With such a busy summer this year, the whole darn thing has practically passed by without my even noticing. And as it wraps up now, I’ve been reflecting on how one of the truest, most genuine signs of summer comes when every weekend, from mid-May through mid-September a different community takes its crack at the proverbial “small-town celebration”. Vendors and creaky rides swoop into town, contests are held, mass quantities of (mostly fried) food and drink are consumed, and an entire community unites and has (in theory at least) a swell, All-American time. For the name, they usually choose an arbitrary food or product (“Pumpkin”, “Strawberry”, “Corn”, “Spam”, etc.) and compound it with the word “festival” or some such synonym.
In Kewanee, Illinois you get “Hog Days”, a four day festival that’s been an area fixture every Labor Day weekend for decades. On Saturday of the recent Labor Day weekend, I got an invite from some friends to join them on their regular excursion to Kewanee for the annual “Hog Days” event. For years, I’d been hearing the stories of their Hog Days shenanigans—the drinks, food, games, rides, and people watching that can be found there that are supposedly the stuff that the best summer dreams/fiascos are made of. There is no better (or messier) way to send off summer...or so I’ve been told.
In order to capture just a tiny, care-free, and fried dough taste of the summer before it goes away again for nine or so months, I put off mowing the lawn for a day and enthusiastically accepted their invite.
Kewanee is approximately 50 miles from Peoria...after almost an hour spent in the car staring out the window at a not-so-scenic route, we finally tumble out all four doors into a parking lot just a few blocks off the main drag…in the near distance, we hear a bustling Main Street alive with hints of festivity…
Yep. Looks like we’re in the right place.
We wander onto Main Street just as the Hog Days parade is stepping off—such timing! The Marching Boilermakers from Kewanee High were out in full force, as were the “Marching Geese” from Wethersfield High School. We stop in front of the “Wanee” movie theatre to take in the rest of the promenading locals.
The local Kiwanis take a spin in a makeshift bus. I thought they might be throwing peanuts, but alas...
There was absolutely no shortage of toddlers and tiaras in the Hog Days parade either. I read each one of their titles on the side of their convertibles as they passed by, and none of them were labeled “Hog Queen” or “Hog Princess”.
But there was a king! No Hog Days would be complete without hogs, right?! Say hello to “King” Hog. I can’t imagine what he could have possibly won in whatever livestock contest he had taken part...not being barbecued at Hog Days that night?
Hmmm. All this talk of some-terrific-radiant-humble pig is making me hungry.
So we start to wander up the parade route, and one of the traditional first stops I’m told is the popular “Uncle Bud’s Cider Slush” stand, a small trailer selling a (non-alcoholic) frozen apple juice concoction that hits the spot on a hot sunny day like this one. Evidently “Uncle Bob’s” is a popular Hog Days staple, and I would believe it, as their trailer was parked in a prime, exclusive spot along the parade route. Just a few blocks away, the dozens of other food vendor stands have all been lumped together on the Hog Days midway.
And that’s exactly where we head next! I was quite surprised at the variety of food available. You had your usual fare (ha! Fair/fare) but tents and trailers were also offering a wide variety of international cuisine too-Mediterranean, Mexican, and more. Not much pork though (apparently the “World’s Largest Outdoor Barbecue”, which is a Hog Days cornerstone, was happening in a different location away from the carnival, and I’m still bummed that I missed it!) I guess I could count the pork in the corn dogs, but I’m not sure you legally can. I opted for one anyways, because it wasn’t going to feel right if I didn’t. And by the way, as it turns out, Uncle Bob’s slush goes even better with carnival corn dogs.
The rides and carnival “midway” weren’t too terribly crowded at this time, since the parade was still working its way through town. It gave us a nice relaxing and non-congested chance to look around at some of the rides.
I can’t imagine what happens on a ride named “SCAT”. I didn’t stick around to find out either.
Do corn dogs count? Because if so, then we have a problem.
We park it on a nearby picnic table to finish the corn dogs and slush. From this corner I’m able to take a look at the nearby store windows, all of which were decked out in Hog Days swag. So were all the people walking around-the variety and collection of Hog Days shirts from years past sported by the community was most impressive. Hog Days pride is alive and well in Kewanee, folks.
And on that note, time for drinks.
We head next to Cerno’s Bar and Grill for a drink, a break from the heat, and chatter with some locals. I really dug the ambiance of this old building, which I figured deserved capturing for posterity, especially the ceiling. Cerno’s boasts a bar 50 feet long and the place has been here since 1898!
Next for us is a stop at the Elks Lodge, a popular spot on everyone’s Hog Days route and a perfect way to beat the heat, bright sun, and crowds….oh, and there’s one dollar drafts here.
We find a table and sit. Little did we know, we would end up sitting there for three hours. Hey, did I mention...dollar drafts?
Eventually our appetites work themselves up again and half of us take a trip back out to the midway while the other half keeps a hold of our perch at the Elks. We return with our hands full and gorge on a heaping communal supply of cotton candy, funnel cake, and...fried Oreos.
If you’ve never had them, you’re missing out. Somehow, someway, the cookie melts inside of the fried outer coating. Twinkies were available too, and I’ve also tried fried candy bars before, but in my opinion these are the best!
Once we realized that we’ve been holding court at the Elks for a solid three hours drinking and cracking wise, we figure it’s time to check back and see what’s happening out on the streets. As sunset drifts in, the crowds at Hog Days have only increased in preparation for Saturday evening’s festivities.
A tent full of whimsical little puppets greets us (now THAT’S a phrase you never get to type). Not sure if it was the dollar drafts or that I’d just eaten my weight in fried dough, but I swear some of them were dancing on their own in a little display box.
And with dusk approaching, the carnival ride lights have switched on…that, by far is one of my favorite visuals that you see at events like this. And that “balloon wall” behind them provides a nice accent!
When in Kewanee, it’s hard to miss Good’s! I’ve never been in, but I instantly recognized that “Skywalk to their Thomasville store” after seeing it fer years on my idiot talking picture box!
We pass the “Wanee” theatre again which means we are almost back to the car….it’s not really Hog Days related, but I‘m a sucker for these small town movie theatres and wanted a shot of it. I hate when people use the phrase “if I won the lottery...” but if I won the lottery, I’d buy one of these old places, fix it up, show movies and just let it drain the winnings back down to nothing. I suppose I could be responsible and you know, pay off my student loans, pay off the house or invest and whatnot, but then again, I shucked responsibility today to run away to a carnival in Kewanee for a few hours, so I guess anything’s possible (except for ever winning the lottery).
Hog Days is a four day festival and we only captured a few hours of it, barely scraping the surface of everything you can do there-flea markets, concerts, and anything else you could think to shake a corn dog at over a three day weekend. There is so much more to experience every year, and if you ever make it to Hog Days, you’ll be treated to a slice of real Americana. And maybe a slice of pork, barbecued on a bun. Or maybe just get drunk at the Elks Lodge. Regardless, it’s a good time and a great way to kill Labor Day weekend.
Take us out, Mr. Creepy Bug:
Heart of Illinois BBQ & Bluegrass Festival This Weekend!
There’s a brand new tradition hitting Peoria starting tonight and going on all weekend long: Heart of Illinois BBQ & Bluegrass Festival. Today is the second day and the rain is all over, so you need to check this out! Lots of tasty BBQ, over a dozen bands are performing over the weekend, camping is available...and there’s beer! Check out all the details right here: Heart of Illinois BBQ & Bluegrass Festival. I’m going tonight, so I hope to see you there!
Bonus: Hog Worship Art From Jaws the Cabbie!
Jaws the Cabbie sent in this Hog Worship art for today’s post. Thanks, Jaws!