W.R. Hayes Did It His Way When He Established The Du Quoin State Fair.
Story By Dianne Throgmorton Coal Research Center, Carbon, IL
One might say that the Illinois Du Quoin State Fairground is the area's earliest and most successful reclamation project. Back in 1939 when William R. Hayes bought the Old Black Gold Strip Mine that joined his original 30-acre fairground tract and set to work filling, leveling, and landscaping the acreage, it probably never occurred to him that the 1400 trees he had transplanted to his abandoned strip-mined land might not grow.
Needless to say, they did grow, and today there are 1200 beautiful acres with 12 lakes and ponds (salvaged strip pits), and 30 miles of winding roadways, not to mention the showplace mansion and stables, the grandstand, and the mile oval track that yearly showcases the World Trotting Derby. In a report of the Du Quoin history, probably dated around 1948, a description of the fairgrounds stated, "The grounds of the Du Quoin State Fair are of the finest to be found. Fishing is good, the picnic spots are always full, and the drives are one of our community showplaces."
Obviously, the writer in TV Guide's August 28, 1976 article lacked the eye to discover nature's beauty when he called the area around the then home of the Hambletonian "...one of the most desolate wastelands beyond the east Bronx..." and used other less than complimentary phrases. The area abounds with natural beauty --beautiful lakes, rivers and parks; historic homes and buildings; rural landscapes and country hospitality; and, once a year, the Du Quoin State Fair.
Though the Hambletonian is no longer run at the fair, the tradition established at the fair's opening in 1923 continues. Harness racing is an essential component of the fair. Grand Circuit harness racing, a sports organization formed in 1871, joined the fair in 1942. Today the international championship, the World Trotting Derby, calls the fair home.
In 1923, W.R. Hayes visualized a state fair on a 30-acres tract of land just south of Du Quoin. His eye for the future saw the adjoining strip-mined areas as a place to expand, once the fair was established. An excellent businessman, Hayes convinced investors to contributed a share in his dream. It probably never occurred to him that rural southern Illinois has no drawing card to ensure the fair's success. He was always fond of saying, "If you're going to do something, do it all the way." And he did.
Hayes founded the "state" fair in 1923 because he foresaw the event as a prestigious, statewide attraction that "would be improved yearly as long as the fair exists." His prophecy has proven true since the fair has grown in stature and attendance each year. He must have been pleased with that first fair when, in spite of the area being inhabited mostly by rural residents and long distance traveling still being a great difficulty, attendance exceeded 60,000. The extravaganza consisted of harness racing, auto racing, a dog show, an auto show, and a speech by Len Small, then Governor of Illinois. There was a fashion show featuring the latest "flapper" fashions - some attractions of that first fair were a flying circus with stunt pilots and parachute jumpers, with the arrival of a dirigible from Scott Air Force Base as the grand finale.
There were no electric lights. The wooden grandstand held just 3,000 people. The oval race track was but a half mile around. But it was the first of many fairs to follow. And the first of many firsts for the fair.
In 1924, under newly installed electric lights, the fair staged the first night horse show ever held. Another first took place in 1929 when the fair hosted the first night stage show, starring the Music Box Revue.
These firsts, of course, were only the beginning. The horse shows are now part of the magnificent livestock exhibitions held yearly at the fair. The grandstand and flanking bleachers now seat 18,000. The fair's nightly stage shows now feature class acts from Las Vegas, Broadway, Nashville, and other parts of the country. Bob Hope, Sammy Davis, Jr., Alabama, Willie Nelson, Jim Nabors, the Bee Gees and countless other top entertainers have shared the stage over the past 69 years. Labor Day weekend traditionally draws a packed grandstand for auto racing. Auto racing events have included such greats as A. J. Foyt, Tony Bettenhausen, and Mario Andretti. And harness racing, still the mainstay of the fair, continues to draw people from across the country to see the World Trotting Derby, just as they came for 24 years to see the Hambletonian before it.
W.R. Hayes, though a quiet, conservative man, had a flair for business and showmanship, and an astute awareness about what the average person wanted. His keen business sense took him from peddling soft drinks from a pushcart to becoming the patriarch of the Du Quoin Coca Cola Bottling Company, the Midwest Dairy Products Company, and a chain of 19 movie theaters before concentrating his efforts on the development and expansion of the Du Quoin State Fair. His love of harness racing horses dates back to 1895 when he bought his first standardbred colt, Kentucky Dude, and started racing at country fairs.
In 1904, Will, as he was called, and his mother and sisters visited the St. Louis World's Fair, a visit that literally changed the course of his life. His mother and sisters decided to leave the business to 27-year-old Will and continue on to California to reside. Will returned to Du Quoin alone to take care of business, but the trip to St. Louis has evidently made a lasting impression on the young man. He began to expand his business interests and started making Perfection Ice Cream, the forerunner of the Midwest Dairy Products Company that would one day serve 39 cities in eight states. He also gained the area franchise to bottle and sell Coca Cola along with other flavors of his "soda water." The seed of an idea must also have been planted in young Will's mind on the St. Louis trip. And once his business interests had developed into secure, sound companies generating satisfactory income for his family and employees, Will Hayes turned his talents to developing and building the Du Quoin State Fair.
The Du Quoin State Fair has been billed as a "state" fair since its beginning, even though during its first 63 years it was privately owned. Today W.R. Hayes' foresight has proved accurate once again. The Du Quoin State Fair, now owned and operated by the State of Illinois, is truly a "state" fair. W.R. Hayes, did it all the way, and today we're all grateful for his farsightedness in establishing the fair that provides such enjoyment and entertainment for rural America. And grateful to for his pioneering example of reclaiming a former stripmine into a beautiful, thriving, park and preserve.
DuQuoin State Fair Statistics
Trailer Spaces: 1,000 campsites with hookup
Total Acerage of Park: 750 park/grounds
- Grandstand - Capacity 7,522 stage
- Exhibition Hall - 45,000 sq. ft. 300' x 150'
- Geodesic Dome - 40' x 40' power
- Showers - 38 men 38 womens
- Restrooms - 48 indoor
- Laundry - 2 miles to town
- Surfaced Roads - Oil and chip, gravel
- Dumping station - 2
- Public Address System -- Contact only
General Information on Site:
- We provide a full time representatives to handle operating problems such as power failure, water, sanitation, etc.
- We provide trash containers and frequent pick up.
- Proposed parking area presently maintained as a grassed area.
- Picnic tables furnished.