SI Vault
Mark Kram
August 30, 1965
Once a year a small Midwest town becomes the capital of the trotting world and the scene of a spectacular state fair, and for a wonderful week everything is changed
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August 30, 1965

Ah Odd Time In Du Quoin, Illinois

Once a year a small Midwest town becomes the capital of the trotting world and the scene of a spectacular state fair, and for a wonderful week everything is changed

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From a porch: "I vow, boy, you come back here right this minute. Your father will hear about this."

In a bar, Stanley Hestand reciting poetry: "This one, friends, is called Farewell to My Favorite Trotter: 'The fire that lies in Darn Safe's eyes/Is the spark that endures and intensifies./When the man at the gate gave the trotters the call/Darn Safe was ready to trot through a masonry wall.' "

In a store: "Mrs. Brown and her husband passed through town the other day. On their way back to St. Louis. Understand he's doin' right well up there."

Under a tree: "Ain't no work here, boy. Hasn't been for a long time."

Bartender John Alongi: "Gordon MacRae was in here once. Said I gave him the best glass of beer he ever had."

From a boy on the sidewalk: "Hey, I know you, Mister. You're Andy Williams. You're a singer! You're at the fair."

The fair, of course, is where everyone is. It is the most electric part of Hambletonian Week and the part most synonymous with the origins of harness racing. The county fair, long ago described as a pagan outbreak, is hardly a disappearing rite of rural life; the 400 U.S. fairs with trotting races drew 3.5 million people last year, and heaven knows how many others there were. There are two kinds of fairs, the sprawling, brassy, commercial ones and the small, brassy, noncommercial ones. Du Quoin is somewhere in between, not quite commercially repellent and not quite an authentic link to those of another day celebrated in musical comedies. Du Quoin presents top entertainment—George Burns, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton—but also the carny man, desperately stalking his mark in a dusty corner of the grounds. It is, however, far from being a pagan outbreak. Gamblers and scarlet ladies and pickpockets steer clear of Du Quoin and the Hayes Fair Acres during Hambletonian Week, leaving the self-righteous only the sight of small boys puffing furiously on cigarettes behind the tent where Mongo, The Fattest Man in the World, reigns in a supine position.

Out on the fairgrounds in the morning there are the sounds of birds chirping, chicken legs and bacon frying and the distant crack of a hammer. Soon the barns awake, and then, like the striking of a match, everything seems to come alive. A radio is turned on in one of the stables, and gospel music blends with the squealing of pigs from behind the barns. Everyone is busy around the stables. Grooms are pitching hay, lugging pails of water and shouldering sacks of feed. The trainers are meticulously preparing their horses for workouts. In monotonous cadence the horses clip-clop around the track, suddenly pounding down at you and then fading into small figures as they move along the backstretch. The trainers watch for a long time and then, one by one, they disappear along with their horses into the recesses of the barn area. Morning crawls toward noon. The beat of the fair increases.

The midway is still lifeless, but there is much more to Du Quoin than entertainment. The drama of the livestock shows is beginning to build. In the cool shade of the sheep tent men kneel in a line, their sheep by their sides, and the people in the small patch of stands gaze solemnly at them. The exhibitors, wearing straw hats, blue cotton shirts and white suspenders, kneel almost motionless. They are reticent men with initials like J. R., C. B. and R. D. for first names, and one wonders why it is that rural people so often use this form of nomenclature. Finally, after closely inspecting each animal, the judge is ready to make his decision. The eyes of the men do not move from the eyes of the judge. When he makes his decision, clapping chases the cathedrallike quiet. The winner accepts his blue ribbon, but he does not smile. The losers just shake their heads, look suspiciously at the judge and walk off into the hot sun.

The fair is a place for competition. It is evident everywhere you go. In the halls of the grandstand elderly women fuss over their needlework and their quilts and their pies and cakes, and they always seem painfully aware of the young woman down the hall who has just sprung a magnificent piece of pastry on them. It's not the pastry—it's just that she is so young.

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