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Balloons Over 66: A History

To look up and see the sky filled with 36 hot air balloons is like watching a bouquet of gigantic flowers float their way toward the sun. Such a sight mesmerizes the imagination, catches your breath and accelerates your heart rate, and is just darn good fun. Adults and children alike sense the freedom of being aloft in the sky, in a balloon—the most simple form of aeronautics, with an aura of magic.

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The Beginning of a Tradition

In 1988, the town of Lincoln, IL, captured that excitement and held its first annual balloon festival as an addition to a pre-existing summer art show. For the next 26 years, the festivals flourished as a combination. But as the years went on, the balloon festival became more popular and by 2015 the festival had grown big enough to split from the art show and become a three-day weekend event all its own. Balloon enthusiasts and aeronauts came from all across the country to participate, even from as far away as Arizona. For three straight Augusts, 2015 to 2017, the sky over Logan County became filled with a display of beautiful hot-air contraptions of every shape and color, all made from silk and fueled by fire.

Opening with a lights-and-siren parade, the summer festival became a mix of on-the-ground activities, live music, food and beer, and a carnival. All weekend long, festival attendees were invited to meander among the balloons and chat with the pilots. And for the adventurous, there were free-flight balloon rides and tethered floats.

Deflated Festivities

By 2017, the balloon festival had also become an event known beyond the Illinois state lines. But financial problems soon doomed the annual celebration. It was funded by the Lincoln-Logan Chamber of Commerce, which had fallen $88,000 in arrears and unfortunately shut down in 2018, per an announcement in The Lincoln Courier. The chamber directors tried what they could to recoup the finances and save the festival, but it was not to be—the balloon festival was over.

Or, so thought the disheartened. Courier staff writer Dan Tackett published a report on March 9, 2018, that sparked hope for the continuation of the balloon festival. Dough Luken, a previous festival volunteer, had come up with an idea and had found a core group committed to bringing back the festival in 2019. Still, many locals were skeptical at Tackett’s optimism about the festival’s return.

Rise of the Phoenix Festival

The skepticism was correctly placed, it turned out. August 2019 came around and the Lincoln Balloon Festival did not happen according to Luken’s designs. But something else did—on Friday, August 23, the sky over Lincoln blossomed with hot air balloons from all across the nation, and they still floated there the day after. A new event had arisen: Balloons over Route 66. Planned by Lincoln Mayor and balloon aeronaut Seth Goodman, the new shindig included a street festival, a Saturday morning biscuits-and-gravy breakfast, sidewalk chalk drawing, and on Sunday the Shady Car Show hosted by the Railsplitter Antique Auto Club.

The balloon festival had returned under a different name, and is still one of the biggest annual attractions in Lincoln and Logan County.

Logan County Tourism Bureau

101 North Chicago Street
Lincoln, IL 62656

Normal Hours
9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. - Mon.-Fri.
10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Sat. also
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