The Great State Fair

Iowa's first fair was in Fairfield in October 1854. Six acres of land, a 250-foot-long shed, and a dirt racetrack hosted the simple livestock show of 100 horses, 11 pigs, and a handful of grain and implement displays. Nearly 10,000 Iowans traveled by foot, horseback, and covered wagon to this educational and social event. The main and only feature of entertainment was a women's riding competition.

In pioneering times, the fair location changed about every two years; and it was strictly an agricultural event. Men and women exchanged farming experiences during the evening sessions held in the city hall or church. Activities such as gambling were discouraged.

A Home for the Fair

By the late 1800s the Iowa State Fair began to change. Because of better transportation and increased population, the planners believed it was time for the fair to have a home. In 1879 Des Moines was chosen as the permanent site for the Iowa State Fair. Fireworks, bicycle races, hog-calling competitions, fiddling contests, and even locomotive collisions were added to the fair program.

The Fair Grows

Despite bad weather, poor harvests, and the beginning of World War I, rapid growth peaked during the first 30 years of the 1900s. Educational programs about topics other than agriculture became increasingly common. Ten new buildings were added to the grounds: the new Horticultural, Agricultural, and Dairy Building, were constructed in 1904; the new Machinery Hall was built in 1911; and the new Cattle Barn and Sale Pavilion was built in 1920. This show was so huge that in 1925 the Iowa State Fair and Exposition was renamed the Iowa State Fair and National Livestock Show.

In 1929 twenty-five thousand Iowans poured into the fairgrounds to celebrate the fair's 75th anniversary. Social clubs and volunteer groups created displays; a new midway was built. New musical shows and thrill events were featured. Building construction continued with a new poultry building. Machinery Hall was remodeled and became the Varied Industries Building. Over 500 people exhibited products in the space.

The Fair Takes a Break

The jubilee years of the fair were brought to a sudden halt as World War II gripped the nation in the 1940s. Plans for the 1942 fair were cancelled, and the fair was not held again until 1946. During this time the grounds were used for storing military equipment and ammunition. However, when the air force trucks finally pulled out and the fair gates opened once again, Iowans packed the fairgrounds. 

In the 1950s with television in the home and travel becoming quicker and more comfortable, people found other ways to spend their spare time. But the fair still attracted crowds with its emphasis on the importance of agriculture and local industries. By the 1960s not only Iowans, but people from other states and countries, began to show a new interest in the Iowa State Fair.

One of the Best

Over the years the Iowa State Fair has ranked among the best in the nation. Three movies have been made based on the state fair.

Awards for people with creative artistic ability were given. Many of Iowa's finest artists won prizes at the state fair, including Grant Wood. He won first place in oil painting two years in a row before he received national recognition for his painting "American Gothic."

Contests at the Fair

Contests related to regular farm work provided both entertainment and demonstrations of good skills. Plowing contests, hog-calling, horse-pulling, and sheep-shearing competitions have attracted fairgoers over the years. The hand-shearing contest has been a major feature of the sheep show for many years. In the 1920s two professors from the Iowa Experiment Station at Ames designed a machine to measure the pulling power of horses. Soon horse-pulling became a contest at the fair.

Fun at the Fair

In addition to the exhibits on display in the fair buildings, the midway and the grandstand offered fun and excitement. Horse racing became a popular event. Auto racing began in 1911. The addition of circus performances, wild west shows, vaudeville acts, and theatrical events has kept audiences delighted through the years.

At the early fairs, most people didn't find the food served in the dining hall very tasty. Many people also avoided the concession stands, which were simple tents with dirt floors. Fairgoers often brought a big picnic lunch from home rather than eat fair food. Eventually fair planners made rules requiring concession operators to keep their places clean and their food safe.

Young People Compete

In 1916 nearly 1000 young people entered the various 4-H livestock and grain competitions—a new feature at the Iowa State Fair. Today thousands of 4-H Club members enter their projects in county fair competitions. The projects judged best at these county fairs become entries at the Iowa State Fair.

The Campground

Most people attending the first state fair in Fairfield camped during their stay. The town was too small to have hotel rooms for all who came. Even if rooms had been available, most fairgoers did not have the money to pay for one. Instead, people pitched their tents or parked their wagons on the surrounding prairie lands.

At the end of each day the campground seemed to glow in the falling dusk, as hungry campers cooked dinner over campfires. As dusk faded, people gathered around the fire, making new friends and exchanging ideas about raising livestock and grain, about homemaking and about events of the day.

When Des Moines became the permanent fair location, a special tree-shaded area was set-aside for campers. Fair planners made campground improvements as the years passed, including concrete floors for tents, running water, public restrooms and showers, and electricity. Eventually large mobile homes and brightly colored nylon tents took the place of covered wagons and simple canvas shelters.

All Kinds of Machines

The increasing number of machinery exhibits caused the fair planners to decide on a permanent building to replace the canvas tents that stood over the machinery displays. In 1911 the new Machinery Hall opened. It covered six acres of land. New farm machinery, tools, and home appliances filled the hall for years. As time passed, the building became a showcase for all varieties of Iowa industries and it was renamed the Varied Industries Building in 1936.

In Machinery Hall Iowans also learned about new technology that would eventually affect their way of life. From this building the first state fair radio broadcast occurred. Later, in 1932, fairgoers witnessed a live broadcast of a television program. Two years later an alcohol-gasoline blend for motor fuel was among the exhibits. The display demonstrated the blending process and explained how alcohol was manufactured from corn and other crops.


  • Ingrid Aanensen, “The Great State Fair,” The Goldfinch 5, no. 1 (September 1983): 3-5.