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State Fair State of Mind

Published: June 25, 2009

Six-hundred-pound buttered cows, walleye-on-a-stick snacks, cow-birthing tents, and alligator wrestling can only mean one thing: It’s state fair season in America.

Ever since a New England farmer by the name of Elkanah Watson organized an exhibition of sheep under an elm tree in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1807, fairs have been drawing throngs to this generation-binding celebration of history, agriculture, and above all, Americana.

“It’s about tradition,” says photojournalist Arthur Grace who crisscrossed the country documenting the annual rite in photographs for his book, State Fair. And, of course, it’s about having a great time. “People leave their troubles at the gate. Once they pass into the entrance of a state fair, you see smiles come over their faces. It can be a magical place,” Grace says.

Oldest, biggest, quirkiest—each state clamors for its own superlative. In the showdown of hoedowns, here are seven to put on your calendar.

Indiana

Some fairs are cutting back, but not Indiana’s. The state is swinging open the gates for an extra five days this year and welcoming musical powerhouses such as Keith Urban and Kelly Clarkson, along with homegrown Hoosier entertainment. Homegrown is what it’s all about, from the nationally known livestock shows to a new Indiana Space Travels exhibition commemorating local contributions to America’s space exploration. Inside tip: Get an early start August 14 for the world’s largest drive-through breakfast.

Minnesota

The Minnesota fair is tightly woven into the fabric of the state’s history—and has its place in American history, too. Teddy Roosevelt delivered his “Speak Softly and Carry A Big Stick” speech at the fair in 1901. And native son F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about its “tumultuous Midway” and “aeroplanes that really left the ground” in his short story, A Night at the Fair, published in The Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1928. Today, livestock exhibitors and handicrafters still vie for coveted ribbons, and the art of overindulgence is in full swing. Haute cuisine is anything on a stick—from macaroni & cheese and alligator meat to scotch eggs and walleye—the state fish.

Iowa

More than a million people are expected to meet and mingle in this annual salute to the state’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment, and achievement. Among Iowa’s boasts? It’s the only state fair included in the bestseller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and the inspiration behind Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical State Fair. The life-size butter cow is here in all its creamery glory. Ditto the Double Ferris Wheel and one of the biggest livestock shows on the planet.

New York

Despite the metropolis 250 miles south of the fairgrounds, the Great New York State Fair at Syracuse is a reminder that agriculture remains vital to the state’s economy. The fair honors traditional music and homespun skills such as woodworking, spinning, and weaving. Returning favorites include Sky Pirates aerialists, the Harlem Wizards stunt basketball team, and chain saw sculptors, joined this year by extreme wakeboard demonstrations. And for the first time ever, business mixes with pleasure with a job fair featuring firms from across the state. Over 21? Don’t miss a taste of New York state wine slushies.

An Iowan artisan and her butter-sculpted cow.

An Iowan artisan and her butter-sculpted cow.
Courtesy: Iowa State Fair


Ohio

In this ode to all things Ohio, it’s about extremes, and that’s the fun of it. Fair veterans will get a first look at new attractions like the BMX Pros Bike and Board Trick Team, the fastest knitting competition, and sunflower seed distance spitting. And those who have their eye on the prize are always in good company. Last year’s fair drew more than 34,000 entries in open and junior competitions. Many relived the experience by sharing their favorite highlights on the Ohio State Fair Web site’s Memory Wall.

California

Since the first state fair in 1854, California’s big bash has been a showcase of Golden State history—but it’s not all about the past. It’s also about the here and now, which is why you might find graffiti art competitions, surf culture exhibitions, and multicultural presentations. This year’s theme is “Weird, Wild and Wacky,” and Californians are getting in on the act by contributing their oddest collections. Among them? Baby teeth, hotel soaps, and PEZ dispensers.

Texas

Everything about the State Fair of Texas is oversized, from its 52-foot iconic cowboy, “Big Tex,” welcoming visitors with a familiar “Howdy, folks” to its sky-high Ferris wheel, one of the tallest in North America. The fair, at 24 days, is also the longest one in the country. And you may need that time to experience it all. The fair is home to the great Red River Rivalry—the Texas versus Oklahoma University college football game—a 300,000-square-foot auto show with a history dating back more than 100 years and all the corn dogs you can eat.

Giving Back

State fairs are about good times—and good causes. This year, at least 10 college-bound students will each win a $2,500 scholarship, courtesy of the Oklahoma State Fair. The State Fair of Virginia awards scholarships to youths in 29 competition areas. And over the last 20 years, over 2,050 scholarships have been awarded totaling more than $1.7 million. Food drives help thousands who never even step onto the fairgrounds. The North Carolina State Fair holds a Food Lion Hunger Relief Day, one of the state’s largest one-day canned food drives, benefiting food banks to the tune of more than 2 million pounds since it was launched 13 years ago. At the Arizona State Fair, 20,000 admission tickets are distributed to nonprofit groups through a local television station. And on the annual Kiwanis Kids Day, some 2,000 special needs children enjoy free admission, complimentary lunch, toys, and rides.

Dollar-Stretching Value

State fairs are an entertainment bargain, and there are plenty of ways to make your dollar go farther. The Illinois State Fair, already inexpensive at only $3 per adult, offers a Mega Pass good for all carnival rides for the entire fair for $60. Buy it in advance and save an extra $10. If you’re South Dakota-bound, get in free every night after 8 p.m. Carnival rides go on through midnight and beer garden entertainment runs until 2 a.m. Some, like the Kansas State Fair, offer free parking, season passes, and special dollar days. Fans of the North Carolina State Fair save $2 off the regularly priced $7 adult admission by purchasing tickets online prior to opening day at etix.com. Seniors enjoy free admission every day. All state fairs offer some kind of promotion or discounted day so check their Web sites before you go. And if you can resist the knee-weakening aromas of the food vendors, bring a picnic basket and save even more.

Not sure when your state fair is being held? Here’s information for all 50 states.

Alabama State Fair September 18-27, 2009
Alaska State Fair August 27-September 7, 2009
Arkansas State Fair October 9-18, 2009
Arizona State Fair October 16-November 8, 2009. Closed Mondays.
California State Fair August 21-September 7, 2009
Colorado State Fair August 28-September 7, 2009
Delaware State Fair July 23-August 1, 2009
Florida State Fair February 4-15, 2010
Georgia National Fair October 8-18, 2009
Hawaii State Fair (Maui) October 1-4, 2009
Idaho State Fair (East) September 5-12, 2009
Idaho State Fair (West) August 21-30, 2009
Illinois State Fair August 14-23, 2009
Indiana State Fair August 7-23, 2009
Iowa State Fair August 13-23, 2009
Kansas State Fair September 11-20, 2009
Kentucky State Fair August 20-30, 2009
Louisiana State Fair October 22-November 8, 2009
Maryland State Fair August 28-September 7, 2009
Michigan State Fair August 28-September 7, 2009
Minnesota State Fair August 27-September 7, 2009
Mississippi State Fair October 7-18, 2009
Missouri State Fair August 13-23, 2009
Montana State Fair July 24-August 2, 2009
Nebraska State Fair August 28-September 7, 2009
Nevada State Fair August 26-30, 2009
New Jersey State Fair July 31-August 9, 2009
New Mexico State Fair September 11-27, 2009
New York State Fair August 27-September 7, 2009
North Carolina State Fair October 15-25, 2009
North Dakota State Fair July 24-August 1, 2009
Ohio State Fair July 29-August 9, 2009
Oklahoma State Fair September 17-27, 2009
Oregon State Fair August 28-September 7, 2009
Pennsylvania Farm Show January 9-16, 2010
South Carolina State Fair October 14-25, 2009
South Dakota State Fair September 3-7, 2009
Tennessee State Fair September 11-20, 2009
Texas State Fair September 25-October 18, 2009
Utah State Fair September 10-20, 2009
Vermont State Fair September 4-13, 2009
Virginia State Fair September 24-October 4, 2009
West Virginia State Fair August 14-22, 2009
Wisconsin State Fair August 6-16, 2009
Wyoming State Fair August 8-15, 2009

Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine do not have official state fairs. The Big E, the largest fair in the Northeast, acts as a stand-in for these states and includes exhibits, agriculture, history, and entertainment from throughout New England. Learn more about the Big E, which is from September 18- October 4.

The state of Washington does not have an official state fair. Instead, it has multiple large fairs including the Puyallup Fair, the Evergreen State Fair, and the Central Washington State Fair.

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  • What i like the most of the internet is that it is possible to find things that i do not know about but at the same time interesting.

  • AJ

    “Iowa’s fair is also known as “America’s classic state fair”
    because the event features all of the traditional activities
    associated with state fairs in a park-like 400-acre setting (the Fair’s home since 1886).” — from the website.

    It’s got that old brick architecture, and more food than you’ll have time to try. Definitely something to see.

  • Norma

    Our famiy enjoys state fairs, especially Indiana where we have been twice although we live in South Carolina. We like Wisconsin State Fair, also, and have been there twice as well. Growing up in Illinois, the state fair there was a destination of joy. Our daughter and son-in-law want to take a tour of the state fairs in the Midwest some day. It is all fun and better than our state fair.

  • Janice ANDERSON

    On page 45 of thE july/ August issue there was a picture of the beatles and a state fair queen in 1964. It would be interesting to know who the girl is and what she has done with her life. J

  • Bella

    Actually many people in Ohio would argue that the best fair here is not actually the Ohio State fair but the Canfield Fair located near Youngstown, Ohio. It draws huge crowds and has more to offer than the Ohio State fair.