MELVIN — At 4 p.m. Tuesday, around a dozen vehicles pulled into the Ford County Fairgrounds in Melvin, towing mowers behind them. Then, members of the fair board got to work, mowing the open fields, cutting the overgrown grass that was twice as tall as the seats in the grandstand and cleaning up the grounds that will host an event that will bring crowds that will outnumber the population of the small farming village by several times.
Over the next week leading up to the Ford County Fair, which runs June 13-19, carnival rides will be towed into the space, kids will begin to arrive with their livestock to show, and a beer tent will be erected for a concert that will pull in country music fans from far and wide.
And this year, the people of Melvin have reason to appreciate the fair even more than normal.
“The fair’s kind of the unofficial kickoff to summer in the town and in the county,” fair board President Kirk Miller said, “and (last year) there wasn’t anything to do.”
Like many small rural communities, Melvin no longer has a high school or a middle school, meaning students don’t congregate in town each day, and the sporting events that can bring folks together take place 10 miles down Illinois 54 at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School.
Inside the borders of Melvin, the county fair is generally the only source of live entertainment that regularly takes place in a given year. That’s what made last year so strange to Miller, a farmer who lives 8 miles outside of Melvin. Because of COVID-19, the only event that brings the people of Melvin together was canceled.
“There was nothing to look forward to,” Miller said. “With things being shut down, there was nothing to look forward to.”
Miller learned 20 years ago not to take the fair for granted.
At that time, it looked as if it might go the way of the high school. That’s what prompted Miller, then in his early 20s, to get involved.
“We had a lot of older board members that had put their time in,” Miller said. “It was one of those things that, if some younger people didn’t step up, the fair was probably going to die because of the lack of volunteers.”
Over the ensuing years, new ideas began to flow. They started a Cash Bash fundraiser, similar to a 50/50 raffle, which allowed them to spend more on entertainment. They spent around $30,000 upgrading restrooms. They’ve paved the concert area so that the ground doesn’t become a muddy mess on rainy days.
This year, the people of Melvin will gather once again.
The fair will kick off with a horse show Sunday and proceed with the pageants, carnival rides and livestock competitions that are staples of county fairs. The Ford County Fair, though, has long been known for its live entertainment, Miller said.
For years, the fair regularly hosted Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians, a nationally known big band, and in more recent years, country stars, including Frankie Ballard, Montgomery Gentry, Dustin Lynch and Travis Tritt, have taken the stage. This year, the Grammy-nominated Eli Young Band will perform.
A few years ago, when he noticed a line beginning to build outside a concert, Miller decided to help check IDs as people filed in. That’s when the breadth of the people who attend sunk in.
“I was checking IDs from Wisconsin and Indiana and Ohio,” Miller said, “and we had a lot of U of I people and a lot of people eight to 10 hours from home, but for a lot of them, it’s cheap entertainment to catch a live concert.”
Of course, this year, the fair will have some COVID-19 restrictions in place, even as mitigation measures loosen. But to have one large event again within the borders of Melvin is special nonetheless.
“It’s the main event that happens in town each year,” Miller said. “It’s small-town America, and being able to put on a grandstand show like our concert that we have on Friday nights is truly special in a town this small.”