Rochelle’s old fair ground

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From 1873 through 1902 if it was happening in Rochelle, it was happening at the Fair Ground.

Each year in September a four-day extravaganza took place. Horse racing, produce judging, baking, vendors and rides.

It was the closest thing to a county fair that was available to the folks of Rochelle. In the off times, smaller races were held as was bicycle racing and high school sporting events.

The Fair Ground was two blocks wide and three blocks long. Located south of the Kyte River and east of Main Street, the grounds ran from Avenue E on the north side to Avenue H on the south. The west boundary was Third Street and the east limit was First Street. It was not part of today's Memorial Park site.

Contained within the boundaries were a half-mile race track, stables for more than 80 horses, a large floral hall, vendor area, exhibition buildings, dining hall, band stand and bleachers for over 400 spectators. 

The fair drew visitors from around the area to compare produce, artistic skills and baking prowess. The Floral Hall, located at the north end of the Fair Ground, was large enough to accommodate dozens of exhibitors.

Everything from crops to cooking went under the eye of the judges with one year of bragging rights on the line. Vendor booths populated the mid-way with everything from treats and games to dancing girls.

Being family friendly, the dancing girls were inside their tent and away from the delicate sensibilities of our local ladies. The dining hall was made available to local churches or social organizations for fund raising. 

Horse racing was the king of the fair. The half-mile track was considered one of the best in the region. Horse breeders would come from all over the state in the hopes of claiming a victory at the Rochelle Fair Grounds.

Races were held for runners and trotters. Runners would be comparable to what you see at the Kentucky Derby. Trotters pull a small two-wheel cart (sulky) with driver. Challenge races were welcome, to give one a chance to avenge last year’s losses, or extend the (local) legend of a winning mount.

One local legend was January, a horse owned by James Asey. January was a 19-year-old gelding who had not lost a race in 16 years. January had never been beaten at the Fair Ground. On Sept. 15, 1886, January was in a three-horse race and after two miles finished in second place.

Upon crossing the finish line, January took a few steps and fell to the track dead. The crowd was so distraught that they buried January on the Fair Ground.

Another memorable race in 1886 was a three-horse trotter. Mr. Weber, Mr. Wilcox, and a Mr. Wilson raced for local fame, and probably a few dollars on the side. As the horses rounded the turn, two Sulkies collided.

Mr. Wilson and his horse, Zulu, both perished in the accident. Zulu was buried on the Fair Ground, I am assuming Mr. Wilson was not. After the September fair the Fair Ground still served the community.

In the 1890s, the Cycle Club of Rochelle took on all challengers at the Fair Ground. In 1898, Rochelle High School held the county track championships at the Fair Ground and in 1899 Rochelle Football Team played at there. 

In 1902, a portion of the Fair Ground was sold to Vassar Swiss Underwear. Yes, the Fair Ground fell victim to the need for underwear. Vassar grew and prospered for 13 years after which time they sold out to a new company.

In 1915, Caron Spinning bought Vassar and expanded the company to the major employer it was to become through the 2000s.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.