Updated: Sep 24, 2019
GALENA–John and Bonnie Cox have no trouble remembering how long Galena Country Fair has been in existence. It’s the same age as their son, Michael.
That first year, in the fall of 1979, Bonnie was expecting in November and had one job: pick up garbage
bags. In the years that followed, three children in tow, her responsibilities increased as she took finding the arts and crafts vendors.
But the work was worth it because the fair was meeting an important need in the community.
It was John, who as Jo Daviess County State’s Attorney at the time, recognized the serious lack of foster homes in the county. He investigated ways to meet the need and reached out to Catholic Charities in Rockford. Officials there were willing to step in and assist, but funding was needed to fund an office for the agency in Jo Daviess County.
The fair concept was already in discussions when the Catholic Charities opportunity arose, so planning
A couple years later, on the Fall Tour of Homes weekend, the first Galena Country Fair took place at Grant Park. All those who’d been working on the event had their fingers crossed, John said, that they wouldn’t look like fools. In fact, John specifically remembers sitting in the pavilion at the park the Friday before the busy weekend as he waited for the tent people to arrive for set up. He sat there wondering if he’d be made a fool once again.
But all those worries were all for naught. The first fair turned out to be a success, even with half to a third of the vendors and booths now set up each Columbus Day weekend. He’s quite certain the profit from the first fair was around $750, which by today’s standards seems like not much at all. Everyone was pleased.
“It was sufficiently successful that we did it again,” said John, adding that there was never any intention
of continuing for decades.
The motto became “Who knows what’s going to work?” And organizers embraced that approach, John recalled, noting how the brainstorming turned into reality with a children’s game area, petting zoo, wine and cheese in front of the gazebo, live music and more. There was always a maintenance crew charged with keeping the park clean, and volunteers turned out from all the Catholic parishes in Jo Daviess County to help with that job.
After 10 years, John said, the decision was made that the fair could no longer survive with two people and their children. The Coxes announced that they were stepping down as chairs but would continue to help. People stepped up and the tradition continued.
“It’s just amazing,” said John, thinking about how the fair has grown and thrived.
From the beginning, John explained, there was a commitment that the fair board would operate by consensus. If someone objected to a plan or idea, the person had veto power. What resulted was a collaborative process that involved everyone in the county on a level playing field with equal status.
“It really worked,” said John of the great group of people who wanted the fair to be successful.
Of course, as one would expect, there have been some crazy experiences through the years with weather, Bonnie recalled. The third year, the forecast called for rain–lots of it. Bonnie was in tears but John pointed out that it might miss Grant Park. It did. It rained elsewhere, but not in that small park in the center of town.
“It was a great year,” said Bonnie, who remembers other years the fountain freezing, high winds, frost, snow and rain.
And there were other crazy times as well. Bonnie remembers sending people out on Saturday night to scout the countryside for stores with brats so that there would be enough food for Sunday. She remembers the old-time costume contests and singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” with a balloon release on Sunday afternoons.
Like it has for so many, Galena Country Fair is part of the Cox family history. A couple years ago, during a trip to Mexico, they met a couple who said they come to Country Fair every year and stay at the Aldrich Guest House, right next door to John and Bonnie’s home. That story proves it’s a small world and that Country Fair is a homecoming of sorts for people from near and far.
by Hillary Dickerson