Warren County Prime Beef Festival Dates Back to 20th Century


**photo courtesy of Jeff Rankin – Medium

The great annual tradition of the Warren County Prime Beef Festival dates back to the 20th century with a fall festival held on the square in Downtown Monmouth until World War II put a temporary halt on the yearly event. Following the war, the Chamber of Commerce looked to hire a Vice President, Bob Albert of Roseville, which lead to the first Warren County Prime Beef Festival in 1948, shares Monmouth College Historian Jeff Rankin:

“Bob Albert, he had just gotten out of the army and was working as a salesman for National Livestock Supplies in Bloomington. So he came ready to go with the Chamber. So he decided he was going to sell this new revised festival. Coming from Roseville he had an idea this has to be agriculture related and at the time prime beef was the big thing in Warren County. Drovers Journal had a report in 1948 that 23 head of cattle from the Pattee Farm, which is just a little bit southwest of Cameron, had set an all-time world record at the Union Stockyards in Chicago for weight. They averaged 1343 pounds apiece. He also called the Union Stockyards to see where most of their cattle were coming from and he found that in 1948 Warren County had sent more beef to Chicago for processing than any other agricultural region in the Midwest. So that was when he started this idea that we will have a Prime Beef Festival that we’re going to promote to the world that we were the Prime Beef center. 1948 was the very first Prime Beef Festival and it was held on the Public Square. In those days, you could actually do that because we didn’t have the highway restrictions because the Public Square was actually the intersection of Routes 34 and 67.”

Barbeque pits were built on the square and roasted three steers, where the prime beef was not served until the Saturday of the festival in 1948 to 25,000 fair goers. In 1953, highway regulations relocated the festival to the Monmouth Park, where it remains to be held to this day. A staple of the Warren County Prime Beef Festival is the parade down Broadway, which Rankin says used to be way longer and larger than it is today:

“Back then the parade was really something. It actually didn’t stop at 11th Street; it went all the way out to Monmouth Park. Of course, back in those days it was a pretty large parade because they had bands from all over Illinois. They had local service groups and things. Everybody wanted a float, so it was a big parade. In 1953 Governor William Stratton was the guest of honor and he rode in the parade and he had a prime beef sandwich at the festival and then he spoke to a crowd of 20,000 out of the park and talked about how Warren County was in an amazing place to raise beef.”

Over the years, the raising of cattle saw several changes. The Union Stockyards closed in 1971, bringing many changes to Warren County explains Rankin:

“And there were a number of reasons for that. One of them was the rise in interstate trucking made it cheaper to slaughter the cattle where they were raised and also the breeders could sell directly to the packers, they didn’t have to go to a big stockyard to do that. Also, the cost of raising steers increased. Monmouth and Warren County would have young calves shipped out from the west where they were raised and then they would fatten them up on Warren County corn and pasture. That got to be kind of expensive and farmers were really able to better return on investment by raising corn and soybeans rather than trying to raise all those beef cattle.”

In the 1950 census, 45,000 head of cattle were in Warren County and only 5,900 were counted in 2018. For Illinois in 1950 there were 2.9 million head of cattle, now 397,000 cattle state wide.

While Warren County is no longer the Prime Beef capital anymore, the annual Warren County Prime Beef Festival celebrates the heritage and beef that is still being raised in the local area.

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