It isn’t the oldest. That would be the New York State Fair, dating from 1841.
It isn’t held first. The California State Fair is held annually in July. This year, it’s July 12-28. Or last: the North Carolina State Fair will be October 17-27.
It isn’t the biggest. The Iowa State Fair (with some 1.13 million visitors) is #7. And rated by Attendance as % of State Population, Iowa’s 35.93% is high, but still only 3rd place.
And according to blt: the blog for lifestyle and travel, it isn’t the best. The Iowa State Fair is ranked #4 among the The 20 Best State Fairs in America.
Those who regularly attend the Iowa State Fair expect all manner of fried food and especially food on a stick. According to the fair website, there are more than 80 varieties of food on a stick are available this year, from apple pie on a stick to golden fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick. There are more than 70 new foods this year, including Bacon Wrapped Pig Wings (Don’t ask. IDK.) and Bauder’s Ultimate Bacon Crisp (ice cream), Big Grove Brewery Deep Fried Apple Pie Craft Beer and Butter Cake Shake, Chocolate Brownie Waffle Stick and Fried Avocado Slices.
Another big draw is a visit to the life-size butter cow, 600 pounds of pure Iowa butter created each year by a local sculptor. It’s a tradition that began in 1911. Once it’s sculpted, the butter cow can be stored and reused for up to 10 years! In addition to the butter cow, one or more companion butter sculptures are on view in the Agriculture Building.
The Iowa State Fair features an Agriculture Expo: cattle and other livestock, an Animal Learning Center, and an Avenue of Breeds that represents 100 species, including 100 to 120 animals.
But face it, none of these account for the national attention focused on this one fair. There seem to be two factor that focus the spotlight on Iowa—and neither is directly related to what state fairs are all about.
One, Iowa holds the first state political caucuses in the nation, in February. Thus, the Iowa State Fair is an opportunity for political candidates (both state and national) to appeal to potential voters, as well as attract canvassers, event planners—any campaign volunteers.
Two, The Des Moines Register has a Political Soapbox at the fair. The Soapbox is a long-standing Iowa tradition. Stacked bales of hay provide a platform for people to address passersby. This year, there is a public schedule of the appearances of more than 20 Democratic Presidential Candidates. Each will have 20 minutes to address the crowds, plus limitless opportunities to mingle and press the flesh.
There’s a long history here. Calvin Coolidge spoke in 1925. Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with other politicians at the fair concerning the Midwestern drought. Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech in 1954. Jimmy Carter visited the fair in 1976—after winning the Democratic nomination.
And the benefits may flow both ways. Three years ago, when Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump all came to the fair the same day, it set an attendance record.
But not everyone thinks the Iowa State Fair and political candidate connection is a good thing. Everything presidential candidates do is under the media microscope. “…at events such as this one we get into a particularly intense cycle of insincere playacting and brutal theater criticism…” Candidates are praised or savaged based on their performances. “Is the candidate wearing properly casual clothing and shoes? Does she seem at ease perusing the booths and chatting with passersby, as though there weren’t five cameras in her face? How Middle American were the foods she chose to eat? Did she stuff them in her mouth with the proper enthusiasm?”
Waldman’s point is that a performance is no basis for judging a person and his/her suitability and promise as president. “And consider that there might be better ways of figuring out who you should vote for.”
And please note: although 35.93% of state citizens attend the fair, fewer than 16% of Iowans turned out for the 2016 caucuses. There may be numerous reasons people have difficulty participating in caucuses, the fact is that they may be irrelevant. Minnesota, for example, which consistently have the highest voter turnout, in 2016 had only 8% caucus turnout.
So why did I write this blog? I like fairs, and this year—more than ever before—I’m aware of the Iowa State Fair.