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updated: 7/28/2011 5:59 AM

County fairs connect past with present

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  • Curious onlookers get a closer look at the 3-year-old Albino Burmese Python snake held by Rachel Fessler, a handler for the exotic animal show at the DuPage County Fair.

       Curious onlookers get a closer look at the 3-year-old Albino Burmese Python snake held by Rachel Fessler, a handler for the exotic animal show at the DuPage County Fair.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Anthony Capasso, 4, of Chicago relaxes in the wheel of "Outback Thunda," an Australian monster truck making its second U.S. appearance at the DuPage County Fair. For the first time the fair will feature a Monster Truck Thrill Show at 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday.

       Anthony Capasso, 4, of Chicago relaxes in the wheel of "Outback Thunda," an Australian monster truck making its second U.S. appearance at the DuPage County Fair. For the first time the fair will feature a Monster Truck Thrill Show at 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Katie Thern, 13, of Lake Zurich holds Chives, a Netherland dwarf rabbit, as Addison Michelau, 3, of Round Lake reaches out to pet it with her mother, Jamie, during the second day of the 83rd Annual Lake County Fair Wednesday at the fairgrounds in Grayslake.

       Katie Thern, 13, of Lake Zurich holds Chives, a Netherland dwarf rabbit, as Addison Michelau, 3, of Round Lake reaches out to pet it with her mother, Jamie, during the second day of the 83rd Annual Lake County Fair Wednesday at the fairgrounds in Grayslake.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Tom Cecchin and his son Joey, 4, of Des Plaines get up close with a 3-year-old Albino Burmese Python during the first day of the DuPage County Fair. The snake was part of an exotic animal show in the fair's AgVentureland area.

       Tom Cecchin and his son Joey, 4, of Des Plaines get up close with a 3-year-old Albino Burmese Python during the first day of the DuPage County Fair. The snake was part of an exotic animal show in the fair's AgVentureland area.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Trenton Owens, 12, of Seneca eyes some largemouth bass at an aquarium exhibit at the DuPage County Fair. All fish inside the tank were caught in DuPage rivers and streams.

       Trenton Owens, 12, of Seneca eyes some largemouth bass at an aquarium exhibit at the DuPage County Fair. All fish inside the tank were caught in DuPage rivers and streams.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Gabby Garnowski, 11, of Arlington Heights, left, and Paige Gorman, 12, of Glenview look at 4-H club exhibits during the second day of the 83rd Annual Lake County Fair Wednesday at the fairgrounds in Grayslake.

       Gabby Garnowski, 11, of Arlington Heights, left, and Paige Gorman, 12, of Glenview look at 4-H club exhibits during the second day of the 83rd Annual Lake County Fair Wednesday at the fairgrounds in Grayslake.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • The Ferris Wheel spins in the evening sky during the Lake County Fair Wednesday in Grayslake.

       The Ferris Wheel spins in the evening sky during the Lake County Fair Wednesday in Grayslake.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
By Megan Bannister

Some may argue that the appeal of life on the farm is lost in this fast-paced era of smartphones and high-speed Internet.

But people who attend and run our county fairs would dispute that. Thousands flock to suburban county fairs each summer to pay homage to the area's agricultural past.

And besides, it's fun.

"It's not every day the kids are able to do things like this," Tom Cecchin of Des Plaines said after holding an albino Burmese python with his son Joey, 4, during an exotic animal show at the DuPage County Fair, which opened Wednesday.

"I think that each and every one of us celebrates agriculture -- and this is agriculture," DuPage County Fair President Jim McGuire said.

With fairs under way in DuPage and Lake counties, organizers work hard to blend agricultural tradition with modern entertainment, creating a sense of nostalgia for simpler times that keeps families coming back year after year.

For the first time, the DuPage fair is hosting a reptile show and competition alongside the more traditional livestock showings.

"We realize less people are raising farm animals and we wanted to do something to recognize that," McGuire said.

Sheri Vyfvinkel, business manager at the Lake County Fair, said it's the mix of the old and new that brings people back to the fair every year.

New activities such as the Monster Truck Thrill Show, scheduled for 2 and 7 p. m. Saturday during the DuPage County Fair, and the Banana Derby races, held daily at the Lake County Fair, continue to attract first-time fairgoers.

For many, the county fair remains a way to celebrate a family's agricultural heritage.

Born and raised on a farm in North Dakota, Alice Schlitter returns to the DuPage County Fair each year with her daughter Karan Riley of Westchester.

"I've milked many a cow and you never forget how," said Schlitter, who now lives in Lombard.

People also attend the fair to honor and pass down lifelong traditions.

Sandi Hucker of Lindenhurst said she continues to go to the Lake County Fair because it gives her a nostalgic feeling.

"I remember going to fairs when I was little," she said.

While the presence of large, working farms has dwindled throughout the area, there are still 32,000 acres used for agricultural purposes in Lake County, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite that lack of farmland, many fairgoers say the livestock is a vital part of the fair experience.

"City folk, we don't see the animals unless we come out here," Sue Gowgiel of Downers Grove said.

Gowgiel brought her granddaughters Lauren, 4, and Kate, 1, to the fair for the first time to give them a glimpse at life on the farm.

"People love to get close to the animals to see what a cow looks like," said Lake County Farm Bureau Manager Greg Koeppen. "We're basically bringing the agricultural classroom to the community to see during the week."

DuPage's AgVentureland and other exhibits give suburbanites a chance to educate themselves while enjoying more than carnival rides and fried foods.

"I just think it's a good way to explain where things comes from," Chicago resident Andrea Capasso said while her son Anthony played in the wheel of a monster truck. "It's easy to go to the store and pick up something off the shelf. This is a good education to see how it gets there."

Whether it's the "cold glass of milk to dip our Oreos in" or the bacon sizzling in the skillet, McGuire maintains that agriculture affects countless facets of daily life, regardless of location.

But there's one key element farms and county fairs can't control: the weather.

The Kane County Fair, held last week, faced five days of extreme heat and heavy rains. The severe weather resulted in a showing of 90,000 people, down from last year's already-low attendance of 100,000, said Kane County Fair President Larry Breon.

"I don't know if I would have gone there if I didn't have to," he said.

But for lovers of elephant ears and hog-calling contests, fair season is not quite over.

The DuPage County Fair runs through Sunday. And the McHenry County Fair opens Wednesday, Aug. 3, and ends Sunday, Aug. 7, at the McHenry County Fairgrounds in Woodstock.

• Daily Herald staff writer Samantha Bilharz contributed to this report.

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