot behemoth of a building, is home to many free acts for kids and families.
On Wednesday, balloon artist Kevin Lindh, “The Midwest’s Premier Balloon Artist,” creates impressive figures from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.

“This is way more than your little balloon dog,” says Runte. “He’s made a full-blown dress out of just balloons.”
Magician “Magic Mike” hosts shows Wednesday and Thursday, while Dr. Clevis Beaker (aka Curt Strutz) hosts three separate Hillbilly Silly Science Spectacular Comedy Shows each day.

“He’s going to do a fun show,” says McCabe. “He’s a funny science guy who engages with the kids – and adults – with some different experiments on the stage. We’re very excited to see what he has to offer.”

The fair pageants also take place in Moss Hall, with the Queen and Junior Miss pageant hosted Wednesday evening and Little Miss hosted Thursday evening.

“Young women get to learn about themselves, how to present themselves, what they can do and what they can achieve,” says Bean.

Alexi Bladel of Rockford, who won the 2018 pageant, was crowned the 60th Miss Illinois County Fair Queen in 2019.

Outside Moss Hall, events like the antique tractor display, K-9 demonstration and lumberjack show are available daily. Kids love the interactive lumberjack camp.

The Bear Hollow Wood Carvers host multiple shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“We’ve got some pictures on our website of some of the amazing animals they’ve carved out of logs,” says McCabe.” We auction them off at the end of the fair for someone to take them home, and all the money we raise goes to repairing one of the buildings or a nonprofit organization.”

And for smaller children, there are several activities suited just for them.

“We have a building that we’ve devoted entirely to a straw maze for the kids to play in, to color a mural on one of our boards that we draw out for them, a place to see magicians up close … things geared toward the 5-and-younger crowd,” Runte says.

The Grandstand and Carnival

While the grandstand no longer hosts motorcycle races (a onetime favorite) it does host plenty of modern favorites every evening. Tickets are often required for these events.

On Wednesday, the Xtreme Roughstock Tour Rodeo and local barrel racing begin at 7 p.m., with family hour running from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The band Blind Date plays at the entertainment tent at 7:30 p.m.

On Thursday, the truck races fire up at 7 p.m. Local musician Penny Mae Dixon performs at 8 p.m.

Coming up Friday, the Badger State Hot Rod Tractor Pulls begin at 6:30 p.m., with cover band Dead Man’s Hand performing at 9 p.m.

Sunday marks the end of the fair, with the popular demo derby closing out the grandstand entertainment. Pit passes are available.

“Our demo derby is always a huge sell-out in the grandstand,” Runte says. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is, the demolition people are going to be there.”

Finally, there’s everybody’s favorite attraction: the carnival, which runs from noon to close daily. Special $25 all-inclusive wristbands are available, each good for one time slot of either noon to 5 p.m. or 5 p.m. to close (each time slot requires a separate wristband).

“To make it through every high and low, especially as a nonprofit, for all these years truly is incredible,” says Bean. “It’ll be fun to see which generations continue on at the fairgrounds, just like myself. I joined the fair board because my dad was on it. Exhibitors, volunteers and even fairgoers often have a family tie to the Winnebago County Fair, and I hope they pass on things for the next 100 years.”