Urbanckas, Mary, state fair Troy Mathews of the Chernis-Urbanckas clan shared his family’s long and happy association with the Illinois State Fair in the State Journal-Register newspaper on Aug. 19, 2016. I’ve pasted the text of that article below for those who missed it. I would have loved to have worked–exhibited or marched in a parade–at the Fair as a young person. (Looks like my family should have known the Urbanckases!)  Mary (Chernis) Urbanckas  is pictured above with her “Best in Show” hobby entry and ribbon, 2006.

Guest Column: State Fair near and dear to family’s heart


By Troy Mathews

Mary Urbanckas was born Aug. 16, 1916. Pete Urbanckas, her husband, was born Aug. 14, 1915 — both during State Fair Week. Mary and Pete, my grandparents, shared a great love for the Illinois State Fair and taught its importance and traditions to our family.

Historically, fair guests often boarded at families’ homes near the fairgrounds. Guests were charged a nominal fee to have all the comforts of home while here at the fair, such as telephone, television, hot showers, fresh sheets and a home-cooked breakfast. For 30 years, from the 1950s through the 1980s, Pete and Mary Urbanckas welcomed Illinois State Fair guests to stay at their residence. In the late 1980s, the price of a room was slightly under $20 a day. Some of their guests included the virtuoso pianist Stephanie Trick and her parents; Gene Montgomery, who drove a customized 1970s Cadillac as a starter car for harness races; Mr. Bloomstein, who sold Americana items; a man named “Uncle,” whom my grandmother said carried a great deal of money; and Bob Vono of the Orange Treat stand.

Pete’s brother and sister-in-law, Al and Anne Urbanckas, also invited guests to stay at their home on North Sixth Street, one block from the Fair. Their guest list included “the butter cow lady” Norma “Duffy” Lyon, who created the Illinois State Fair Cow for more than 30 years in the 1950s.

The fair was always reliable for income. Everyone always seemed to find a job at the fair. My grandmother worked in the fairgrounds at Clara’s Cafeteria on Main Street, with her daughters, Donna Frost and Pat Mathews, my mother. Mary and Donna poured plentiful cups of coffee and Pat spilled plentiful cups of coffee. Mary’s brother, Stanley Chernis, worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a clerk in the fairgrounds. At that time, the post office was located where the Illinois Fire Museum is currently located. Al Urbanckas popped popcorn in the Dairy Building. And I currently work for Illinois State Fair Security.

In 1936, the tallest man on record, Robert Wadlow, visited the State Fair. My grandfather, Pete, hoped to meet him, and did. During his visit, Wadlow briefly became unsteady and my grandfather helped stabilize him until he regained his footing. My grandfather always said Wadlow was grand in stature and heart, friendly and kind.

In 1993, Pete and Mary’s grandson, my brother, Scott Mathews, drove the car carrying the Grand Marshals in the State Fair parade, an experience that he said was an honor.

In her 90s, Mary, my grandmother, was asked to be Grand Marshal in the parade. Although honored, she said that she was shy and declined.

Over the years, my family also has enjoyed the experiences of winning multiple ribbons and awards from exhibits. Two of the most memorable include my grandmother, Mary, winning Best of Show in Hobbies in 2006, and her daughter, my mom Pat, repeating the same award 10 years later.

Our family has made so many friends over the years, from performers to exhibitors at the Illinois State Fair. Over the years, it has been a reliable source of family fun. The fair is a venue to show off the best the state has to offer, from breakthroughs in technology and agriculture to inventions in American and ethnic foods.
My grandmother, Mary, died in 2013. She would have turned 100 during this Fair week.During this week, we think of her and the many lasting memories our family has made because of the State Fair.— Troy Mathews is a Springfield resident.