Q: In my research into my family’s history, I stumbled on an 1867 Belleville map, and now I’m puzzled by something on that map. What is the circle in the lower portion that would be on South Illinois Street about where the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education (or the former A&P/Shopland supermarket) is now? It looks like a racetrack with covered bleachers, an antenna in the middle and some kind of kennels around two sides. I didn’t find any mention of it in Alvin Nebelsick’s “History of Belleville” or any other reference, so I turn to you.
S.C., of Belleville
A: Even during the city’s early years, the area’s hardworking farmers already were looking for a chance to let their hair down once in a while.
So, in the spring of 1854, the St. Clair County Agricultural Society, which had organized in 1843, began searching for a place where it could occasionally harvest some fun and show the area’s city slickers just what men of the soil did all day. What resulted was the city’s first fairgrounds, which is what the mystery feature you see depicted on the map is.
It was in April 1854 when the ag group adopted a resolution to acquire land for a fairground. Four months later, Benjamin West offered five acres of land if the society would pay the taxes. The location was described as being on Mascoutah Plank Road near the stone bridge that crossed Richland Creek, about 1,300 yards south of the county courthouse on the city’s public square. After weeks of clearing brush and stumps and spending $400 to erect sheds and fences, the society held its first fair Oct. 18-19.
Although one report said the first two fairs were “discouraging,” the ag group wasn’t deterred. In 1857, it began preparing an even larger fairground that grew into the inviting piece of real estate you see on the map. Tenth South Street (changed to Van Buren Street in 1918) was its northern border, and it extended east to South Jackson, west to Illinois Street and south of Eleventh South Street (now South Belt West) to Richland Creek. Among the features eventually added were exhibition halls, ticket office and a covered shed for buggies and wagons. And that “circle”? It’s a horse-racing track. The “antenna” in the middle is actually a two-story pagoda with room for fair committees on the first floor and an area for musical groups on the second.
“Our fairground will stand second to none in our part of the country and will indeed be exceeded by few fairgrounds in the West,” the Belleville Weekly Democrat trumpeted on May 16, 1867. “With the completion of another railroad track to the city, we shall be in a position to invite the holding of the state fair on our grounds.”
That, of course, never came to pass but those new and improved fairgrounds would be the site of fairs for the next nearly 60 years. When they were sold to William Winkelmann for $7,500 in November 1881, the new owner promised to turn them into a “pleasure resort” while continuing to allow the agriculture group to have its annual wingding. So in 1882, Joseph Reichert, the group’s president, announced the 18th annual fair with $5,000 in prizes and a dog show as the newest feature. To attract fairgoers, all railroad rates for both passengers and cargo would be reduced and toll roads leading to the city would be free during the four-day affair.
Over the next four decades, the horse racing track was expanded to a full quarter-mile and a flying exhibition was featured in 1911. Entertainment included the Scottish Highland Band, which provoked a brief concessionaires’ strike when organizers charged a 25-cent admission to help cover the $2,200 bill for the band. However, interest in the site began to wane in the 1920s, area historian Bob Brunkow told me.
“The last county fair at the old fairgrounds occurred in 1924,” he said. “The property was foreclosed in 1928. (A group headed by Alvin O. Eckert) bought the property in 1933 and constructed and operated the Belleville Produce and Fruit Market on the northern part of the property — and had Highway 13 (South Belt West) cut through the old fairgrounds.”
But the site did have at least one last hurrah. In late March 1939, the St. Clair County Agricultural Fair Association, headed by Belleville Chevrolet dealer L.R. McKinley, announced that it would resurrect the old fair. It would be on the old grounds combined with 25 acres that would be leased south of the highway. Because of changes to the grounds over the intervening 15 years, there would be no horse racing (even though McKinley reportedly was a horse fancier), but there would be all of the old favorites — livestock exhibit, produce show, home products competition and concessions — along with a three-night horse show.
If you’d like to see what Belleville looked like in 1867 with its meandering and untamed Richland Creek and odd-sounding street names (there was an Urbana St. before the nearby village of Urbana discovered Illinois already had an Urbana and changed its name to Freeburg), go to www.loc.gov/item/73693343.
When would you make an appointment with a chirologist?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: OK, if we abbreviate feet as ft. and inches as in., why in the world do we use lb. for pound? Turns out it’s all Greek to me — or, in this case, Latin. If you know anything about astrology, you know the Latin word for a scale is libra. Hence, the ancient Roman unit of measure was “libra pondo” or “a pound by weight.” Over the centuries, “pondo” became “pound” and we wound up using lb. (for libra) as its abbreviation. (By the way, that funny L the British use to denote their pound monetary unit apparently also is short for libra.) While we’re on the subject of strange abbreviations, the word “ounce” evolved from the Latin “uncia,” which the Romans apparently used for both “ounce” and “inch.” So our “ounce” came from the Anglo-Norman French “unce” or “ounce” while its oz. abbreviation was derived from the Medieval Italian word “onza.”