A brief history of Pekin’s street fairs

This is a revised and expanded version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in June 2011 before the launch of this weblog.

A brief history of Pekin’s street fairs

By Linda Mace, Library assistant (retired),
and Jared Olar, Library assistant

This photograph from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection shows the booth of Central Book & Toy Store at the 1935 Pekin Street Fair.

Once upon a time, or beginning in 1898 and apparently ending in the mid-1930’s, Pekin would put on vibrant, very popular street fairs, hosted in the city’s downtown.

In 1902, on the day of the parade, 18,000 people attended this event. Two railroad companies from Peoria brought 2,800 people into our fair town. This was quite the event, with officers and committees and a whole list of rules and regulations.

This is from the official brochure and program for the 1902 fair:

“The many favorable comments upon the originality and beauty of the FREE STREET FAIRS given by Pekin during the years 1898 and 1899, and the clean and praiseworthy manner in which they were conducted, has resulted in a unanimous desire on the part of our wide-awake business men and citizens to out-do all previous Street Fairs, therefore the Association has selected October 15, 16, 17 & 18, 1902, as the dates on which Pekin will again offer free entertainment to the assemble multitudes. THE MOST FASTIDIOUS TASTES of the visitor and his family will find only pleasure and instruction in the beautiful array of VARIEGATED BOOTHS and MUSICAL and DESCRIPTIVE ENTERTAINMENTS WHICH WILL BE GIVEN DAY AND NIGHT! THE FACT THAT PEKIN, in her former exhibits, MORE THAN FILLED HER PROMISES to the public, should, and we believe will, be encouraged in giving her third street fair, by an almost universal visit from the citizens of Central Illinois.”

The brochure went on to describe the “great parade” and emphasized “new features every day.” The fair of 1898 had contained 80 booths, running down the middle of the street and on either side, corresponding to the front footage of the stores erecting them. Downtown Pekin was the place to be in those days!

Shown here is the front cover of the 1899 Pekin Street Fair official program and souvenir. The Pekin Public Library’s copy of the program was preserved in the 1902 library cornerstone time capsule.

This page from the 1899 Pekin Street Fair official program and souvenir features a photograph of the Cole’s Studio booth. Cole’s Studio was the photography business of Pekin’s pioneer photographer Henry Hobart Cole.

The old tradition of Pekin’s street fairs continues in new forms even today, with the popular annual Marigold Festival and downtown events organized and promoted by Pekin Main Street. Pekin also put on an old-fashioned street fair on and near the premises of the Tazewell County Courthouse on Aug. 7, 1999, as part of the major celebrations of the 175th anniversary of Pekin’s settlement and the 150th anniversary of Pekin’s incorporation as a city.

Festivities at the 1999 street fair were literally dampened by a summer thunderstorm, but the celebrations went on as planned. “As black clouds poured rain and thunder bellowed, Mayor Dave Tebben and pioneering Tharp family descendant Norman Tharp led about 100 people as they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Pekin,” the Pekin Daily Times reported.

Shown are a commemorative plate and a special section of the Pekin Daily Times marking the celebration of Pekin’s 175th birthday. Both items are in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

Hopefully the city’s bicentennial celebrations five years from now also won’t be rained out, even if rained on.

Included in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room archives are copies of the 1899 and 1902 Pekin Street Fair brochure and a 1999 Pekin Terquasquicentennial commemorative plat embossed with the official logo of the 1999 Pekin 175th Anniversary.

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