DuPage County Fair returns for three days of farm animals, carnival rides and festival food
Mosey on over to the DuPage County Fair, and the worries and cares of suburban life melt away in the barns and exhibit halls.
Prize-winning farm animals slumber in their stalls until they strut their stuff in the show ring. The 4-H kids unplug and play cards in the rare moments when they're not tending to their chores. Quiltmakers, woodworkers and home bakers are happy to share their craft, even if they don't win a blue ribbon.
That's the natural rhythm of the fair: laid-back and convivial.
But it's no funnel cake walk when you're Jim McGuire, the fair manager. The responsibility of preserving 180 years of fair traditions falls largely on his broad shoulders. And after a pandemic-induced hiatus, this weekend's fair comes with its own set of challenges. Organizers have felt the crunch of a tight labor market and talent pool.
"COVID really rocked our industry," McGuire said. "We had a lot of vendors that traveled the country and went to place to place. A lot of people rethought what they're doing, and so they're kind of sticking more local. They don't travel as much as they did."
So instead of pulling off five days of agrarian, music and carnival entertainment, the fair will open for a long weekend starting Friday morning in Wheaton. The Lake County Fair also had a slimmed-down lineup and an abbreviated schedule in 2021 before getting back to full strength this week. Likewise, DuPage fair organizers are already working on plans for a five-day experience in 2023, McGuire said.
"You want to take the first step and just kind of work your way back into the groove," McGuire said.
As a cost-saving measure, organizers will be making greater use of the buildings on the fairgrounds rather than putting up big tents. The fair will hit the reset button without the traditional demolition derby and rodeo, but there are some new attractions that pay homage to the county's rural past.
"We really changed up the way we're doing things coming out of two years without having a fair," McGuire said.
A new configuration
The "beer garden" and evening concerts will be housed in Building No. 2, the first built on the fairgrounds. Carnival rides have moved toward the south side of the property.
"We brought everything up toward Manchester Road," McGuire said.
With one notable exception: Trained dogs will demonstrate how they corral a herd of sheep twice a day on the lawn near a butterfly garden on the north end of the fairgrounds.
The DuPage County Fair will give a glimpse of country living during the three-day run of the event starting Friday.
- Daily Herald file photo
Sprawling farms have all but vanished from the suburban landscape. In their absence, stewards of the county fair fill the role of educating people about agriculture.
"Those are all gone, but we do have a lot of little farmettes that are operating," McGuire said.
In fact, the 2019 grand champion hog was born and raised on a Glen Ellyn-area farm owned by Marilyn Goodrich, who has served as the goat superintendent for as long as there's been a fair in Wheaton.
The 4-Her's will be showing their goats, sheep and rabbits during the three-day run of the fair. DuPage has joined other fairs in skipping poultry shows to protect against the avian flu.
Organizers also have repurposed the goat barn for educational exhibits known to fair regulars as "AgVentureland." Kids can get a glimpse of the family farm by bottle feeding dairy calves or taking a spin on a pedal John Deere tractor.
"People have to realize that the food they eat every day, the clothing, it all comes from agriculture, from the farmers and the people who work the field and work the land," said Ellen Sietmann, vice president of the DuPage County Fair Association.
The fair connects her with her heritage. Her mother grew up on a farm.
"It gets in your blood," she said.
Sietmann joined the nonprofit fair board in 1979. This year, she's in charge of the competitive exhibits in the ag sciences and home economics divisions.
Sietmann encourages people who picked up new hobbies and found a creative outlet during the pandemic -- be it through baking, photography, crocheting or floral arranging -- to display their skills.
"I want everyone in DuPage County to realize whatever they did, whatever they worked on during COVID, whatever they enjoy doing, even building a puzzle, they could exhibit at the fair," she said.
Judged exhibits will be held in the fair's main brick building. Across 65 classes, there are about 185 entries. Champions snag ribbons and cash prizes.
"It's just such a great thrill to see the people when they win something," Sietmann said.
Ham it up
You can feast on the fried delicacies of the fair and wash it all down with fresh-squeezed lemonade. But the fair is serving up more than corn dogs and funnel cake. Taquizas will offer tacos and elote, Mexican street corn. Pork out on barbecue at C & K Smokehouse, a new food vendor at the fair. Local beekeepers also will have honey available, McGuire said.
"A lot of our same partners and friendships that we've developed over the years are joining us again and they're all excited to be back."
If you goThe DuPage County Fair runs Fridays through Sunday at the county fairgrounds, 2015 Manchester Road, Wheaton.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
Entrance: Enter through the county government complex at County Farm Road
Admission: $10 for adults and teens; $5 for seniors and kids ages 3 to 12; free for younger children and military personnel with ID; $30 for "mega" single-day pass bought in advance, including admission and unlimited carnival rides; $35 for mega pass at the gate. Online ticket sales end at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
Info: (630) 668-6636 or dupagecountyfair.org.