By Fred Huff
One of the most unlikely stories we’ve ever heard . . . somewhat like the Salukis beating Duke, Rutgers and Marquette in quick order to win the 1967 NIT when it was a truly prestigious tournament . . . was 18-year-old W. R. Hayes hitched a ride to Kentucky, bought a colt named Kentucky Dude and rode in a box car with him back to Du Quoin.
W. R. Hayes, for those not familiar with the name, is the man who some 20 years later — actually 1923 — created the Du Quoin State Fair. Now owned by the State of Illinois, its 90th edition opens Aug. 24 and runs through Labor Day, Sept. 3. As one might imagine, there have been a number of major happenings along the way.
Pictured left to right – Gene Hayes, Don Hayes, Ethyl Hayes and W.R. Hayes
Hayes, who peddled colored soda water made by his mother through the streets of Du Quoin after his father had been killed in an underground mine accident near DuBois, had a love for horses, particularly standardbreds. Those are the kind that trot and pace. Hayes entered the Dude in nearby county fairs and after his mother took him to visit the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, Will Hayes was convinced show business, racing — and fairs — were in his blood.
With a fast-growing soft drink company as his major source of income, Will Hayes, now married and with two sons — Eugene and Don — soon to follow, acquired a Coca-Cola franchise and a string of movie theaters throughout southern Illinois. He even built an “opera house” in downtown Du Quoin and brought “flickers”, young entertainers and stage shows to Du Quoin.
It seemed only natural that Hayes would soon become involved in a fair where he could train and race his growing stable of horses and entertain the public.
That was the start of the Du Quoin State Fair in 1923, so-named “state” because he claimed it would have the class and gain the same respect of the true Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
There have been some ups and downs along the way, several major setbacks, but Will Hayes’ dreams have been — and still are — being fulfilled.
An immediate success — 60,000 attended the first fair and Illinois Governor Len Small was a guest speaker — Hayes quickly bought out a few other investors and took off with developing his “hobby” along with the help of his two sons, the prospering Coca-Cola business, an emerging Midwest Dairy Company and Hayes Fair Acres Stables which first was known as “Midwest Stables”.
The early 1940s were both kind and unfriendly to the operation.
Kind in the way that the Illinois State Fair was shutdown due to its premises being utilized for more important wartime purposes and its Grand Circuit harness racing schedule having to be transferred to Du Quoin. Once held at Du Quoin, officials of harness racing’s “major league” — the Grand Circuit — added Du Quoin to its permanent annual schedule.
At the same time, 1945 to be exact, the Fair’s original grandstand burned to the ground just six weeks prior to the opening. Fortunately, plans to move the main portion of the Fair several blocks east were already underway. A new mile track replacing the original one-half mile track, was already in place. Somehow or other, Hayes, despite wartime restrictions, was able to find enough craftsmen to complete much of the grandstand that had already been started.
The 1945 Fair was pulled off without a hitch and a pacer named Adios set a new world’s record of 1:57 1/2. It was the first of dozens of world records that would later be established at what now has been termed “The Magic Mile”.
The following year the now completed new grandstand, capable of seating 8,300, was the centerpiece attraction. Sensing the interest developing in the Fair, Hayes reacted accordingly by upgrading the level of talent being presented at the nightly stage shows. Stage, screen and tv celebrity Morton Downey and Mandrake the Magician were biggest names appearing along with a 20-member chorus line of dancers.
While stage shows were growing in popularity with fair-goers, so, too, were the sporting events . . . harness racing and auto racing with headliners like Tony Bettenhausen and Johnny Parsons. And, A. J. Foyt was soon to join in on the fun and excitement.
Hayes’ racing stable had been continuing to operate at a high level along with the rest of the happenings. In 1947 his Pronto Don was attracting national attention and later became the all-time money winner with a total of $332,000.
Three seasons later, stablemate Lusty Song shocked many in the industry by winning the Hambletonian and suddenly W. R. Hayes’ long-time dream of hosting the Hambletonian became far more than just a dream.
The Hambletonian win and a new reported attendance record of 377,722 proved to be Hayes’ final hurrahs as he died suddenly of a heart attack just two days following the 1952 — the 30th — Du Quoin State Fair.
That wasn’t the last of the tragedies we mentioned earlier.
In March of 1964, E. J. “Gene” Hayes died suddenly forcing younger brother, Don, to take over the Fair’s management. He did so gracefully, booking the first country music entertainers ever to play the fair along with Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Carson. Carson called it “the best and biggest fair I’ve ever played”. Unfortunately Don’s touch was short-lived as he and his wife, Ruby, were killed in a small plane crash just two months prior to the start of the 1967 Fair which prompted the presidency being turned over to third-generation Bill Hayes.
Although hard to imagine, even though in his mid-30s, Bill led the Fair to some of its finest years, particularly in the harness racing world and as far as production of the Hambletonian were concerned. Media members from the world’s most respected outlets such as the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and CBS were regular attendees at the Hambletonian and the Du Quoin State Fair.
Hayes, however, gave in to economical pressures in the late 1970s when he sold all interests in the Fair to Saad Jabr. He was unable to maintain the long-standing Hambletonian contract and replaced it with the World Trotting Derby in 1981. Now, it, too, has gone by the wayside, but the Du Quoin State Fair still stands tall and true.
It’s southern Illinois’ most popular spectator event and still draws more than 300,000 spectators over its 10-day run. The quality of the exposition, now operating under the leadership of the State of Illinois, is still top level.
W. R. Hayes would be proud.