PEORIA — A long-cherished tradition of county fairs has always been its judging competitions — the finest hog, the largest produce, the best homemade pie.
At this year's Heart of Illinois Fair, that competitive spirit will stray into the en vogue men's fashion of the times. That's right, there's going to be a "Best Beard" contest.
Beards were on the mind of fair organizers this year due in large part to the final music act of the weekend, a ZZ Top tribute band called Eliminator. The hefty facial hair of the classic rock band has been emulated by many in the subsequent decades, and fair organizers grew fond of the concept as a new competition.
For the inaugural beard contest, which will be held at 6 p.m. July 21, ahead of the concert, three categories will be up for grabs: longest beard, fullest beard and a freestyle category that gauge the zaniest or most creative styling of a beard. The judging of those first two categories won't be a vague exercise, either, according to fair director Roxy Baker.
"We're going to officially measure it, the circumference and everything," Baker said.
In its first year, the payouts for the most profound beards will be modest with $100 awarded for first place in each category and consolation prizes for the runners-up from a cadre of men's grooming sponsors.
Alongside the beards, a raft of other familiar events will fill the 69th HOI Fair slate this year, which kicks off at Exposition Gardens on Tuesday and runs through July 21 on its now customary five-day run. And it will be the first time in months that Expo Gardens is easily accessible, as Northmoor Road just opened after a sparkling infrastructure improvement to the road.
The carnival rides commonly synonymous will return but in different variations as the fair contracted with a new carnival company this year.
"That's something that's been a little bit of a burr in the saddle, if you will," Baker said. "So we're looking forward to a fresh, new carnival."
The usual blend of sights and sounds will fill the air at the campground, whether it's the motorsports and tractor pulls or the funnel cakes and lemon shake-ups. The demolition derby will take place at 6 p.m. July 21 at the main arena, while the Johnny Rockett's Cycle Circle will thrill audiences with daredevil motorcycle moves within a spherical cage at 8:15 each night. Max Power, a 9-foot tall robot, will be roaming the fairgrounds looking to interact with kids and adults alike.
Following the template from previous years, the music schedule each night will feature local performers across a variety of genres, including Forced Country on Tuesday, Southern Cross on Wednesday, Harvest Sons on Thursday, Blank Stairs on Friday and the aforementioned ZZ Top tribute on Saturday. Blank Stairs is a new act for the fair, composed of five teenagers from five different high schools around the area.
The music pavilion where the concerts are held also received a name change this year, becoming the Eldon J. Waldron Pavilion. Baker said that Waldron, who was a longtime board member for the fair, died last September at the age of 96, and the fair wanted to honor his decadeslong contributions.
Baker's favorite event during the fair, the celebrity swine showmanship exhibit, will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the livestock show building. Several Peoria area personalities will participate in the swine competition, which always garners guffaws from the crowd. For Baker, the event gets to the essence of what's great about the fair.
"I grew up on a farm in a rural community, and I've always known about hogs and cattle and sheep," Baker said. "But the fair is in an urban setting now, so the show melds the two. You find out more about what it is these farm kids do."
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.