Mercer County Fair kicks off July 12

Matthew Dutton GateHouse Media Illinois

ALEDO — While many county fairs struggle to function without state funding, Mercer County Fair is still enjoying stability.

The fair will return July 11 and run through July 16 offering almost all the every attraction from years past. The one exception however, is harness racing, which will not be held for the first time in decades.

“We feel Mercer County is in a good place this year. We have been very conservative with our money, so we will be able to continue,” said Mercer County Fair Secretary Linda Beguelin. “We are able to have everything from the past, except harness racing.”

Beguelin attributed the harness racing hiatus to a lack of interest in recent years.

“The money from the state didn’t come, and numbers were low. We couldn’t have full classes,” said Beguelin. “There was no money to give them back without a check from the state and more entries.”

Dale “Rip” VanWinkle, a long-time harness racer, blames Illinois politicians for the loss.

“There should have been enough money to run horse racing until 2025,” said VanWinkle. “Our politicians took it all and put it in the general fund.”

More than any other aspect, the loss of such a historically-significant event plagues VanWinkle.

“There has been harness racing for 130 years. This is only the third time not having it,” said VanWinkle. “It’s a sad commentary.”

When VanWinkle first began racing in 1972, there were 51 county fairs offering harness racing in Illinois. After a brief break, he returned in 1998 to find only 43 fairs hosting the event. Although the numbers had only dropped slightly, he could already see the writing on the wall.

“This year, Illinois started out 28,” said VanWinkle. “The only people left are the real die-hard sportsman. There is no many, and that is causing a lack of interest.”

VanWinkle considers himself a “hobby horseman.” Many involved in the sport have invested their livelihood though, and are being forced to pursue other avenues to survive.

“The state kicks no money back in, and harness racing in way on the bottom of the priority list,” said VanWinkle. “People are either getting out of harness racing or leaving the state. There will be no more family traditions in this. Everyone is gone. People are leaving, and they won’t get back in.”

Beguelin is hopefully that, should the state’s budget impasse be resolved, harness racing will be restored at the Mercer County Fair.

“We are pretty proud of this fair. This is our 163rd year. We are one of the oldest in the state of Illinois,” said Beguelin. “For some people, this is the biggest thing they do all year. It is a family vacation, and they look forward to it all year.”

The income generated in Mercer County through the fair is staggering. Discounting funds brought in at the fair itself, the annual event generates between $300,000 and $500,000 in the county each year. Including money brought in through the fairs, the state of Illinois brings in about $170 million annually between all counties.

“The city is pretty impressed with how much the fair does,” said Beguelin. 

The Little Miss, Junior Miss and Miss Mercer County Fair pageant takes place at 6:30 p.m. July 12.

Grandstand events, one of the main attractions at any county fair, begin July 13 with the Night of Destruction. Participants decorate buses or truck and trailer combinations and crash into each other.

“It always draws a huge crowd, almost as big as the demo derby. It is exciting and different,” said Beguelin. “It is not something all the fairs have.”

Admission is free to all grandstand events. A service, Beguelin said, the fair is able to provide through its long list of local sponsors.

July 13 is also Kid’s Day, from 12 to 4:30 p.m. July 14 is draft horse pull. New Windsor Drill Chamber will perform prior to the event. July 15 is the truck and tractor pull, and July 16 will feature the demolition derby.

A new addition to this year’s fair will be the professional photography class.

“In the past, it was only available for amateurs. The amateur class is one of our biggest classes,” said Beguelin. “We are really trying to get the word out to everybody in the area that we will have both classes.”

Entry to the fair will cost $6. Children ages seven to 12 are $2. Season passes are $17. Commemorative blankets with the Mercer County Fair logo will be available from the fair office for $35.