The Midway's Sensational Entertainment

Our Great State Fair | Clip
Aug 4, 2023 | 4 min

Fair organizers realized it would be advantageous to have more entertainment to attract people to the fair. They worked hard to stay true to their vision of a strictly educational exposition. Fairgoers, on the other hand, had other ideas and were willing to pay for them.


[Chris Rasmussen, Historian] And then the people organizing the fair realized that in order to attract people to the fair it might be advantageous to have more entertainment.

(Crowd gathered in front of a tent for the "Paris Dancing Girls" act)

[Narrator] Fair organizers worked hard to stay true to their original vision, a strictly educational exposition.

(Man stands next to a four-tier display of large pumpkins, squash and other vegetables)

(Display booths for Cereals, Alfalfa and Forage and Root Crops)

Fairgoers, though, have always been keen to indulge in entertainment and willing to pay for it.

(Boys stand next to ticket 10 cent ticket booth at the entrance of "Dion's Collection of Freak and Wild Animal Exhibition")

With money to be made, vendors would still set up attractions, only outside the grounds. Eventually, J.M. Shaffer admitted the modern fair needed to offer more than just education.

(Fairgoers ride in a Mason car up a ramp)

(Human Freaks Main Side Show entrance, woman with snake draped on her shoulders)

He said, "The day of the American people is past to look upon pumpkins and small onions. We are living in a fast age and attractions and humbugs are the order of the day. The bigger the humbug, the more we take to it. We hope to give such an exhibition that will please and tickle people."

(Tent with large banner "Dick Mott's Moving Pictures")

Money talks and since the fair couldn't profit from things that happened on the other side of the fence, they invited the least offensive sideshows inside, but in their own section, the Midway.

(Tapestry with illustration of horse and text "8 Footed Horseā€)

(Fairgoers ride, and stand in line to ride, on a Ferris wheel and carousel)

[Thomas Leslie, Architect and Historian] The Midway is one of the most fascinating stories about the fair and it too goes back to the 1893 exposition in Chicago. The Midway at the Columbian Exposition was a park where the city let just kind of anyone come and sell anything. The first Ferris wheel is part of the Chicago Midway.

(A rollercoaster, carousel and rides "The Whip" and "Ye Old Mill" pictured on the Midway)

The Midway at the State Fair was designed exactly for that, to bring in outside vendors, to make money by renting space to them and to basically let the vendors do almost whatever they wanted to make money off of fairgoers.

[Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa] Games of chance are coming in as well, though Iowans have a long fear of gambling and in fact, Bingo was illegal in Iowa through the 1970s. So, gambling may be taking place, but even games of chance are viewed with moral concern.

[Narrator] For many, the Midway is a place of wonder and excitement, a place to experience things that are new, exotic and strange.

(Children ride in cars in a circle while eating ice cream, a double Ferris wheel spins in the background, a tent advertises a Lady Sword Swallower)

Others would find it repugnant. There would often be debate over how much was too much and whether or not it went too far.

(Sign reads "Adults Only")

[Thomas Leslie] Burlesque began to be a big Midway draw, one that of course drew a lot of controversy and a lot of anger about the slipping morality of the fair.

[Leo Landis] In the 1930s, there's a burlesque dancer, Jade Rhodora.

(Rhodora appears in a newspaper wearing a wrap and showing a lot of skin) 

In 1935, a legislator from Le Mars has heard that she is taking off all her clothes and this is terribly scandalous. And when you want to talk about cheap entertainment, there are naked women in a show at the Iowa State Fair? And the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribute both run photos of Ms. Rhodora. And even those photos that run in the newspaper are pretty scandalous for 1935. So, you've got this period where you want to have wholesome entertainment, but the boundaries are being pushed in different ways, even through the 1920s, 1930s at the Iowa State Fair.