The Fairest of the Fairs–And the Winner Is…..The Iowa State Fair!


Competition is good for the soul even among writing friends. I learned a long time ago that when competition is with only one person, it is best to go last. That allows me to know how much I have to exert myself. Unfortunately when some one really good goes before you, it is demoralizing at best and depressing at worse. But since I accepted a challenge with Nancy about the fairest of the state fairs, here we go.

If you have never been to a state fair, you have no idea what you have missed. The Iowa State fair borrows the best ideas from all other states and then uses the creativity and intelligence of the average Iowan and kicks the idea up a few notches. As a consequence, if you can endure the heat and humidity of an Iowa day in the summer, there is something for you.

Whether it is a short-course on agriculture, a life-size sculpture made from butter, an outhouse pushing contest, the challenge of competition in cooking, sewing, woodwork, and the arts, a culinary connoisseur’s haven, more midway thrills than the human stomach can endure, exposure to the best livestock in America, a plethora of country and pop music performers, car races, horse races, and much more, the world flocks to Iowa to see the best.

Farmers in Iowa look at going to the State Fair with as much seriousness as a Moslem considers a visit to Mecca during his/her lifetime. The Iowa fair started in 1854, before the Civil War was fought.

The internationally acclaimed Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. Annually attracting more than a million people from all over the world, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is Iowa’s great celebration, a salute to the best state in the midwest.

The Iowa State Fair, the inspiration for the original novel State Fair by Iowan Phil Stong, three motion pictures, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical, is without a doubt the country’s most famous state fair.

National media often ranks the Iowa Fair as one of the top events in the country. In 2004, USA Weekend named the event the #2 choice for summer fun in America, topping New York City’s Times Square, Cedar Point Amusement Park Resort in Ohio, and Disneyland in California.

Midwest Living magazine named the Fair one of the “Top 30 Things Every Midwesterner Should Experience.” The Fair is also the only fair listed in The New York Times best-selling travel book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and the subsequent travel book, 1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before you Die.

Iowa’s Fair is also known as “America’s classic state fair” because the event features all the traditional activities associated with state fairs in a park-like, 450-acre setting (the Fair’s home since 1886). The grounds and the adjoining 160 acres of Campgrounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the buildings pre-date World War I; many are priceless examples of American exposition-style architecture.

Throughout its history, the Fair has been a unique institution, serving to educate, inform and entertain people from all walks of life. It is an outstanding agricultural showplace, boasting one of the world’s largest livestock shows. Also home to the largest art show in the state, the Fair showcases visual and performing arts with a variety of special exhibits and activities. Each year, hundreds of manufacturers and industrial representatives clamor to rent coveted exhibit space.

Several ground stages feature more than $500,000 worth of spectacular entertainment free with gate admission. Performers and dynamic track events thrill thousands of fans in the Grandstand (Iowa’s original outdoor concert venue). Nearly 600 exhibitors and concessionaires feature quality merchandise and tasty foods. Hundreds of displays, exhibitions, demonstrations, unique attractions and all kinds of competition – for fun, for ribbons and for the pride of being chosen best – make Iowa’s Fair one of the biggest and greatest.

I attended the 100 anniversary of the fair in 1954 at the age of 9. Approximately 500,000 people attended that year. Unfortunately I was at the Illinois State fair when Roy Rogers appeared in grandstand show in 1959.

Our family’s annual vacations, except for one trip to Colorado, included a week at either the Iowa or Illinois State Fair. We alternated between the two. It was 132 miles to the Illinois fair and 166 to the Iowa fair from our home in southeast Iowa. That was a long trip for little boy. I can remember the effort to spot the golden domes of the capitol building of either Des Moines or Springfield signaling that we were entering the capitol city and hence close to the fair.

Long before most people had RV’s and trailers, the state fairs had acres and acres available for camping. In our case our family on my mother’s side always rented an 18 x 18 foot tent where we all slept on army cots and where the women cooked most of our meals with goods brought from our farms. My folks would buy a one week pass that allowed all family members daily entrance into the fair grounds, just a short walk down the hill from “tent city.”

The food selections have changed radically from then until now. Then we chose carefully between Carmeled Corn, Lemonade, frozen malts, and cotton candy, sweet corn. Now you can buy 70 different foods served on a stick at one of more than 200 food venders. s exotic choices such as deep-fried oreos, double bacon corn dogs, smoked turkey legs, Iowa pork chops, Apple Pie on a Stick, Blooming Onions, Caramel Apples on a Stick, Cheese Curds, crab fritters, Deep-fried Twinkie on-a-stick, funnel cakes, Dutch letters, fried pork tenderloins, and fried peanut butter/jelly sandwiches. This is to just name a few.

Now I need to concede that the Illinois state fair far exceeds the Iowa State Fair in two somewhat significant ways. The first way has to do with their Girlie Side Shows. The Illinois fair had for a few years a girlie show on the midway. I always figured that Illinois had that act while Iowa didn’t because Illinois must have had more of what my mom called “hussies.” Now these were lewd brazzen women that specialized in “personal revelations of their big tops.” Well, that was quite an attraction for my cousin and myself since we had not seen anything naked other than our farm animals. The carney barker would stand on the stage in front of the “hussy tent” and call his redheads, blonds, and brunettes to come out to show a hint of what could be seen inside. Naturally, this was a sideshow only for adult males. But some enterprising young pubescent early teens, namely my cousin and myself, quickly developed a plan to check out this show.

We snuck away in the morning from the campsite with a couple of canvas tarps that were used to cover the back of our pickups on the trip so if we drove in rain our gear would not get wet. Then, prior to the 1 p.m. show we snuck under the back of the tent and inched our way, almost blindly, to a location near the left side of the stage where there were no chairs to block our view. We had cut a couple of peep holes in each canvas so we could sit quietly on the ground near the side of the tent with hopes that everyone would just think that we were just piles of the tarps had been left as a part of the set-up. It was a pretty sweet compact room with a view until midway through the show my cousin got the urge to use the bathroom. And, without telling me, he created a small stream running from our hideouts toward the crowd of distracted men. Yep, there is room for a taraddidle in almost every story.

I also have to admit that the Illinois fair is also the strongest when it comes to the husband calling contest. Here is a sampling:

My grandfather Fleenor was a first class land trader and entrepreneur. And, he taught my cousin the importance of never spending more money than you earned. Over the years we developed a sophisticated strategy of how to make money at the expense of the midway game shysters. There was one money maker that we used as our primary source to triple or quad-drupple our money on a given day. So, we could take the five day allowance of $10 that our parents gave us and turn it into $40 or more. With this we could try the double ferris wheel, the Side Winder, and Halley’s Comet. Rides that would never have fit into the budget our cash-strapped allowance provided by our parents. Here was our major ploy. There was one popular game that resembled a crane with a gravel bucket that dropped when a crank was turned in an effort to scoop up a prize. Unfortunately, the bucket always seemed to drop where was no prize except for where the people wanted to let people win just enough to draw interest from passing crowds. We studied the game and learned that cranes moved methodically inch by inch around the arc from one side to the other. Then, by simple patience and observation, we could watch while others spent there money and then left in discouragement just before the point where we would pay our dime and pull out the gift that the barkers would buy back for a quarter. It proved to be our gateway to a free week of frolic at the fair.

I was fascinated by the barking, cussing, and threats of the sulky drivers as they raced around the track. On one occasion, my father and I were standing along the rail when one driver yelled at the cart and horse in front of him. “Either move over, or I am going to let my horse run right over you!” As they moved ahead and out of hearing, the crazy driver of the faster horse actually ran his cart right up and over the left wheel of the leading driver causing quite an entanglement. Obviously the leading driver was unwilling to make room for the faster driver. I wonder if one–Terry Teeple–was at that race.

Now I could go on to talk about the competition for the largest pumpkin–yep, a 1,323 pumpkin raised in Iowa. Or, I could talk about the 1,335 pound boar. I guess you could say he would be capable to “litter” up the place.

I could go on to write about the years when our attention turned from the midway and the observation of farm animals to the exploration the beautiful 4-H girls pranced around showing their prize figures. Obviously, the fair got better and better until one of those girls convinced me to say “I do.” And, that was the end of my escapades at the fair.

So, let me close with the following evaluation of State Fairs. After retiring Jim Koppel from Moline, IL, visited all 50 of the state fairs. He used 100 criteria in making his decision.  And here is a list of his top five.  #1  The Iowa State Fair       #2   Alaska    #3   New York State Fair    #4  Minnesota   #5   Texas State Fair.  Opps.  I am saddened to report that the Illinois State Fair did not make his list.  An autobiographical “taraddidle” by Bob Watkins

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One thought on “The Fairest of the Fairs–And the Winner Is…..The Iowa State Fair!

  1. Sam Hong August 22, 2016 at 10:11 pm Reply

    It has been over 40+ years since we went to the Calif. State Fair. It was not that good.

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