Many small towns in the U.S. have unique festivals born of historic situations. One such festival in Illinois is Harvard Milk Days. Even by the name, it sounds unusual — a whole festival dedicated to the white beverage cows make?
There’s a lot more to learn about Harvard Milk Days. Keep reading to discover what the festival is, why it exists, and how it affects the surrounding region.
What Is “Harvard Milk Days?”
Held in Harvard, Illinois, Harvard Milk Days is a weekend festival held annually in June that celebrates the work of dairy farmers throughout the nation, specifically the town of Harvard.
The town goes all out for this festival. Literally, it paints the streets white to look like spilled milk — or at the very least, to make it look like milk covers one of the main avenues in Harvard.
Held every year since 1942, Harvard Milk Days stands to honor the hard work of dairy farmers, both in difficult wartime and today, when milk production has increased though farmers use fewer cows than before.
Of the many different traditions found amid Harvard Milk Days, a can’t-miss sight is the fiberglass cow that stands at Harvard’s Five Points year-round as a reminder of the town’s most-favored festival.
History of Harvard Milk Days
Did you know that Harvard Milk Days remains one of the oldest traditions and festivals in Illinois? Harvard Milk Days got its start all the way back in 1942 when the entire world came to a screeching halt during World War II.
Amid World War II, the Department of Agriculture asked dairy farmers to increase milk production to feed the soldiers overseas. The increase in production needed to offset more commodity production of cheese and canned milk — two of the easiest products to ship overseas to help soldiers keep their calcium levels up. However, farmers worried about the increase in production for very little additional compensation. The concerns weren’t unwarranted; as feed prices increased, their prices stayed around the same. Because of the difference and other production issues, a milk ration came to fruition that lasted until the end of the war.
Because of the many hardships on dairy farmers of the time, the residents of Harvard knew they needed to boost morale in some way. The Harvard Chamber of Commerce began planning for the festival in 1941. While it remained simple in activities and nature, the main goal of the event aimed to create a sincere and genuine tribute to the backbone of the Harvard community: dairy farmers.
On Thursday, June 18, about 3,000 people gathered together to honor the local dairy farmers during this difficult time. The first “Harvard Milk Days” festival was a simple raised wooden platform at the intersection of Ayer and Brainard streets in Harvard. There, the attendees listened to speeches, enjoyed each other’s company, and drank a whopping 500 gallons of milk.
Subsequent Milk Days
The first Milk Day had a wonderful turnout and enough excitement to keep the momentum going another year. So, the second annual Harvard Milk Days (then simply called “Milk Day”) brought more fanfare to the small town when “The Dinner Bell” radio program began broadcasting the festival’s events to its Midwest audience. Reaching as far as Chicago, The Dinner Bell created a buzz around the festival that established Harvard Milk Days as a must-visit, can’t-miss summer event.
Soon, activities and locations began to change. The fourth annual festival in 1945 moved from the street intersection to Mary D. Norma Park and named its first Milk Day Queen. Six years later, the dairy farmers became the judges of the Milk Day Queen competition — until 1959, when a curated panel of judges began to pick the winner.
In 1966, businessman Robert Jones traded meat for a lifesize fiberglass Holstein cow lovingly named Harmilda (Harvard Milk Days). She’s been a permanent fixture of the festival ever since.
When Are Where Is the Harvard Milk Days Festival?
Harvard Milk Days takes place on the first weekend of June every year. In 2023, the festival took place on June 2, 3, and 4. In 2024, the festival is set to occur on the weekend of May 31 through June 2.
Today, Harvard Milk Days takes place at Milky Way Park. 1949 was the first year the town whitewashed Ayer Street, where the Harvard High School Marching Band would strut down the newly-painted “Milky Way.” During the early days of the festival, it occurred for only one day. When Harvard Milk Days moved to Mary D. Norma Park in 1945, it didn’t stay long. Between then and now, places around Harvard that have hosted Harvard Milk Days include:
- The Speedway.
- The north side of town.
- Harvard High School.
- North Field Park.
Milky Way Park is a 55-acre lot located on Lawrence Road. In addition to the festival ground, it functions as a family-friendly park throughout the rest of the year, with soccer fields, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, a parking lot, and restrooms.
What Can You Do During Harvard Milk Days?
Attending Harvard Milk Days? You won’t be at a loss for something to do. Since its inception, the festival has grown from one day to three full days of festivities — with additional attractions leading up to the big weekend! Each year is a bit different, too. Depending on the weather, vendor availability, and size of the festival, performers rotate shows, different concession stands arrive, and inflatable obstacle courses even make their appearance on fairgrounds.
Here are just some of the many different events that happened at the 2023 Harvard Milk Days.
- The Queen Crowning, which happens mid-May before the festival so the new Queen can start her reign during the first day of Harvard Milk Days.
- Tractor and equipment displays.
- Carnival rides and games.
- Concession stands.
- Chainsaw carver stations.
- Petting zoo.
- Races and walks for children and adults.
- Country breakfast buffets.
- The Milk Days Parade.
- Milk drinking contests.
- Talent shows.
- Cattle shows.
- Firework displays.
- Golf outings.
- Bed races.
- Big wheel races.
Of the many different activities, many attendees assert their favorite to be the parade that happens every festival Saturday, rain or shine.
More About Harvard, Illinois
Located in McHenry County, Harvard is a city located at the very top of Illinois, bordering Michigan. It takes up less than 8.5 square miles and has a population of just under 10,000 residents. The city became such in 1891 when the citizens voted to transform it from a town into a city. Once the vote passed, the responsibility for the town passed from the village president to the city’s new office: mayor.
Harvard is a short drive from big cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, both of which you can travel to in about an hour from downtown Harvard. According to the city of Harvard’s website, it has the largest number of dedicated conservation acres in the State of Illinois. Besides Milky Way Park, Harcade has 11 parks and facilities at which families can play together.
Several notable people either grew up in Harvard or lived there for some time, including famed writer and director John Huges, the mother of President Gerald Ford, and Carol Richards, a singler and entertainment personality.
Celebrate Over Spilled Milk!
Harvard, Illinois is a small town in mid-America with a ton of heart — and even more milk. Created first to honor the work of the dairy farmers at the time, Harvard Milk Days has become a staple of the town and surrounding region. It provides family-friendly fun, a way to honor the hardworking dairy farmers of Illinois, and a reason to drink a nice, cold glass of milk.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Chatham172/Shutterstock.com
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