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With its fire-eaters and jugglers, corn dogs and lemonade, Custer’s Last Stand drew thousands of people into the streets of Evanston for a festival over Father’s Day weekend. The event spanned Main Street from Chicago Avenue to Sherman Avenue, and flowed south to Madison Street.
Affectionately called “Custer Street Fair” by locals, the festival began in 1972 on Custer Avenue as a way to honor General George Armstrong Custer for his service to the Union during the Civil War. Today, it is a yearly function of the Evanston Festival Theater, a not-for-profit corporation that serves the art community of Evanston.
John Szostek, the fair director, has been involved with the event for more than 30 years. “I was an entertainer at the fair. I had designed a character to do a walk-around act, but I got injured between fairs,” Mr. Szostek said.
So he called up the fair coordinator and explained that he still wanted to be involved, but in a different capacity. To Mr. Szostek’s surprise, however, the coordinator said there was not going to be a fair that year. “Nobody wanted to coordinate it,” Mr. Szostek related. “And I said, ‘That’s a shame, it’s such a nice event.’”
At which point, the coordinator asked him if he wanted to do it. Mr. Szostek said he thought, “How hard could it be?” Thirty years later, he is still at the helm.
Susan Winsniewski has come to the Custer Fair for the past 20 years to exhibit and sell her airbrushed clothing and accessories. This year, she occupied booth C-58, her usual spot, on Custer Avenue just south of Main Street. “It’s always a fun show. It’s run very well and people are very enthusiastic,” Ms. Winsniewski said. “The crowd, the music, the street entertainers, the art — everybody seems to have a good time.”
Ms. Winsniewski noted that over the past few years, the composition of fair exhibitors has evolved to include booths offering commercial products in addition to stands featuring artisan crafts. “People like to buy manufactured goods too, but at least they’re in a different section,” she said. Most of the booths on Custer Avenue were dedicated to arts and crafts vendors.
This year marked Maria Burk’s first time exhibiting at the Custer Fair. Ms. Burk specializes in sterling silver and precious stone wire wrapping. “It’s a great fair,” Ms. Burk said. “People are nice and the people running the show are very friendly, very helpful.”
As for the attendees, Ms. Burk laughed, “They’re still a little tired and hot this morning, but they’ve been great too.” Indeed, temperatures around 80 degrees led to long lines at the soft-serve ice cream vendor.
Great spirit aside, some vendors witnessed more browsing than buying. “A lot of people are coming by, but you can really tell that the economy has hurt people,” said Michele Feder-Nadoff, the founder of Cuentos Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the art and culture of Michoacán, Mexico. However, the lack of buyers was not terribly discouraging to her, she said, as her primary reason for being at the fair was education. “We’re at the fair to promote the idea that immigrants from Michoacán come from very wealthy cultures and have rich traditions, to counter what everyone hears about drug trafficking and things like that,” Ms. Feder-Nadoff said.
For others, though, the lack of buyers made for a rough show. “The fee for booth space here is very expensive compared to other shows,” said Laura Chaiken of La Rua Enamels, who drove in from Bloomington, Ind., to exhibit. Ms. Chaiken has participated in the Custer Fair on and off for the past 20 years. “It’s not that great this year. I’m not sure if it’s the economy or the weather, but we need to make more money in order for it to be fruitful,” Ms. Chaiken explained.
While the show may have been challenging for some vendors, the attendees undoubtedly enjoyed the event. “It’s a beautiful day!” exclaimed Anna Bleier, a 19-year-old attendee. “I’ve been coming to Custer every year since I was two years old. People are awesome here. I love talking to the vendors. Everyone is nice and they have really good lemonade!”