History of the Brown County Fair
The Brown County Agricultural Board held the first fair in Brown County in the fall of 1872. The fair was held in the present Brown County courthouse yard. The following year the fair was held in the grove of Robert N. Curry located near the present location of Brown County Elementary School (formerly North Grade School).
In 1873 an organizational meeting was held at the Brown County courthouse by William T. Hersman, president; David K. Watson, vice president; A.K. Lowry, recording secretary; William L. Taylor, treasurer; and Martin Brooks, corresponding secretary. These officers and directors selected fifteen acres of ground in the northeast part of Mt. Sterling as a fairgrounds site. They paid seventy-five dollars an acre for it. A third-of-a-mile track was built and the first fair at the new location was held from October 23 to October 27, 1874.
In 1878, seven more acres of ground were purchased to enlarge the fairgrounds. With the additional land, the race track was enlarged to its present lenght of a half-mile. An amphitheater, floral hall, implement and grain room, judges’ stand, and one-hundred and ninety-six stalls for stock and several box stalls were also constructed.
The Brown County Agricultural Board merged into a joint stock company known as the Brown County Agricultural Society in 1880. The Society had capital stock of five thousand dollars consisting of five hundred shares at ten dollars per share.
In 1895, there was another reorganization and the present name Brown County Fair was chosen.
The fair in the 1880’s was very different from today’s fairs. The merry-go-round was powered by horses and the music was supplied by ‘fiddlers’ who sat on a seat on the merry-go-round. Drinking water came from wooden barrels and drinking was done from a tin cup tied with string and punched full of holes to keep people from walking away with it. The water was cooled with pond ice which had been cut and stored the winter before.
One of the big attractions for women was the Floral Hall. It gave them a chance to show off their sewing, bakery goods, jams and jellies, fruits, vegetables, and other talents they had. The men also brought their best livestock, grain, or other things in which they took pride.
In the afternoon, one could sit in the grandstand and listen to the local band, watch the horse races, and watch a baseball game pitting local boys against a visiting baseball team. If one were seated high enough in the grandstand, it was possible to shift his/her eyes and watch the stage acts, the races, and a baseball game from a single seat. No night entertainment was held on the grounds as there were no electric lights until the early 1890’s.
The fair ran into financial difficulties early in the 1900’s and was heavily in debt when Walter I. Manny joined the Brown County Fair Board in the fall of 1902. This man of versatile mind and active imagination, was able to make the Fair a sustainable success. Manny retained horse racing as the central attraction and encouraged the display of farm animals, farm machinery and other merchandise of interest to the farming community. He also encouraged the display of flowers, needlework, baked goods and educational materials in the Floral Hall as well as the participation of 4-H and Future Farmers of America. Manny remained active with the Fair until his death in 1952.
In 1948, the local firefighters demonstrated their new fire engine by extinguishing the flames of a building erected for the occasion. In 1957, J.V. Barker threshed wheat on the grounds with a steam outfit.
On October 14, 1966, the fairgrounds were very heavily damaged by a tornado which ripped through it leaving only the floral hall (built in 1878) and a horse barn still standing. Both were left in very poor condition and were torn down the next year.
It was feared for a time – but only for a short time – that because of the tornado, a 1967 fair would not be possible. But with the help of a tremendous surge of community spirit and determination, the 94th consecutive Brown County Fair was held. Tents and bleachers were used to replace the barns and amphitheater, and twilight races were held because there was no shade for the people who came to watch.
The Brown County Fair persists to this day as the oldest continuously running county fair in the state of Illinois.
And there is no doubt that the fair will continue to provide the perfect blend of community, entertainment, and exhibition that it has always had throughout its storied 130 year history.
Source: Ingram, Wayne and Edward Teefey. “Brown County Fair.” History of Brown County, Illinois 1880-1970 (1972): 25-27.