This Illinois Festival Is the Lollapalooza of Corn

You can never have too much corn.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Photos courtesy of JPM photography
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Photos courtesy of JPM photography
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist | Photos courtesy of JPM photography

Leave it to the Midwest to turn a corn boil into a full-blown summer spectacle of carnival rides, funnel cakes, beer gardens, and rock ‘n’ roll. What started as a modest, homespun corny community tradition in 1957, as a way to celebrate the start of corn season in Illinois, has evolved into Corn Fest, a quintessential summer staple with live music, state fair-style food, activities, art, and of course, all the boiled corn you could eat.

In its current festival-style iteration since 1977, attracting upwards of 100,000 annual visitors, Corn Fest takes place in downtown DeKalb, in the far western exurbs of Chicago. A volunteer-run non-profit, it’s basically a colossal carnival mixed with a music festival, featuring a sound stage next to the historic Egyptian Theatre, a beer garden in Palmer Court, and a slew of vendors, games, and rides in between.

From its modest roots to its present-day hoopla, Corn Fest has ballooned into a requisite late-summer attraction for folks of all ages, along with big-name musicians like Joan Jett, Lady Antebellum, and Phil Vassar. Taking place August 25 – 27, this year’s lineup set to hit the soundstage includes rock- and country-centric acts like Project Nostalgia, The Relics, Whiskey Romance, and Scott McCreery. Elsewhere, attendees can look forward to a full-blown carnival with requisite Midway-style games and rides, like Ferris wheels, carousels, and the kinds of high-velocity spinning rides you should probably not go on immediately after eating. Situated on the north end of the festival, in the city and Frontier parking lots in between 2nd and 3rd Street, rides require either coupons (one coupon = $1.50) or an unlimited daily wristband for $33. Meanwhile, the Kid Fest section contains face painting, organic Henna tattoos, and a rock climbing wall, while the family-friendly beer garden slings alcoholic beverages and various food vendors sling everything from funnel cakes and curly fries to barbecue and jumbo turkey legs.

And let’s not forget about the headlining act: the corn. The main draw on August 26 is the Chuck Siebrasse Corn Boil, named after a lifelong DeKalb resident and chairman of the Corn Boil for 25 years. From 11 am – 2 pm, guests can get their fill of free steamed sweet corn, which amasses to about 70 tons of cobs served. Festival hours are 3 – 11 pm August 25, 11 am – 11 pm August 26, and 11 am – 6 pm August 27. General admission to Corn Fest is free, but access to premium viewing areas near the soundstage is $10 a day or $25 for the weekend.

DeKalb Corn Fest/JPM photography
DeKalb Corn Fest/JPM photography
DeKalb Corn Fest/JPM photography

Drive time:

1 hour from Chicago.
2 hours from Milwaukee.

More things to do in DeKalb:

In addition to checking out the historic Egyptian Theatre, right in the heart of Corn Fest and host to free-to-attend performances from local dance troops and music groups, there’s plenty more to see and do in DeKalb beyond corn. For a different kind of history, the kind rooted in barbed wire, check out the Ellwood House Museum, an ornate Victorian home-turned-museum originally owned by barbed wire entrepreneur Isaac Ellwood. Today, the manse is open for tours and filled with decadent architecture and art exhibits, along with lush gardens and wine tastings on the terrace.

Outside, visitors have plenty of trails to stroll and woods to explore at parks and preserves like Adee’s Woods, the Afton Forest Preserve, and the Chief Shabbona Forest Preserve, or you can embark on a self-guided tour of the region’s barn quilts-there are a lot of them!

In nearby Waterman, you’ll find Honey Hill Orchard, one of the best orchards for apple-picking in all of Chicagoland, and home to quaint attractions like a country store, wagon rides, and a vintage barn wafting with cider donuts. There are also numerous other farms, home to corn mazes, pumpkins, and later in the year, Christmas trees.

Where to stay in DeKalb:

In addition to the basic comforts of budget-friendly chain hotels and motels, DeKalb County is home to some charming B&Bs, like Parkside Bed & Breakfast and Paper Doll House, while The Montcler Hotel provides a boutique-y experience-and cozy lodge vibe-in the town of Sandwich.

Where to eat in DeKalb:

Since one probably shouldn’t subsist on corn and jumbo turkey legs alone, you’d be wise to seek out some of the other dining options in town. In the morning, coffee shops and bakeries include homey Open Door Coffee, Angie’s Sugar Buzz Bakery, and Barb City Bagels, where scratch-made flavors run the gamut from the classic (everything, sesame, etc.) to the decidedly not classic (Hawaiian, sun-dried tomato, etc.).

Later, dining options take all sorts of shapes. Like a vintage Pullman Palace dining car from 1893. Bull Moose Bar & Grille, so named for the train that President Roosevelt used in his “Bull Moose Party” campaign in 1912, features all-day comfort food options, like caramel banana hot cakes, country-fried steak and eggs, mac & cheese, brisket sliders, and fried cheesecake. For more sweet nostalgia, the iconic Dairy Ripple is a longstanding institution known for its dipped ice cream cones, flurries, and malts, all adorned with googly eyes.

Another great option is The Dirty Bird, a deep-fried fixture known for its hand-battered tenders, pork tenderloin sandwiches, onion rings, and craft beer. Or you can veer upscale at the Ellwood Steak and Fish House, a handsome throwback of a dining room teeming with swanky Americana-like shrimp cocktail, rib-eye pork chops, and filet mignon.

To drink, DeKalb County boasts its fair share of boozy innovations. Sip for yourself at Waterman Winery, Byers Brewing, and Whiskey Acres, a distillery and tasting room in a pastoral barn-like setting.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Matt Kirouac is a Thrillist contributor.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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