Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

Ferris wheel and fairgrounds at night


Earlier this week I posted a blog about the Iowa State Fair, because it is so in the news just now. But it turned my thoughts to fairs in general.

Writers note: fairs are a national cultural phenomenon, but with regional differences worthy of attention. As you read this blog, think how a state fair might fit your plot.


Catherine Pond
Catherine Pond


How did State Fairs start?


Kentucky farmwife Catherine Pond wrote about this topic. She traces the beginnings of State Fairs to the New York State Fair of 1841. She notes that State Fairs are big, raucous events in large agricultural states while smaller states and county fares are quieter. Nevertheless, fares at both levels offer fair food, wild rides, tractor pulls, 4-H and other judging events (pies, canned goods, quilts, flowers, pigs, cows, etc.).

“In addition to focusing on agricultural offerings and economy, in the 19th century the state and county fairs also became showcases for recipe judging and all manner of domestic arts.”


How Did State Fairs Start screenshot of article and canned food with prize ribbons



This site defines State Fairs as a larger version of a county fair, often including only exhibits or competitors that have won in their categories at local county fairs. If you move on to the WikipediA article on county fairs you are directed to “Agricultural Show.”


American Traditions: A Short History of Agricultural Fairs


The word fair can be traced back to the Latin feria, meaning “holy day.” These events consisted of games, competitions, and festivities. The Roman feriae of the Middle Ages morphed into a place when foreign merchants could buy, sell and trade with the public along with the earlier activities.


Fairs in America


In the U.S., agricultural fairs started to catch on in the early 19th century, when the first one was held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Organized by Elkanah Watson in 1807, it was a small fair featuring only sheep shearing demonstrations.


Black and white portrait of Elkanah Watson


Watson urged other farmers to showcase their livestock, where they were judged and recognition awarded. Later county fairs had merchants selling goods and activities for men, women, and children. Soon many small, rural communities held fairs from the Northeast to the Midwest.


The upshot was the New York State Fair of 1841, held in Syracuse for two days. It featured animal exhibits and speeches intended to educate people about agriculture. It included products for both farms and homes. It was “a great success” with 10,000-15,000 attendees. Today that fair attracts 1.2 million visitors, one of the biggest in the country. It spans nearly two weeks, ending on Labor Day


photograph of a cow


From their roots in agriculture. fairs grew to include new technology such as electricity and airplanes. Then, too, entertainment came to fairs: musical performances, horse races, carnival rides, and vaudeville entertainers. Today there are approximately 2,000 state and county fairs nationwide.


Texas State Fair at night
Texas state fair at night (Photo: wickedchimp from Dallas, Texas, United States [CC BY 2.0])

The Biggest State Fairs


  1. The State Fair of Texas (2.25 million visitors). The number of visitors may depend in part on the fact that this fair runs for 24 days.
  2. Minnesota State Fair (2 million attendees). Established in 1859, it celebrates the Land of 10,000 Lakes and features more than 300 concession booths.
  3. The Big E (1.5 million visitors) a.k.a. Eastern States Exposition. It includes all 6 New England States (Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire) each with its “state day” showcasing individual histories and traditions.
  4. New York State Fair (1.2 million visitors)
  5. Tulsa State Fair (1.15 million visitors) a.k.a. the Tulsa County Free Fair, overshadows the smaller Oklahoma State Fair.


FYI: State Fair of Virginia has fewer than 400,000 attendees.


Navajo Nation Fair parade
The 65th Navajo Nation Fair Parade. Window Rock, Arizona. (Photo by Jared King / NNWO [CC BY-ND 2.0])

Which states have the most fair participation by citizens?


  1. Navajo Nation Fair (Arizona): 57.58% of Navajo Nation
  2. Alaska State Fair (Palmer): 40.68%
  3. North Dakota State Fair: 39.64%
  4. Minnesota State Fair: 36.70%
  5. Iowa State Fair: 35.93%


FYI: Virginia State Fair: 2.86%—which still exceeds 16 other fairs. Some of these are from states that have multiple fairs.

Kentucky State Fair horse show
Kentucky State Fair horse show, 2018 (Photo: Communications Department, Kentucky Venues)


“The 20 Best State Fairs in America”: Top 5


  1. Kentucky State Fair: incredible horse shows, chef demonstration, live music from popular artists. It started more than 100 years ago with trick bears, award-winning horses, and the Parade of Champions.
  2. The Great New York State Fair
  3. State Fair of Texas
  4. Iowa State Fair
  5. Minnesota State Fair
person on horseback at fairgrounds
Iowa State Fair image library

These—and virtually all others—now offer free live concerts, deep fried everything, carnival rides, and crazy competitions based on state identity.


two men log rolling at state fair
Minnesota State Fair


Fair = Fair Food


Iowa State Fair image library

For many, fair food is the highlight of the visit. Classics like funnel cake, burgers, corn dogs, candy apples and candy are everywhere. But there is always a local twist: wine slushies in California, a beef Reuben burger in Nebraska, maple syrup soft serve in Vermont. And offerings are ever more exotic: fried dough injected with Pepsi, chocolate-dipped scorpions, alcohol fried in pocketed pretzel dough, the Indiana Hot Beef Sundae (mashed potatoes, marinated beef, gravy, cheese, corn “sprinkles” and a tomato “cherry” on top).


chocolate peanut butter buckeyes


My personal favorites are the “Buckeyes” found at Ohio fairs—Ohio being the Buckeye State. They have peanut butter centers and chocolate shells that cover all but the required tan spot.


For more information, search fair food online. You can get info by state.


My personal connections to fairs


The only time I went to the Ohio State Fair I was well into my twenties. Most of my fair connections are with the Fairfield County Fair. First held in Lancaster, Ohio, the second week of October, 1851, it’s one of the oldest county fairs still operating. This year it will be October 6-12. It is known as The Last and Best of the Season, being arguably the last county fair in the country.


This fair includes bull riding; truck, tractor, and horse pulls; demolition derbies; concerts; band; horse races; and judging of companion animals, farm products, foods, swine, poultry, garden clubs, pygmy goats; as well as a veterans celebration, auction, and monster truck throwdown–and that’s just the first two days!



My sister was born during Fair Week. My mother and sister were taken home from the hospital by ambulance, which swung through the fairgrounds on the way. My sister celebrates her birthday by visiting the fair in the fall. So perhaps her connection is stronger than mine.


On the other hand, the earliest picture I have of me is my mother holding me in a fair photo booth—the sort where you put in coins and get four postage-stamp-sized pictures. One of my favorites is the picture of me and my sister some years later—not looking happy to be there.


photograph of two girls


I walked through the fairgrounds holding hands with my boyfriend. One year I won a blue ribbon for my 4-H entry of homemade apple sauce. Every year I envied my best friend Sharon whose 4-H project was a milk cow she raised. She got to sleep in the animal barn with her cow and all the other kids who had animals entered. Getting a broken foot when her cow stepped on her seemed a negligent price to pay. I played percussion in the high school marching band that every October marched around the racetrack during the opening ceremonies, often sweltering in our purple wool uniforms trimmed in gold.



Bottom Line for Writers: if you have a character who has a particular attachment to an annual event, such as a fair, be sure to personalize it.

Fair Game

cake on a stick at the state fair
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that the Iowa State Fair is a happening thing right now? And how many state fairs—other than your own—are you aware of? But Iowa? Definitely. And why might that be?
state fairground photograph

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 travelit isn’t the best. The Iowa State Fair is ranked #4 among the The 20 Best State Fairs in America.

children eating cake on a stick at a state fair

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.

sculpture of a cow made from butter
Sculpture by Sarah Pratt (Iowa State Fair image library)

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.

man standing on hay bales at a state fair

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.

screenshot from Washington Post op-ed section about Iowa State Fair

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.

vivian lawry typewriter
Bottom line for writers: I hope you find something of interest—and maybe even use—in this blog.