Harvard Milk Days
Harvard Milk Days is the longest-running community festival in Illinois.
It may have set a world record for the largest community milk-chug. On June 18, 1942, roughly 3,000 Harvard residents of all ages gulped down 500 gallons of milk at the city’s first-ever milk festival.
Attended by the high school band, a sing-along and patriotic speakers, the Harvard Milk Festival was a modest event held in honor of local dairy farmers, many of whom worked 80-hour weeks in a pledge to increase wartime production. They succeeded, despite thinned ranks, with many fathers, brothers and other able farm hands serving overseas. Production went up 5 percent in 1943.
That Thursday afternoon of ’42 was the start of something great. WLS radio began live “Milk Days” broadcasts the following year; the Milk Queen Contest was inaugurated in 1945; the Milk Day Parade began in ’46; a marching band competition in ’47; an open cattle show in ’50; the Dairy Derby weight loss contest in ’53; and so on. In 1955, Milk Day was televised on WBBM Channel 2, Chicago, and the next year, attendance peaked at 75,000.
“Harvard, Milk Center of the World,” boasted the Harvard Herald in 1942 to promote the young festival. Indeed, the three largest dairy companies within 20 miles of Harvard together produced more than 360 million quarts of milk per year. If lined up end to end, it was said, the milk bottles would encircle the entire globe. So, it was no idle boast.
Harmilda the cow became a permanent fixture in the local landscape in 1966. Her name is a portmanteau for Harvard Milk Days. A temporary paper mache cow named Princess Blue Ox was used in previous years. Proud Harmilda now stands watch at the intersection of Highways 14 and 173, a fiberglass bovine turned community icon surveying her domain.
Kick-off events start as early as May, and huge crowds still come to Harvard the first weekend of June for the big festival.
The festival has grown since that 1942 community milk-chug to include a carnival, parade and up to 30 events, including a bed race, an antique tractor show – even cow chip bingo – and all ending in a grand fireworks display. Yet, at its heart, the festival remains a tribute to the long-time backbone of McHenry County: our local dairy farmer.