(Bloomberg News Service)
DECATUR — The grandstands sat empty on what should have been the Macon County Fair's opening night. Instead of a stage with pageant contestants in sparkling gowns, the central Illinois arena held only 20 truck loads of dirt spread out for a makeshift go-kart track.
The 158-year-old fair is broke.
Organizers canceled the event in favor of a scaled-down festival this year as the board struggled to pay about $300,000 of debt. The fair's demise in the county about 180 miles south of Chicago shows the vulnerability of a pastoral institution. The number of U.S. farms has dropped six straight years, and with them, demand for entertainments that convened growers who spend much of the year in their fields.
With state budgets under pressure and industrial agriculture helping to drain the countryside's population, urban legislators face tough choices. Illinois cut support for county fairs by 38 percent as attendance fell by almost a third from 2000 to 2013.
"They're all a-hurtin' because the money ain't there like it used to be," said Don Collins as he walked through the muddy Macon County fairgrounds on the festival's opening night in June. The 82-year-old retired sprinkler fitter volunteers on the grounds in the town of Decatur, doing everything from mowing the lawn to fixing pipes. "Fairs have to have something else going to make the money to keep it going. Money just ain't in the fairs."
The land of Lincoln isn't an outlier, said Paul Lasley, an Iowa State University sociologist who has studied rural communities for 33 years. Declining rural populations have created more urbanized states, taking a toll on the tradition, he said.
Rural and small-town America face a "growing demographic challenge," according to a November 2013 report by the U.S. Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service. Macon County hasn't been spared. Its population fell 1.3 percent from April 2010 to July 2013, while the state's grew 0.4 percent.