Many things have changed over the past 75 years, but the spirit of the Georgetown Fair stays the same.
Throughout its history, the fair has been a place where people exhibit livestock and produce, exchange agricultural goods, engage in friendly competitions and strengthen social bonds.
“It’s the tradition of the fair — a time to get together with folks you haven’t seen for some time,” said Milton Dalenberg, president of the fair board.
With Vermilion County covering such a wide area, people might not see each other except a few times a year. The Georgetown Fair — which attracts people from Indiana, as well — gives them a chance to catch up, Dalenberg said, citing the “friendships and memories that happen during the fair.”
This year’s fair is special because it’s marking its 75th anniversary. That history will be emphasized, Dalenberg said, along with the usual lineup of activities — pageants, competitions, livestock exhibits, music, a carnival, bingo, demolition derby, trivia night, motocross racing, petting zoo, tractor pull — and, of course, plenty of food.
Carnivals and street fairs have been held in Georgetown since 1931, and the first official fair was held in 1938, thanks to two agriculture teachers. Called the Georgetown 4-H Fair and Livestock Show, it featured five divisions of horses, dairy cattle and poultry, as well as vegetables, grain and home economics.
The early fairs were held at various sites around town, and the carnival was set up at the city park or on the city square. The only year without a scheduled fair was 1954.
By 1948, the event was recognized by the Illinois Department of Agriculture as an official county fair, thus making it eligible to receive up to $6,000. A portion of that was set aside for acquiring grounds and a building for exhibits.
In July 1954, the Georgetown Agricultural Fair Association was incorporated. A land purchase was undertaken seeking first 12 acres and then, an additional 5 acres. The original land was purchased from Paul Bonebrake just east of the city park. Later, additional acreage was purchased from the Sheliko family to bring the total to about 38 acres.
A land fund was created with donors giving $100 toward the purchase. There were 45 original land donors and later an additional 37 donated. Several donors contributed more than once. The land was bought at $600 per acre.
Dalenberg is impressed with the fair board’s vision in the 1950s. At the time, 12 acres would have been sufficient for a number of years, he said. But, he added, “When they acquired land, they had to be thinking about what it would be like in 20 to 30 years.”
In 1955, state funds allowed for $26,000 worth of building projects on the new fairgrounds to be erected, including the north home economics building, the beef barn and swine barn. The years from 1956 to 1972 were building years, as well, adding the south home economics building, the sheep and dairy barns, and new fence and more than 100 hand-dug and transplanted trees. The 1960s added the poultry building (now the Roy Ramert Ag-o-Rama building), the grandstand, the food building and extensions to the beef and sheep buildings.
The early 1970s brought the building phase to a halt for a few years. The food building was enclosed and the goat barn was completed.
In 2002, the board received a $100,000 Illinois FIRST grant for a banquet and conference center. Ground was broken in 2003 and the center dedicated in time for the 2006 fair. A large parking lot was added in 2011.
Dalenberg is pleased with the banquet center, as it’s used by many people. In fact, it’s rented for one-third of the weekends throughout the year for weddings. It’s a good place for receptions, he said.
The fairgrounds also is used by groups during the year; for example, the Danville Kennel Club holds a dog show there on Labor Day weekend. In June, there was a preview show for beef entries.
Dalenberg, who has been board president nine years, is this year’s recipient of the Phil Hummel Memorial Award.
“It’s really nice to be honored,” he said. “It’s humbling that your peers recognize you for what you do.”
Dalenberg said his two sons exhibited livestock when they were younger, and his wife, Nancy, volunteers, as well. She is principal at the junior/senior high school in Chrisman. The family lives in rural Indianola; the grown sons are involved in agriculture.
This year’s fair booklet describes Dalenberg as “a true believer in American agriculture” and a master craftsman in his career as a farm owner-operator.
“He is a farmer who performs on the cutting edge of technology, while at the same time serving as a steward of the land through his adherence to the principles of soil conservation and preservation of the natural resources of the land.”
The award was given to Dalenberg for his abilities, leadership and goal-driven nature, as well as his skills as an intelligent, progressive farmer and his family’s community involvement.
No additions or changes have been made to the fair this year, Dalenberg said. The emphasis is still on livestock, as it has been throughout history.
There was a rodeo several years ago, but it was discontinued due to low attendance, he said, and motocross was added.
Two of the more popular events started in the 1960s — the queen contest in 1960 and the first demolition derby in 1969.
Entertainment and attractions were mainstays of the 1970s and ‘80s. The fair brought solid talent who were early in their careers, including Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, Oak Ridge Boys and Randy Travis. In 1990, the biggest future star to appear in Georgetown was Garth Brooks. The purchase of a sound system set the stage for annual savings.
Dalenberg said the fair hasn’t brought in any big acts recently due to the cost.
In the early 1970s, the Golden Wedding Day celebration and the Outstanding Young Citizen Program were started to honor two key demographics — the seniors and youth.
Throughout the years, the fair board has had to replace aging roofs on the buildings, overhaul the electrical systems, and put in a new fence. In 2010, the board planted more trees, and a comprehensive emergency response plan was developed.
“We’ve been fortunate to maintain what we’ve got,” Dalenberg said.
FYI The Georgetown Fair is under way today and concludes Saturday. For directions and more details, go to http://www.georgetownfair.com or call the office at 662-6415.