One of the oldest County fairs in Illinois.
Byrt Gibson, the Father of the Fair, had long thought Arthur ought to host a fair. In 1924, Gibson’s dream came true and the very first Arthur Community Fair was held on October 1 – 4. Arthur had a population of just 1,100 at the time but the community rallied behind the idea buying $5 shares in the new enterprise. The town raised the $4,000 needed, quite a sum for the time, to pay for the attractions and premiums at the very first fair.
Arthur, Illinois sits on the county line between both Moultrie and Douglas counties in East Central Illinois. As such, it was a perfect opportunity to adopt both counties at one time. So, the very next year the fair incorporated to become the Arthur Moultrie-Douglas County Fair and Agricultural Exposition and is still going strong almost 90 years later. This year’s fair will be the 89th Annual exposition. The discrepancy is due to no fairs being held during the Depression years of 1932-33 or World War II 1942 -1945.
Highlights by the years
Here are some of the highlights of one of the longest running bi-county fairs in Illinois:
1924 – First fair held. Opening day October 1, the temperature was 34 degrees. Brrrrr. The Grade School park is the setting for the festivities.
1925 – Arthur incorporates the fair as the official, state license holder for the bi-county fair. Officers were elected for the new corporation that was to become the Moultrie-Douglas County Fair and Agricultural Association: President of the corporation was to be O.R. Fleming; Vice President, T.G. Sallee; Secretary, E.W. Boyd; Treasurer, R.H. Gibson. The fair becomes a “Homecoming” event for the community. (The first Homecoming at Arthur High School would not be until 1940)
1926 –The fair dates are moved up by an entire month to the first four days of September.
1929 – Mayor and Fair Board President “Whoopy” Fleming hires planes to give fair goers rides and to advertise the fair. Dances are introduced to the fair events and would be held for many years to come. The Mo-Do County Fair was becoming a hit ranking ninth in attendance among 63 fairs in the state.
1931 – Fair dates were moved up even further in August as the chosen dates conflicted with those of the Illinois State Fair. Talking pictures had come to the Garden Theater downtown. An attempt to rob the front gate of the fair receipts when the lights went out Friday night was thwarted by the Illinois State Police. It was a struggle to put on the fair this year due to the harsh economic times. No fair would be held in 1932 or 1933.
1934 – Determined to hold a fair, the Board of Directors somehow managed during the Great Depression to raise $12,000 for expenditures and premiums. WLS National Barn Dance made their first appearance at the Fair. Attendance was large and the fair even managed to turn a small profit.
1937 – The fair had grown to 202 stockholders. the dates of the fair continued to move back further on the calendar in August and the fair would now be five days long. Robert Wadlow, the Alton Giant, the tallest man in the world according to the Guiness Book of World Records would be at the fair. A “Made in Arthur” tent appears at the fair.
1938 – America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford the actress comes to town for the fair to see her husband Buddy Rogers (dubbed of course America’s boyfriend) and his orchestra play at one of the dances. This and ensuing years would see the fair grow with the big bands, the WLS radio show being broadcast live, and increased premiums for the livestock and other shows. World War II was about to interfere however.
1946 – The fair returned after the War years and was dubbed “A Victory Celebration” There was even a parade that year to celebrate the end of the war and the return of service personnel.
1948 – The fair and Arthur lost one its most prominent boosters when Mayor Frank “Whoopy” Fleming was killed in an automobile accident. Fleming had been mayor of Arthur for 33 years. Perry Knobloch would take his place as President of the organization and lead it into the modern era.
1951 – Expansion of the Arthur Grade School due to increasing enrollment ended the fair operations in the Grade School Park. However, a new park board was forming and the city which operated the park at the school gave the grounds to the school. The schools in turn gave the city some land behind the high school for development as park and athletic fields.
1952 – The first fair held at the fairgrounds behind the high school. (Now E.L. Jurgens Park) New restrooms were built before the fair began that year. It was a lot of work turning the farm ground into fairground! The fair dates were moved into July where they would remain.
1954 – The cattle barn was completed and the Douglas County 4H show expanded to two days with the official fair days returning to four, Wednesday – Saturday.
1957 – Entertainment at the fair switches from radio personalities (WLS) to television and country western stars. The Merchants tent and free acts continue to draw large crowds.
1960 – Brenda Lee appears at Fair.
1961 – Merchants building opens with new concrete floor and other improvements.
1962 – Fine Arts Division is added to the fair makeup. Sharon King of Sullivan won the very first Miss Moultrie-Douglas County Fair Queen title.
1965 – Fair lineup included the Osmond Brothers, Roy Clark, and Skeeter Davis. For the next two decades some of the biggest names in country music would appear in the grandstand for the “free acts.” Sheep barn added on the south side of Fairgrounds.
1967 – Billy K Watkins “Power Stopper” invention improves the tractor pulling contest. The device would later be patented for use at any pull. The biggest non-show in history, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, the Carter Family and the Statler Brothers cancelled the day of the show. The Fair Board scrambled to obtain other entertainment and at the last minute they did. The cancellation would be made up by Cash and his entourage in a major way in 1969.
1968 – New bleachers added to the South Grandstand home of the pulling events and horse shows.
1969 – Perhaps the biggest Fair before or since in terms of attendance, the Mo-Do County Fair started off opening night with George Jones and Tammy Wynette one of country music’s biggest acts. Only a few were bigger and Johnny Cash with his entire show including his wife June Carter, the Carter family and the Statler Brothers were one of them. They played to a crowd of between 15-20 thousand people. Only the recent Fireworks during Arthur’s Freedom Celebration have ever witnessed such a crowd in one day.
1971 – Perry Knobloch retires as President of the Fair Board after serving in the position since 1948.
1972 – Conway Twitty on one night and Charley Pride on another drew huge crowds as the Fair continued to be well known for their big name acts.
1976 – Another great lineup of shows: Mickey Gilley, Crystal Gayle an Ronnie Millsap took the stage this year. Miss Merci Izquierdo of Tuscola won the Fair Queen crown and went on to win the Miss Illinois County Fair Queen title in Springfield.
1977 – Jerry Reed country star and famous for his recent movie “Smokey and the Bandit” was a huge hit.
1978 – The Exposition Building was built between the tennis courts and the Merchant’s Building to provide a home for the culinary, agriculture, floriculture, horticulture and textile divisions.
1979 – A new portable stage system was constructed and used in the fair this year. Marty Robbins, one of the most frequent and popular entertainers was the Saturday night entertainment.
1980 – The Golden Anniversary of the Fair was celebrated all week. A book, written by Phyllis Stock, about the Fair’s first 50 years was published. Attendance during this time at the fairs ranged between 25,000 – 30,000 fairgoers over the four night extravaganza.
1982 – Fair Queen pageant is moved to Tuesday night so the Queen could “reign” during the fair. The winner had previously been named on Saturday night, the last night of the fair.
1984 – Second draft horse show added for Saturday lineup.
1987 – Little Miss and Little Mister contests added to the Pageant lineup.
1998 – Beer tent opens on far south end of Fairgrounds.
2003 – American Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist, Joe Nichols, opens fair.
2005 – Fair celebrates 75th Anniversary
2006 – Very Special Persons Day on Saturday afternoon for disabled children and adults starts with free rides on the carnival midway.
2010 – Moultrie-Douglas County Fair celebrates 80 years.