Established in 1939
Seventy Five Years: From the New Windsor Homecoming and Horse Show to the New Windsor Rodeo
Over the years of changing Association officers and directors, many of the early official records of the New Windsor Fair, Rodeo, and Horse Show Association have been lost. But some old fair books and newspaper clippings give us a glimpse of the history of the event.
Sometime in 1934, a group of New Windsor residents decided to hold an event that would serve as a gathering for current and former New Windsor residents. This “Homecoming and Horse Show” was held in mid-August in 1935, and featured the horse shows, carnival, agriculture and home economics exhibits that were common at country fairs of the day. The first event was a success and was held again in 1936. After two successful events, the men responsible for organizing the event determined it was time to become an “official” organization. On August 6, 1937, The New Windsor Homecoming and Horse Show was chartered as a not-for-profit corporation, who’s purpose was “Promoting the improvement of Live Stock and Agriculture Products and stimulating good will in the community by holding an annual exhibition and entertainment”. In 1939 the name of the organization was changed to “The New Windsor Fair and Horse Show Association” and the name of the event changed to “The New Windsor Fair and Horse Show”.
From 1935 to 1941 the event featured pony, light horse, and draft horse shows; and displays of agriculture products and equipment. Competitions were held for pastries, baked goods -the winners received five pounds of flour, preserved fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy, apiary, syrups, and domestic arts. Admission was $0.25 for adults and $0.10 for children. Entertainments included drill teams and drum and bugle corps. In 1941 “The Great Gretonas” were the featured entertainment. This six person high wire act that performed forty feet above the arena with no nets had appeared “in every civilized country in the world and at all the large theaters, hippodromes and circuses”.
Many events that are part of the current fair, rodeo, and horse show were part of the first events. Horse shows, displays of agriculture products and domestic arts and hobbies, the parade through town, and the show being a three day event held the third week in August were all part of the fair from the very beginning.
World War II forced the cancellation of the event from 1942 through 1946. When it resumed in 1947, a rodeo was added to the program on Thursday and Friday afternoons -the event was held on Wednesday-Thursday-Friday. Bronc Riding with Saddle, Bronc Riding-Bareback, and Steer Riding were the events in this first rodeo. Entry fee was $2.00 with the winner receiving $25.00. With the addition of the rodeo, the name of the three day event was changed to The New Windsor Fair, Rodeo, and Horse Show. Special mention was made that food at the fairgrounds would be provided by the Lutheran and Presbyterian Churches and the New Windsor Legion Auxiliary.
In 1949, the Domestic Arts Department made special mention that the New Windsor Fair was taking part in The National Crochet Contest, with the winner going on to state and national competition. Advertising in the 1949 fair book gives a glimpse of the lifestyles of that time. Christy Hardware in New Windsor makes special mention in their full page ad that they are open until 10:00 p.m. every Saturday night, and the Galesburg Drive-In Theatre encourages patrons to “Come as you are and sit in your car”.
The rodeo continued to grow in importance through the 1950’s, with new events and performances held every day of the fair. A Wild Horse Race, called “The Greatest Event in Rodeo” was added in 1952. It was dropped in 1953, and appeared once more in 1961. Another event had a one year trial in 1955 when Wild Cow Milking was a rodeo event. A Wild Calf Scramble was tried in 1957, and was replaced by the Junior Calf Ride for boys and girls ages 13-16 from 1958 to 1960. Calf Roping and Bull Dogging were added to the rodeo in 1954, and Steer Riding was replaced with Bull Riding.
The rodeos were held during the afternoon until 1954, when the rodeo performances were held on Wednesday and Friday nights. Thursday night featured Society and Western Horse Shows as well as special entertainment after the horse show. Drum and Bugle Corps and Drill Teams were popular attractions for many years after the horse show. The Kewanee Black Knights Drum and Bugle Corps, the Debutantes Drum and Bugle Corps, The Knoxville Drill Team and the Illinois City Drill Team all appeared at the New Windsor Fair and Horse Show during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
The village of New Windsor celebrated its Centennial in 1957, and the fair and horse show expanded to a four day event from 1955 through 1957, with a rodeo performance being the main Saturday night attraction. To celebrate the Centennial, the 1957 event featured a Centennial Pageant, Dance, Beard Judging, Sun Bonnet Sue Contest, and a Threshing Bee.
During the 1950’s through the early 1970’s, musical entertainment prior to the evening’s activities was provided by local bands and musical groups. The Winola High School Band, Joy Military Band, Galesburg Community Legion Band, Sherrard High School Band, and local organists Diane and Carolyn Rice, performed before the evening’s rodeo or horse show. Special musical guests also made appearances. George Runquists One Man Band appeared in 1967, and Red Blanchard, who hosted the Saturday Night Barn Dance on WLS radio in Chicago during the 1950’s appeared in 1970.
During the 1940’s through the mid 1970’s, the fairgrounds became a tent city the week of the fair. There were no permanent buildings at the fairgrounds, so tents were used for the draft horses, commercial displays and exhibits, agricultural exhibits, and food stands. This was an all-day affair that required a great deal of manpower to drive all the tent stakes and raise the tents. The New Windsor Grade School Building (now converted into apartments), located just south of the fairgrounds east entrance, was used to house and display the domestic arts, hobbies, and art departments. The first permanent building was erected in 1965 by the American Legion to house their bingo games. Since then, permanent structures have been built to house all the exhibits and commercial displays, church food stands, storage, and ticket offices.
The rodeo arena also under went major changes. While the arena size and location has remained the same, the chutes, pens and seating have undergone major changes. During the early years of the event, bleachers around the arena were borrowed from the football fields of surrounding school districts. This required the dissembling of the bleachers, usually only six rows high, transporting them to the fairgrounds, putting them up around the arena, and then taking then down after the fair and rodeo, returning them to their respective schools, and putting them back up. As funds would allow, the Association purchased permanent bleachers and increased seating capacity that was measured in the hundreds on wooden bleachers to seating measured in the thousands with the steel and aluminum structures. The Association has also replaced all the wooden bucking chutes and pens with the modern facilities that exist today. The early arena looked more like a well worn football field or cow pasture, with grass growing everywhere except in front of the bucking chutes. The unfortunate cowboy who got bucked-off had a very hard landing compared the relative “soft” landing cowboys have in today’s well maintained arena.
The decade of the 1960’s brought more changes to the event. In 1960 and 1961, the Sod Savage Club of New Windsor, a group of go-cart and motorcycle racers, held exhibition go-cart races during the rodeo performances. Many times the racing excitement was lost in all the dust created by the racing. The first Kiddie Parade was held in 1961, and has been a part of the event ever since. The rodeo continued to grow in importance and attendance. Girl’s Barrel racing was added to the rodeo program in 1962. Team Roping and Cutting Horse Completion was tried for a few years, but not added permanently to the rodeo program. The major change occurred in 1966 when the days of the event were changed from the original Wednesday-Thursday-Friday format, to Thursday-Friday-Saturday. The Rodeo had become the signature event of the fair, and as a result, the traditional Society and Western Horse Show held the second night of the event was replaced by the rodeo that had been held that afternoon. Horse Shows were moved to Friday (for local riders, and later junior riders) and Saturday (western) afternoons. The parade through town that had been held at 1:00 p.m. Thursday afternoon, the day after the fair and rodeo opened was moved to 4:00 p.m. (later 5:00 p.m.) Thursday afternoon and became the kick-off event for the fair’s activities.
New events and activities were added in the 1970’s. The New Windsor Drill Team made its first appearance in 1972, and has been a part of the rodeo program ever since. The New Windsor Ladies Fair Auxiliary was formed and it conducted the first Queen Contest in 1975. High School Calf Roping was held prior to the afternoon horse shows from 1977 to 1979.
The most memorable “Specialty Act” appeared at the New Windsor Rodeo in 1980. A week of heavy rain had left the rodeo arena a quagmire of mud and water that was knee deep in places. Local hardware store owner Art Willems offered $50 to anyone who would ride around the arena in a scoop shovel pulled by a horse. Someone took him up on the offer and after a “hot lap” around the arena, the mud covered rider was given his $50 in front of the bucking chutes!
In 1982, New Windsor celebrated it 125th anniversary. A Quasquintennial pageant was held the night before the fair opened, and a historical parade opened each rodeo performance. The Association’s logo, the “NWR” inside an oval, was first used in 1985, and in 1987, the current fair book cover featuring a cowboy with sunglasses reflecting a bucking horse and the “NWR” logo first appeared. With running becoming popular with more and more people, the New Windsor Rodeo Run was added to the fair’s events in 1988.
In 1990 the Local Horse Show on Friday afternoon was changed to a Youth Horse Show for 4-H members interested in horsemanship and showing horses. Team Roping was permanently added as a rodeo event in 1991. The New Windsor Fair Auxiliary sponsored the first Princess Contest in 1992, and the Flea Market was added to the fair in 1993.
The top rodeo specialty acts in the country appeared at the New Windsor Rodeo during the 1990’s. The One Armed Bandit, The Gatney Family Trick Riders, Bob Johnson’s Overland Stage Coach, and the Thornton Family have all appeared in the arena, some on multiple occasions. And local musical talents Missy Vail, Eileen Randall, and Dave Schatteman have performed prior to the rodeo.
The changes and improvements continued during the past fifteen years. New grandstands and buildings have been erected. New events have been added to the rodeo, including Cowgirl’s Breakaway Roping and a second Bull Riding has been added to the rodeo performances. Some of the best specialty acts in the rodeo business, including Dusti Craine and Blake Goode have performed during the rodeo.
Some things have changed over the years. Most of the directors and committee members who were responsible for the 25th New Windsor Fair, Rodeo and Horse Show in 1964 are now gone, and many of those remaining are retired. Many who helped make the 50th New Windsor Rodeo a success in 1989 are still around, some retired, but many are still active in the Association in some manner.
In their place, as new generations of directors and committee members are added to the Association, they continue the traditions that were started in 1935. Some continue a family tradition of involvement that goes back to the beginnings of the event. Others step forward to help in any manner they can.
Some things have remained the same. The Lutheran and Presbyterian Church stands still serve the best food you will find at any fairgrounds. The Edwards River Antique Tractors are on display every years, and there is bingo in the Legion building. The New Windsor Drill Team performs at every rodeo performance. Some of its members the third generation in their family to be part of this tradition. And Thursday’s Parade gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
Through seventy-five years of changes, some things have remained constant. The horse shows, agriculture exhibits, domestic arts and hobbies, and parade have been a part of every New Windsor Fair since 1935.
The original Directors had a motto that was published inside the front cover of the Premium Books for three decades:
“With your help, we can make this year’s event the best ever”.
That motto is still true today.