As Custer Fair leaves Evanston, local businesses look to fill the void


Daily file photo by Ben Pope

The 2017 Custer Fair. The event is moving to Hammond, In. next summer.

Jacob Fulton, Assistant City Editor

Organizers of the Custer Fair, a local street fair entering its 49th year, announced Feb. 19 that the event would be relocating to Hammond, In., leaving Evanston currently without a festival on Father’s Day weekend for the first time since the event began.

However, local business owners have said they plan to put on another fair during the same weekend.

John Szostek held the first Custer Fair on Custer Avenue in 1972. Tammy Szostek, one of the fair’s organizers, said the decision to move the event was difficult because of the connection to the city, but she felt it was necessary. In 2018, the fair saw over 120,000 attendees, but last year, around 10,000 people visited, a decline attributable to a political controversy and inclement weather.

In 2019, the city used vehicles to barricade the streets and brought a van from Cook County labeled “Department of Homeland Security” to assist the process. Szostek said residents were concerned about the safety of immigrants at the festival, as people thought the vehicle was from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which started conducting more raids around the same time. However, the van was not related to that agency.

“That was kind of the breaking point where we decided it can’t happen in Evanston anymore,” Szostek said. “It’s nice to bring it into (Indiana), but that wasn’t the original plan. It was always going to remain in Evanston.”

Szostek also said tensions between the fair and the city over rising fees made it difficult to afford to stay in Evanston. She said Custer Fair still has $3,500 in outstanding annual dues to pay the city.

According to a Feb. 19 city news release, officials felt the fair’s leadership changes caused instability, creating stress between the organization and Evanston.

“Non-profit partners have reported not receiving their fair share of donations from the event, despite spending their Father’s Day weekend working there,” the release said, “and the City has not been reimbursed for the many hours of staff time and resources necessary to make this event possible.”

The next Custer Fair will be in the new location on June 20 and 21. Meanwhile, in Evanston, residents are searching for an alternative for the same weekend.

Lena Kim, the owner of niceLena & Friends, said she was part of a meeting between local business owners and residents in which they began to discuss what a new fair might look like. She said the up-front costs of the event would be approximately $50,000, but she believes Evanston can unite to finance the cause.

“I’m hoping that we can roll out a plan to build it together from the ground up with all Evanston businesses,” Kim said. “Fundraising depends on the people, but I have hope that we can get local businesses to get a banner here, a tent there — I think that’s doable.”

Katherine Gotsick, the executive director of the Main-Dempster Mile, said the traffic Custer Fair brought to the area will be difficult to replicate, but residents will likely be excited to form a new tradition.

No matter what happens with the business-planned event, she said there will be plans for a fair this summer, and the Main-Dempster mile will support and host it.

“If this group of citizens doesn’t do something, (Main-Dempster Mile) will do something,” Gotsick said. “It’ll be very small, comparatively, but there will be something to do on the Main-Dempster Mile on Father’s Day in the summer.”

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Twitter: @jacobnfulton1