For many people, the county fair marks a special part of summer that’s worth savoring and remembering. Considering this year marks the McHenry County Fair’s 75th anniversary, there’s sure to be even more worth remembering.
This year’s action-packed schedule, which runs Aug. 1-6, is filled with many favorites and a few surprises, too.
“We like to say we are, in many ways, an old-time country fair but we’re trying to bring in some new things and look to the future,” says Rich Tobiasz, vice president of the fair board. “There are a lot of memories for people at the fair.”
Everyone has their favorite attractions, and the McHenry fair is chock-full of them, with everything from animal barns, carnival rides and food vendors to 4-H displays, exhibitors, and a grandstand that features rodeos, live music and tractor pulls. But that’s just the start.
It’s hard to miss the presence of livestock at the McHenry County Fairgrounds in Woodstock. Not only do the animals fill nearly a dozen buildings on site, but they also add to the soundtrack. The public is invited to see the livestock barns up close or to watch the open livestock judging, which takes place Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings. Sunday’s Pee Wee Dairy Show introduces the county’s youngest dairy farmers and their prize cattle.
“One of the things we try to do is to educate people on where their food comes from,” says Tobiasz, who runs a small vegetable farm near Spring Grove. “We have a Backyard Buddies exhibit where you can see chickens hatching, and we’ll have information on cow milking and the other animals you’ll meet.”
There’s plenty more on display as McHenry County residents show off their handiwork in the open judging exhibitions. This is the place to see antiques, old tractors, local produce and even Aunt Bea’s old-fashioned rhubarb pie. “It’s all those things you would typically find at a good, old-time country fair,” says Tobiasz, adding that any county resident has until July 16 to enter the juried exhibits.
As always, the carnival rides open daily and continue into the night. Nearby, dozens of food vendors peddle their familiar fair treats. Tobiasz’s favorite stops are the Farm Bureau booth and the 4-H breakfast, but there’s a variety of familiar treats on-hand.
A busy lineup of entertainment keeps things humming all day, with events around the fairgrounds and inside the grandstands. Artist Joe Stebbing returns with his daily wood carving demonstrations and glass blowers show off their work. The county sheriff’s office brings its K-9 unit Tuesday through Friday, as a prelude to the Friday-evening talent show and the Saturday-morning hay bale throwing contest.
Meanwhile, the grandstands keep the entertainment coming every evening. See the new county fair queen receive her crown on Tuesday, marvel at the daring lumberjacks’ tricks on Wednesday, cheer on the pro wrestlers Thursday, and then cheer on the bull riders and barrel racers on Friday. In years past, Saturday night was an occasion for big-name acts to appear onstage, but this year the stage is set for a special tribute to the fair’s history. Starting at 4 p.m., a series of five tribute bands begin their celebration of the best music from each decade since the 1950s.
Sunday brings a grand close-out celebration with tractor pulls and a demolition derby, all of it following a special 21-tractor salute at 10 a.m.
For 75 summers now, the fair has gathered at the same corner of Woodstock, just east of Illinois Route 47. Fairs have actually been gathering in McHenry County since about 1854, says Tobiasz, but they took a hiatus during the World Wars and the Great Depression.
This year’s anniversary comes with plenty of small tributes and special commemorations, including a recognition of local farmers whose families have worked the land for 75 years or longer. There’s also a special tribute to WGN broadcaster Orion Samuelson, as the fairgrounds’ Building D is christened in honor of the longtime agriculture reporter.
The McHenry County Fair runs Tuesday, Aug. 1 through Sunday, Aug. 6, with the grounds opening daily at 7 a.m. Parking is free, but there is an admission fee of $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, veterans and children age 6-12. Children under 5 are free.
As much as the fair celebrates the rural life, Tobiasz knows this is a good place for city kids, too. He remembers what it was like to grow up in Chicago and dream of becoming a farmer. So, he has a soft spot for the children who meet farm animals for the first time and discover where their food really comes from.
“It’s so interesting to see kids who never even realized there are green and brown eggs from chickens,” he says. “We tell them that, no, these aren’t really any different. They just look that way. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a good education for them.”
McHenry County Fairgrounds are located at 11900 Country Club Road, in Woodstock.