It’s not hard to figure out what makes the Custer Fairso successful—it celebrates what people love about Evanston. It’s become a summer staple for the last four decades that combine art, food and music in a festival that draws people from all over the Chicago area.
“It was started in 1972, by a group of artisans and craftspeople who had stores on Custer Avenue,” said John Szostek, the longtime director of the fair before retiring this year. It was called it Custer’s Last Stand, and held the third weekend of June around the anniversary of Little Big Horn.
Szostek was an entertainer at the fair in 1981, when he fell and hurt is back during a stunt, putting him out of commission for a year. So he approached the director of the fair the following year to say that he could no longer do the act, but he’d be open to trying something new.
“That’d be great, but there’s not going to be a fair, nobody wants to coordinate it” recounted Szostek. “Can you do it?”
Long story short, Szostek took on the challenge, and helped grow the festival to where it now routinely attracts more than 350 artists and craftspeople from across the country to come to Main Street and Chicago Avenue in Evanston over Father’s Day weekend.
It still has that focus on artistic pursuits, including exhibitors specializing in painting, ceramics, photography, jewelry, graphic arts, wearable art and home craft. More than 150 local businesses join them for the sidewalk sale, and more than 30 food vendors make sure no one goes hungry with offerings from some of Evanston’s top restaurants.
“The important thing has been to keep the essential energy of the Custer Fair,” Szostek said. “It’s unique in the area… It’s very social.”
Music acts this year will include some legends of Chicago jazz, including FlashBack Chicago, The Terré Cohen Orchestra, Bopology and John Temmerman’s Jazz Obsession Quartet. Folk and bluegrass bands include David Francey and the Lonesome City Bluegrass Band. Kids events are held in Eiden Park on Washington Avenue, and the Arena Stage will feature a Native American pow wow on both days of the festival. Performers from the Piccolo Theatre, which was created with the help of Szostek and other fair organizers, will be performing as well.
The fair organizers are promoting the “green” cause this year with an Eco-Village, which will include makers of solar and wind powered devices in addition to organic and fair-traded products.
Evanston is filled with great food, music and art year round, but at the Custer Fair, you get it all in one place.