It comes with the summer heat, arriving at Knoxville, near the interstate highway. I knew the fair before the interstate existed. I heard its siren call -- the promise of the strange, the unknown, and the risqué. Before me, other generations heard the same call, the same promises, many unfulfilled. It had something for everyone from the very young to the very old. It was the Knox County Fair.
My recollections of the fair blend together as a indiscernible collection of annual events, merged to a mush, without clear recollection of what happened in any particular year. I do remember the perspective of interests, changing with time.
In my younger years, it was being dropped off by car with other friends from Lake Bracken, with a strict warning to 1. Behave ourselves, and 2. To be at this spot for pickup not later than a particular time (always before darkness). In the early years, the county fair offered games you couldn't win and barkers inviting older boys and men to see strange sights and exotic women from around the world. We were too young and were ignored.
We often fed pennies into machines that either subjected you to varying levels of electrical shocks or that created miniature movies by a series of papers flipping by a viewfinder as you cranked the handle. Some were of cartoons, some were more risqué, if drawings could be risqué. The shocking machine worked by holding one knob (a conductor) and then turning another knob with the other hand. As the knob was turned more, the electrical shock increased and a meter registered the level. It was, of course, a challenge to see which of us could turn the knob up the highest. Text with the machine noted the purifying benefit of electricity for the blood. I don't believe we spent much time at the farm produce or stock judging events.
We did spend a fair amount of time riding the Ferris Wheel, oblivious to its Galesburg roots, and to the Octopus. The bumping cars, with the shower of sparks overhead, was always a drain on our limited financial resources, as we would selectively seek each other out in an effort to jar one another's wisdom teeth loose. We would eat the pink and blue spun cotton candy and the hot dogs of questionable origin, content and age.
We attended yearly through the late 1950s and early 1960s. As we got older, we got braver and tended to climb over the fence rather than pay the entrance fee to the fair. Our interests still did not tend toward watermelons, pies, or hogs.
However, now we were old enough, but not wise enough, so we became the targets of the barkers. Promises of the unknown, the unseen, and the unexplained, captured and brought from around the world to Knoxville and to Galesburg, waited only for our payment of the admission fee. Even at a young age, we knew when we had been ''had.'' We'd paid good money for disappointing, unfulfilled promises. They promised a two-headed lamb and they delivered one. We assumed it would be alive. Instead, it was a preserved sad beast in a glass jar, looking more like something from biology class. Giants and dwarfs were promised and presented, but one left feeling a little embarrassed by it all. It all went to learning. Learning was not our intent, however, when we paid out our limited funds.
As we became older, we still attended, but now drove our own cars and usually double-dated. We rode the rides so we could hug our dates and scream. We bought cotton candy, tried to win something for our dates, and often would attend the entertainment.
I think I saw my first professional musical at the county fair, while in high school.
Carl Sandburg attended the Knox County Fair before I did, but probably walked in the same dust or same mud. Carl had a similar mush of remembrances, attending between the ages of nine through twelve. Unlike the Bracken kids, Sandburg and his friends walked the distance from Galesburg to Knoxville to save the round-trip train fair, but did pay the admission fee to the fair. He recalls the Edison Talking Phonograph as being a big item at the fair. For the price of a nickel, you were able to listen to the phone ends while the cylinder on the machine turned. He recalls hearing a voice saying that this was the Edison Talking Phonograph and that he would hear a famous brass ban playing next. He did, and he was impressed. Carl and his friends stood around to watch the impression of others who paid their money and heard music played at another place, at another time, and captured, preserved, and released in Knoxville, at the county fair.
There was also the remarkable local Irish Setter owned by Mr. Redfield of Galesburg. This dog performed at the fair and was proclaimed to be ''The Only Pacing Dog in the World.'' The dog would run beside the horse and sulky around the track and by the grandstand, his gait being that of the pacer. He made two laps around the half-mile track. Decades later he would be given a spot in history by Galesburg's Swedish native-son poet and historian. It is amazing what sticks in your mind from youth.
What seemed to be remembered most clearly by Sandburg was the man who would write Carl's name in beautiful script, using his feet. He had no arms. The going price was a dime, but Carl, as a young lad, was down to his last nickel. After showing his empty pockets to this man, the armless man wrote Carl Sandburg's name in beautiful script using a pen between the first two toes of his right foot. Carl records that he left with tears in his eyes.
But the Knox County Fair had its roots earlier than even Carl Sandburg's walk through the dusty lanes, looking for the attraction that would separate him from his money.
The fair had its origins all the way back to 1839, with the annual meetings of the Knox County Fair and Agricultural Association. Attendance was high and competition was abundant in nearly all agricultural areas, ranging from hogs to potatoes, to patchwork quilts. The early county fairs had plowing contests, judged on speed, neatness, and symmetry. Horse trotting races were highly contested between local favorites and the straight-laced folks were even known to place a bet in support of their local favorite.
Of course, the potential fall from grace created by the growth of the county fair did not go unnoticed in Galesburg, particularly with the introduction of the ''National Horse Show and Equestrian Fair. With the addition of sideshows, jugglers, and ladies representing the ''oldest profession'' this was too much to be tolerated. Dr. Jonathan Blanchard was there to preach and to save the souls of Galesburg from these imported worldly sins. Blanchard preached under the title ''The Morals of Agricultural Fairs,'' but history proved that it was to no avail.
The County Fair survived, and probably few lost their souls from riding the rides, viewing the views, and spending money trying to win at nearly winless games. Most probably did learn a little about life, about promises made by strangers, and about the unwitting assumptions that others take advantage of. In all, it was probably money well spent. We all went home a little wiser, a little worldlier, and, perhaps a little sadder but what we had lost.
It was all part of growing up.