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Doilies, Christmas Trees, and Magnets: Judging The Fair's Contests

Amanda Vinicky

For most of the thousands of people who go to the Illinois State Fair each summer, it's about fun -- the carnival rides, and corn dogs. But for others it's about competition. There are awards given for everything from longest ponytail to -- feminists, beware! --husband-calling. Not to mention the livestock events, which crown the best of the breeds. But what grabbed my attention was the "hobbies," where bakers, crafters and collectors have their chance at glory. First, they have to win over the judges. I trailed a few to see just what that takes.

There's a crowd watching from a small, tiered set of bleachers as a handful of kids use what appear to be wrestling moves to maneuver their freshly-shorn sheep on stage. In this case, the stage is a section of the room cordoned off by fences and flower pots; the floor covered in the same sort of wood shavings you'd put in a hamster cage.

Credit Amanda Vinicky
A boy shows his sheep at a livestock contest at the Illinois State Fair.

It's readily apparent who the judge is: the guy in khakis and a short-sleeved dress shirt who's giving the sheep a pat-down, plus his name is announced.

"We'd like to take the opportunity to once again thank our judge today, Mr. Bart Caldwell," says a voice over the loudspeaker.

That's not how it works over in the Hobby Building, where judges do their work in relative silence, and anonymity.

Floyd Bee, the Superintendent of Hobbies, let me speak with them on the condition I kept their identities secret. Journalists have to be wary of using anonymous sources, so I had Bee make his case. He says exhibitors get really excited.

"And let's say one of them took a fourth but they think their piece is better than the first, then they'll want to talk to the judge," he says -- and that's the sort of confrontation Bee wants to avoid.

Competition can be fierce. Take contest #14,420: "Collection of Miscellaneous - no antiques - music boxes."

A judge pulls out his ruler -- the taller entries must be measured; any that surpass 10 inches in height will be disqualified.

And each one is wound to make sure it plays a tune: the glass Don Quixote in his armor, the carved, wooden angel that spins; and the winner -- a trio of music boxes modeled to look like miniature sewing machines:

"This is a sewing machine that's got some animation; but the song is 'Whistle While You Work,'" the judge says, as he admires spinning, sewing bears.

The same pair of judges who chose the best music box are also responsible for selecting the best collection of Kentucky Derby glasses, the best-wrapped package, and which of the 18 entries will take the prize for Contest #14,429: Refrigerator Magnets, Mounted. (There is no contest for Refrigerator Magnets, Unmounted -- I asked.) 

Credit Amanda Vinicky
Wreath-making is one of the many contests the Illinois State Fair puts on.

"Some of them are themed, I'm looking at one here that's Hershey's chocolate. And they've got all the way from it looks like contemporary, current things to probably reproductions of Hershey's labels from way back," he says.

And then there are those that are more hodgepodge: a magnet of Sylvester the cartoon cat, a bear holding an ornament with a Christmas tree coming out of its behind, a pig head, and a box of raisins, plus the tip of a peeled (fake) banana, a wooden cross, and a mini pair of pliers, all stuck to a pizza pan covered in tin foil. 

The judges don't select it as a winner; that goes to a group of magnets with an Alaskan theme.

I can't help but ask: "Do you ever look at these and say, who on earth collects magnets?"

The judges look down, almost sheepishly, and one chuckles.

"Well, being a collector myself, you know, um ... you can take any hobby to madness," he says. "I collect antique motorcycles and antique bicycles. "

Forty-five of the former, 85 of the latter.

Among other things.

"This is embarrassing. I'm libel to have the Hoarders' Show show up at my door sometime," he says.

There's a contest for pretty much every variety of collector: Categories for those who collect modern cookie jars, bells, and porcelain dolls. There are special competitions for juniors - novelty/souvenir pencils, and comic books. And then, there are the crafts! The crafts! Contests for the best machine embroidered pillow case, hand-embroidered pillow case, or appliqued pillow case; the best handmade Scandinavian garment, wreath and bird house."

The judges have to evaluate each using set criteria, sometimes for authenticity, condition and rarity. Sometimes for value. Or maybe, for originality. It's all laid out in the "General Premium Book" -- 164 pages of rules and rewards.

"It's the spirit of competition. There are some people that ... you get this fever as young children, mainly through 4-H. And they just keep on, and they've been entering contests for years. They love it."

Credit Amanda Vinicky
(Anonymous) judges taste some relishes entered into the 2014 Illinois State Fair contest.

  That's Billye Griswold, who, as the Culinary Superintendent -- overseeing the baking and other food contests, can't enter anymore. But she used to. She's still proud of her former Junior Homemaker award, all these years later.

It seems it's not about the money; prizes in the hobby contests may be $15, or a $50.

It's more about the prestige, who gets to hang a blue ribbon on their fridge ... maybe using Illinois' best set of magnets, mounted.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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