Reflections – Summer Fairs & Foods

Posted: July 19, 2023

Think of summer, and we often think of summer fair food. Food plays a part in DeKalb County’s long history of fairs.

The county held its first, somewhat disappointing, agricultural fair in 1852.

A 1888 guide to the 1st annual Sandwich Fair

The 1868 DeKalb County history states, “During this year the first Agricultural Society of the County was organized and held an exhibition in marked contrast with the extensive collections of the present era. One old white bull was chained to a stake in the center of a vacant open lot, and two or three stallions with as many cows and colts, and a few beets and pumpkins completed the amusing exhibition.” Beets and pumpkins are still categories today.

An early example of foods at DeKalb County Fairs come from the DeKalb County Agricultural Association’s 14th Annual Fair held September 18-21, 1883, at the Sycamore Fairgrounds (the approximate location of Sycamore High School). Exhibitors competed under the categories of butter and cream, fruit and fruit trees, dried, preserved and canned fruit, bread, etc., and vegetables, grain, etc.

Notably, the premium for the best 4-gallon crock or tub of dairy butter that year was “one pair of ladies French kid six-dollar shoes” from D. S. Sherman and Son. The second-best tub garnered “one pair [of] $4 shoes.”

It’s been said that DeKalb County’s Sandwich Fair’s “reputation for good food is older than the Fair itself” because the dining hall was already in existence when the fair began.

The Horticulture and Home Arts Buildings at the Sandwich Fair have an extensive display of locally raised vegetables, fruits, and other foods entered by exhibitors, circa 1993.

The Sandwich Fair started in 1858 under a different name, went on until 1882, then disbanded. Classes from the 1867 fair listed similar entries in the kitchen, dairy and pantry class, but with less choices. It re-organized and held a fair in 1888.

In 1888, the category Best Display of Fruit included apples, pears, plumbs, peaches, cultivated crab apples, and six varieties of grape. In what was then called the Kitchen, Dairy and Pantry Class are already a wide variety, in some variation, of items we would recognize today.

In 2022, the fair offered exhibitors more than 600 distinct entries (along with more than 150 entries for Junior exhibitors). Beyond that, 8 new entries were introduced in the Culinary Competition.

If that weren’t enough, exhibitors can pick from more than 100 entries in Grains, Seeds, and Forages, around 70 Herbs, and more than 450 Vegetables in addition to Corn, Greens, and Fruit.

Contributions to this article provided by the Stone Mill Museum/Sandwich Historical Society

Information provided by the DeKalb County History Center. For more information visit