Proud to be the longest running fair in Illinois! Read about our rich history below!
Knox County Fair is nearly as old as Knox County itself and proud to be the “Longest Continuous running fair in the State of Illinois”. Though agricultural competitions began as early as 1839 at what is now known as the Knox County Fairgrounds, the Knox County Fair was not chartered with the State of Illinois Department of Agriculture until 1851, originally known as the Knoxville Fair. The Knoxville Fair quickly became the county hub for finding the fastest horses, largest vegetables and fanciest cattle.
Knox County Fair has only seen the gates closed two times since the fair’s inception in 1839. In 1862, the 102nd Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Army used the grounds for training, but caused so much damage, that the fair was cancelled for that year. A stipend was collected from the state for damages, improvements were made, and more land was purchased. The fair was again cancelled in 1941, 1942 and 1943 due to World War II but was up and going again in 1944.
If you wanted to visit the Knoxville Fair, the cost was .25 cents and would remain that price for many years. Peoria Newspaper would print on August 19, 1869 “Prices have increased to a .25 cents entry fee, which is the value of one hour of labor for a mechanic, and one and a half hours of labor for a laborer or 40 ears of corn from a farmer. Let no one consider it a hardship to pay into the treasury of the Knox County Agricultural Society the small sum of twenty-five cents for each day of the fair, to accomplish so a desirable end”.
The 1890’s Horse Barn, barracks and two smaller buildings were moved to the fairgrounds from Camp Ellis and believed to date back to the fair’s beginnings. Most of these buildings are still standing today.
Harness racing has remained the main attraction and staple of the county fairs across the State of Illinois. Knoxville Fair horse racing included such events as harness races, draft horse pulls, chariot races and wagon races. During the 1870’s and through the 1890’s, the towns of Galesburg and Knoxville were extremely competitive with each other. Galesburg had just beaten Knoxville at retaining the railroad depot which shifted the county seat to Galesburg. With this new power, Galesburg created their own fair, called the Western Illinois Fair, to compete with the Knoxville Fair. The Western Illinois Fair became the Kentucky Derby of that time attracting the best horses in the nation.
In the early 1900’s, as the Knoxville Fair was building momentum, the Western Illinois Fair attendance was declining. Then, in the 1920’s, a hate crime occurred at the Western Illinois Fair. This negative action cemented the fate of the Western Illinois Fair, which closed their gates in 1922. Knoxville Fair won the communities attention and became the county seat for the Knox County Fair.
Grandstand shows began to take a larger role in the Knox County Fair with many changes over the years. Harness races has continued to be a crowd favorite as well as rodeos, stock car racing, tractor pulls and music concerts. The cost associated with some of these grandstand shows, especially the music events, halted the ability of the fairboard to promote them. Luckily, we have been able to bring them back with generous sponsorships from community businesses. Listed below are some of our historic grandstand events:
George Gobel – 1941
Frankie Master Orchestra – 1958
Minnie Pearl – 1960
Tanya Tucker – 1968
Alabama – 1981 (Performed in Knoxville High School due to weather)
The Judds – 1986 (Didn’t perform due to discrepancy in stage)
Suzy Bogguss and Lee Greenwood – 1989
Charlie Daniels – 1991
Kentucky Headhunters – 2002
Craig Morgan – 2019
Roots and Boots with Sammy Kershaw, Aaron Tippin & Collin Raye – 2020
Our many directors, over time, have worked countless hours to maintain the integrity and usability of the grounds for everyone and communal events. Our local University of Illinois Extension 4-H group erected an open-air barn in 1999 and a new livestock show pavilion was constructed in 2007 at a cost of $100,000 with financial sponsorship help from the community. Financial changes with the State of Illinois in the early 2000’s caused our board to re-calculate the way we think about accounting in general. Those changes and subsequent alterations have helped sustain the Knox County Fair.
Our main office has changed a bit, some buildings taken down and a few new ones constructed, but overall, the 60 acres have remained the same since 1851. Blood, sweat and tears from many community members, directors and volunteers over the years have helped keep this county treasure alive and we are excited to see what is in store for the future.