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History of the Jersey County Fair



The Jersey County Fair was founded near the end of the Golden Age of the Agricultural Fair, a period lasting between 1850 and 1870 that witnessed the proliferated growth of county fairs and the organizations that hosted them. Agricultural societies existed in Illinois with varying degrees of success since 1819, but established and long-lasting organizations didn’t emerge until the start of the Golden Age (Pease, 1918; Davis, 1998)


The county fairs that emerged at that time were designed to bring farmers and their families together to build community, learn about better agricultural and domestic practices, and participate in competitions that promoted excellence in those practices with premiums awarded to the winners. Competitions were held in various classes, including livestock, plowing, baking, sewing, artisan, and others. Games and entertainment were also staple features. Thus, they weren’t too unlike our fairs today. But they were also essential places for agricultural education. Lectures were often heard at county fairs, and they were one of

the primary locations where farmers could see the latest agricultural equipment displayed and demonstrated. In fact, county fairs were the place where many of our forebears first encountered plows, tractors, windmills, and automobiles. Even improved crop and livestock breeding practices are attributed to them. Indeed, a county fair wasn’t worth its salt if it didn’t leave the agricultural community in a better place than how it found it.


Neighboring counties had hosted fairs for several years before Jersey County hosted its own exhibition. Before we had our own fair, local farmers participated in those fairs. In fact, the story of the Jersey County Fair began at the 1867 Greene County Fair, where a few local farmers determined amongst themselves that Jersey County was in a position to host its own fair.


After a couple of meetings and fundraising, the Jersey County Agricultural and Mechanical Association was founded in 1868, and the organization hosted its inaugural fair later that October. The original fairgrounds were located near St. Francis Cemetery in Jerseyville.


As the 1800s wore on, the fair grew to become one of the most popular events in the region. Located only a stone’s throw away from the nearby railroad, the train would haul up folks who lived near Alton so they could enjoy our fair. Many notable farmers and community leaders held positions of leadership on the fair board, including Prentiss D. Cheney, whose home is now under the care of the Jersey County Historical Society, as well as builder of the 518 House, Senator William Shephard, and Colonel William H. Fulkerson, who built the famed Hazel Dell mansion north of Jerseyville.


In the 1890s, the fair fell out of popularity and had to close down. County historian Oscar Hamilton cited the reason being “...on account of the locating of the State Fair at Springfield, and it being impossible to arouse the people’s interest in the annual meetings of the Association…” (Hamilton, 1919). Financial concerns also impacted the fair’s existence, but after the close of the First World War, the Jersey County Fair board reorganized and hosted a comeback fair in August 1919 on the present fairgrounds, with all the events being hosted under tents or open-air. Just like their predecessors, they went right to work improving the grounds in the most modern way possible. Regrettably, a tornado here and a fire there (not to mention the Great Depression) has resulted in only the track remaining from those early years.


When the Second World War hit, the effects were felt instantly in Jersey County. As a result of the draft and the war effort, the 1942 fair was canceled through the rest of the war. It wasn’t until 1950 that the fair returned. From that time forward, the fair continued annually until the COVID Pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 fair, just one year after our 150th anniversary (we were a couple years late on that celebration, but that’s our little secret).


Today, fairs aim to provide an immersive rural experience for the whole community by celebrating our agrarian roots and educating folks on agriculture. Though initially designed to impact farming families, fairs have since evolved to serve the broader community, providing connection to education, local cultural traditions, and experiences. From the first fair in 1868 to today, we have been one of the most significant events in the county, bringing folks together from all over to celebrate our community’s agricultural footprint and cultural heritage. Though no one can be certain of the future, it's our intention to ensure that

the Jersey County Fair will continue to make a positive impact in the community as we continue what was started long before us.


Sources


Davis, J. E. (1998). Frontier Illinois. Indiana University Press.


Hamilton, O. B. (1919). History of Jersey County, Illinois. Munsell Publishing Company.


Pease, T. C. (1918). The Frontier State 1818-1848 (Vol. 2). Illinois Centennial Commission.

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