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McLeansboro Fall Festival

Tiffany Garavaglia
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Events, Fall

The town of McLeansboro will double in size when the annual Fall Festival on September 7-9, 2017 rolls around. Thanks to the Kiwanis Club volunteers, led by Festival Chairman Jerry Prince, this September weekend event has been getting bigger and better each year.

Almost every city and village in ILLINOISouth puts on a fall festival (check our calendar for dates and locations). Nearly all of them feature some or all of these activities: exciting rides; vendors selling your favorite carnival food; arts & crafts for souvenirs and gifts; a special “cuteness factor” at the Little Miss and Mister pageant; local musical entertainment; and a parade with marching bands and decorated floats. So what sets McLeansboro’s festival apart? How do they draw more than 7,000 people on Saturday night? 

Perhaps a little of the history will help make it clearer. Back in the 1960s, McLeansboro, like many other small towns in southern Illinois, started holding Dairy Days. Usually this was a one-day event on a Saturday where farmers brought their produce and other products for sale. A cow or two would be tethered in the town square, so the kids and city folk got to try their hand at milking. Hopefully, some smart vendor would sell homemade ice cream or cheese or other fresh dairy treats.

Over the years, Dairy Days evolved into larger Fall Festivals as more and more people in and out of town wanted to be involved.  In McLeansboro, the Kiwanis Club took over the festival in the late 60s to help support their mission “Serving the Children of the World.” Then in 2000, they decided to separate their festival from all the others. As a band director, car enthusiast, farmer and active member of Kiwanis, Jerry Prince was a natural to take on the challenge. He had contacts in the music industry and elicited financial support from ten local businesses to hire popular country music artist Dan Seals to perform in concert that year.

This proved so successful that for the last 16 years the entertainment lineup has included  Larry Gatlin, Mo Bandy, Marty Haggard, Mickey Gilley, Little Jimmy Dickens, the Oak Ridge Boys, Mel Tillis and many more singers and songwriters. Each year, the lineup draws a larger audience. This year the Family Tradition Concert on the Main Stage on the Square stars members of four of Country Music’s most famous families, who are celebrities in their own right: Michael Twitty (Conway Twitty’s son); Georgette Jones (George Jones’ daughter); Marty Haggard (Merle Haggard’s son) and Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune. Where else can the whole family go to a FREE concert of this caliber?

“The financial support of businesses, the community, churches and corporations and accommodations by the city make it possible for a city of 3,000 to more than double,” said Prince. He noted that not only have the crowds grown, but the sponsorships have also gotten much larger. The schedule of events has also expanded. Each festival has a theme, and each night features a different special entertainment in addition to the usual rides and vendors.

Thursday night is traditionally Gospel Night. Scott Wattles Blue Suede Shoes Crew will present a “Tribute to the Gospel Music of Elvis Presley.” Friday will rock at Retro Night. Dance to music from the 50s to the 80s headlined by Exile, and check out the car cruise with featured vehicles like the red ’57 Chevy convertible pictured here.

On Saturday morning, a new event, The Fox Hollow Downhill Derby, will roll down East Main St. This is a gravity-powered race of homemade cars, and the competition is fierce! Families, church groups, businesses and organizations design, build and enter a car for a fun day of racing in several different divisions. A ramp will start the cars down the hill with spectators lining the street to cheer on their favorites. Sound like fun? Entries are accepted up until race day.

Saturday evening’s fun starts at 6:00 p.m. with the big parade that takes at least an hour to wind through town. Then settle in for the main event concert. Now that you know what sets McLeansboro’s Fall Festival apart, bring your lawn chairs or blankets on Thursday, September 7 – Saturday, September 9 for a fabulous time! As Prince says, “[We’ve gone from] milk cows on the square to national acts coming in to headline the event!”  You won’t want to miss it!

To find out more about the festival, call Jerry Prince at 618-925-4888. For Downhill Derby rules and entry information, call Prince or Jerry White (618-516-1187) or Jim Lutz (618-919-0335).

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