Who can forget their first visit to the fair — a magical land of sights and sounds and smells beyond the reach of teachers, bosses, worries, and chores? There is nothing quite like that strange, veritable city that rises anew year after year on the outskirts of town to fill youths with wide-eyed wonder and adults with vivid memories of their own childhoods. For many people and many generations, the fair has occupied its own special place on the calendar and in the heart.
The American state fair is a conceptual curiosity, a celebration of agriculture that is at once a fantastic departure from the discipline and labor of the farming life. Even at the earliest fairs, agricultural displays and discussions competed for space and attention with horse races, carnivals, and shows. And innovations only widened the gap. The plowing contest became the tractor pull, and the horse race led to auto and motorcycle races and automobile stunt shows. Horse and hog contests blossomed into competitions among every kind of animal and vegetable, with baking and sewing contests right alongside. Like the prizewinning livestock and produce they showcased, state fairs expanded in size and number, becoming a national institution.
Agricultural fairs reach back to biblical times and promise to stretch far into the future. In America it was around the time of the Civil War when many of the country’s best-known and largest state fairs were first held. Before that, fairs were mostly local or county-wide affairs, more serious and less entertaining. But after the Civil War, the thrill shows, contests, and pageants that became such an integral part of our fair experience appeared to enliven the event.
The farming community began to shrink after World War I — a trend that accelerated after World War II. At the time of the Civil War, the vast majority of Americans supported themselves through agriculture; by 1940, only a quarter of all Americans lived on farms, and by 1980, that number was down to three of every hundred. Rural America was disappearing, and although fairs were thriving, the crowds in attendance were more often city or suburban dwellers who saw livestock about as often as they saw animals in zoos.
Fairs have changed with the people who have sponsored them, but tradition and innovation remain constant. In the 1860s and 1870s, fairs closed at dusk because gaslights and electricity were still decades in the future. Implements from that time, then considered revolutionary, live on in exhibits of agricultural history. By the 1950s, the Texas fair was installing a monorail, and the Indiana fair was displaying a replica of an atomic pile at an exhibit of nuclear energy. But at both fairs, the venerable Ferris wheel, invented at the turn of the century, was still a centerpiece of the midway. New meets old at the fair, and always takes something fresh from the encounter.
A retrospective of state fair snapshots and anecdotes includes a cavalcade of exciting, old, funny, heart-warming, startling, and amazing things. Monkeys dressed in hats danced to minstrel music at the Ohio State Fair in 1853. Monkeys drove miniature hot rods in California in the 1950s (the first aid tent, one year, treated 10 people for monkey bites, along with the usual hundreds of stomachaches and dozens of lost children).
Fairs held butter-making contests. A dairy company presented a butter sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt, posed with his foot on a dead lion; a live lion once rode in a racecar. Elsewhere, a butter sculptor carved a John Deere tractor. Fairs featured tractors when they were newfangled inventions that some farmers figured would never replace horses. Those same tractors appeared at displays of antique farm equipment 100 years later, where they evoked nostalgia for a simpler time.
Sure, fairs are corny — that’s why folks love them. Where else could you see a replica of the Statue of Liberty made of ears of corn? Or the state’s tallest corn stalk? Or watch contestants vie to slice off the longest apple peel? Or see a Liberty Bell made of apples?
Such attractions were irresistible.
Pretty girls wore new styles during fashion shows. Pretty girls in coochie shows wore not much at all. Pretty cows had their own events, as did fat cattle.
You could see the eruption of Mount Vesuvius depicted on a huge mural. The Battle of Manila in fireworks shot high into the night sky. A daredevil shot from a cannon. A car (the Torpedobile) shot from a cannon.
Big shots gave speeches. Trick shots entertained the crowds. Suffragettes rubbed elbows with prohibitionists; bootleggers offered shots of illicit liquor. Bamboozlers thrived. Bamboo novelty canes sold like hotcakes.
Parched fairgoers swilled draft beer and eyed draft horses. Draftees poured into fairgrounds during four wars, turning barns into barracks. One fairground became a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. At another fairground, a huge family campground has been popular for generations.
At fairs from Florida to Alaska, farmers and ranchers have shown enough livestock to fill 10,000 Noah’s arks, and gardeners enough jars of fruits and vegetables to build a pyramid for a pharaoh.
You can see cages of pigeons with names you’ve never heard: Oriental Frills, Modenas, Fantails, Birmingham Rollers, and White Kings.
You could have seen Blue Boy (the prizewinning hog in Phil Stong’s novel State Fair) or Old Oscar (the Iowa State Fair’s famous sturgeon, who spent 28 years as an attraction at the fair before dying in his tank on the last day of the fair in 1954). You can still peer up at Big Tex, the giant robot who greets people (in English and Spanish) at the Texas State Fair.
Honest Abe spoke at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1859 (he was paid $150, which included his expenses). A century later, the Kentucky State Fair held Abraham Lincoln look-alike contests.
Racers galore vied for ribbons, trophies, and loot; events featured horses, mules, camels, burros, dogs, boys, people riding on bikes or riding in wheelbarrows. Ostriches raced. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, an entrepreneur named E. R. Johnson of Fallbrook, California, did a steady business by serving omelets made from the eggs laid by his flock of 28 ostriches.
For generations, Americans took fairs to heart and expanded them in an unprecedented fashion. Along the way, the state fair became a piece of bedrock Americana, with elements so familiar that they seem quintessentially domestic.
The reason for this popularity is that, throughout their sprawling, tumultuous history, state fairs have always reflected the basic elements of the national character: the strengths and weaknesses, the common sense and faddishness, the unities and discords that have long marked Americans’ unique development as a culture.
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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.
Reprinted from The American State Fair by Derek Nelson, © Derek Nelson 2003.