Our Great State Fair
Our Great State Fair explores the history of Iowa's biggest event - the annual showcase of our state's best in agriculture, industry, entertainment and achievement. The story begins in 1854, as an experimental agricultural exposition in Fairfield, and continues into the 21st century as a statewide celebration in Des Moines.
[Thomas Leslie] The Iowa State Fair is the biggest thing in Iowa.
[Reporter] 60,000 Iowans can't be wrong. It's Thrill Day at the State Fair.
(Race car speeds down the Grandstand track and up a ramp through fire)
(Kids screaming as they slide down the Giant Slide)
[Connie Boesen] It encompasses life in Iowa, but also brings everybody together in a great way.
(Crowd cheers as people compete in the outhouse races)
[John Putney] It provides opportunities for both young and old to fulfill some of their dreams.
[Contest Participant] Yay! I have tried for years to win this contest!
[Leo Landis] The livestock, it is still a place to see cattle and hogs that are top of the industry.
[Judge] Congratulations, young man! Nice job!
[Thomas Leslie] Everything that makes the state what it is I think you can find here.
(Sarah Pratt sculpts the butter cow)
And that goes for agriculture but it also goes for food and it goes for entertainment and it goes for people.
(Historic photographs appear : Two men playing violins; a young Polk county woman in a chef's hat holding baked bread; a toddler peeking out of a canvas tent; and a young woman pushing a wagon full of cut flowers)
(A white building with a sign that says "Pioneer Hall" appears)
[Regina Pirtle] This is a magnificent barn and it's almost as though the barn has arms and it just reaches out and hugs you and says, "You're a part of this now."
(Couples square dancing in the barn)
(An elderly man helps a young child play a violin)
[Gary Slater] We don't have the mountains of Colorado, we don't have the lakes of Minnesota, but we have a celebration that people have put their heart and soul into to make it the best state fair in the country.
(Teenage girl wins a carnival game)
(Young boy watches as man fires a shot while riding a horse in the ring)
[Puppet] Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it's showtime!
[Chris Rasmussen] It's a place that many of us have come since we were small children and we see things that are familiar, that haven't changed much since we were small children, and other things that are new and innovative and different about the fair.
(Children ride on a small train and a carousel)
(Historic photos shows crowd by booths with signs, "Wonder Bars 10 cents, ice cream on a stick dipped in chocolate rolled in fine mixed nuts)
(Political candidate walks through crowd)
And of course that's, in a sense, what history is about. It's about the things that change and the things that endure.
[Chuck Offenburger] On top of all that it's just fun. It really is.
(Text on screen: Our Great State Fair)
[Announcer] Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.
(Text on screen: June 10, 2020)
[Man 1] The decision is pretty monumental, the first time since World War II that the Iowa State Fair has been canceled for this year. Sorry to report that, but it is what it is.
[Narrator] The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were a time of great uncertainty. The Iowa State Fair Board had to decide whether or not to hold a Fair in 2020. The health and safety of all the attendees, vendors, volunteers and staff was at risk. And they stood to lose money either way. The fair had only missed 5 years in its 166-year history. What would summer in Iowa be like without the Fair?
(Fair board voting on whether or not to cancel the 2020 Iowa State Fair)
(Scenes of an empty fairground, grandstand and giant slide)
Would it still be summer? Would it still be Iowa? To understand what that was such a difficult decision to make, we have to go back to 1853.
(Empty path leading up to Expo Hill and Pioneer Hall)
(The sun rises over Iowa fields)
Iowa was a brand new state and growing fast. 150,000 new residents had just settled here, hoping to start a new life.
(People on horses and wagons full of possessions next to wood-frame buildings)
Homesteaders from the Eastern United States and Europe seeking land, opportunity and religious freedom west of the Mississippi River. The 1850s were a transformative time in American history. Many people sought to make our nation a better place. Movements like Women's Suffrage and the Abolition of Slavery were gaining ground. Most of the early settlers were farmers attracted to Iowa's fertile soil. How would farmers seize the untapped potential of what could be grown and raised here?
[Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa] Most farmers at the time are raising whatever they can get from livestock and crops. And so, how do you improve things? Let's bring people together, let's have a festival and share ideas and knowledge.
[Narrator] Back east, counties and states had begun holding agricultural fairs to improve livestock and crops. The Berkshire Agricultural Society organized what many accept as the first American Fair in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1810.
[Thomas Leslie, Architect and Historian] If you were trying to boost your agricultural economy, one way to do that was to bring farmers together to compare notes and to trade knowledge, but also to compete against one another, that if you set a high bar you want to grow a better ear of corn than your neighbor.
[Narrator] By 1853, every free state in the union had a state agricultural society, except Iowa. Thomas Clagett from Keokuk and J.M. Shaffer from Fairfield believed Iowa should have a state fair. In December of 1853, they invited Iowa's county societies to meet for the purposes of starting a statewide agricultural society.
(Newspaper clipping text on screen: A meeting of Delegates from the various Agricultural Societies in this State is to be held at Fairfield on Wednesday, the 28th, for the purpose of forming a State Agricultural Society. Wapello County is entitled to nine delegates. Who will volunteer to go? Don't be afraid of too many going.)
J.M. Shaffer wrote, "Shall the resources of other states be developed, their wealth increased and their people elevated in the scale of intellectual being, and ours stands still?" Iowa would not be left behind. Clagett and Shaffer were not farmers, but they both understood the economic benefit of having a statewide exhibition.
[Chris Rasmussen, Historian] In the late 19th century, a lot of Americans believed that the Midwest was the region of the country that was likely to emerge as the most successful and influential part of the United States. It had vast resources and it had growing cities like Chicago.
[Narrator] Plans came together and the Iowa State Agricultural Society was founded. Their first order of business was planning a state fair. Shaffer and Clagett imagined a grand event held in Fairfield, which incidentally was called Fairfield before it was ever home to a fair. With a budget of $323, they decided to begin a three-day event on October 25, 1854.
[Mark Shafer, Carnegie Historical Museum, Fairfield] Getting here would have been a huge undertaking.
(Man riding a wagon pulled by a donkey maneuvers through ruts in a dirt road)
October is a fairly dry month. Harvest would probably be over, so farmers would have grain and pumpkins and so forth to come and show. They didn't have hogs separated by breed, they were just pigs, just swine, whereas chickens I think they had 45 breeds of chicken that were on display and of course the horses were a big deal and the cattle, there were lots of breeds of cattle and there were sheep.
[Leo Landis] You want to showcase animals, you want to showcase crops, you want to showcase machinery and you want to showcase domestic articles. So, even from those earliest days, the Iowa State Fair was promoting improved products and work by men and women.
[Narrator] The 1854 fair was first and foremost a scientific agricultural exhibition. Having fun was not the goal, yet. But it was impressive with unusual and entertaining events like a dog and bear fight and a ladies equestrian competition.
[Leo Landis] It wasn't unusual to see a woman riding a horse, but to have a group of women competing was a pretty interesting event for a group of Iowans in 1854 to see.
[Mark Shafer] And basically, they rode the horse around the track as fast as they could while remaining ladylike and in control.
(Three women sit atop horses in front of a Grandstand crowd)
[Leo Landis] And Miss Fuller from Keokuk is the champion, but the crowd attending and watching also is enamored by the skill of a very young woman, Miss Hodges of Johnson County of Iowa City.
[Chris Rasmussen] They felt that her riding was thrilling and exciting and then the judges said, well she may be thrilling and exciting but that's not proper ladylike equestrianism and we the judges say that this other woman should be given the top prize. And the crowd was outraged.
[Leo Landis] Even in the very first State Fair there is concern, upset about, "did the judges get it right?"
[Narrator] The Fairfield Ledger declared the event a success. The attendance was large. For several days before the Fair, strangers commenced pouring into Fairfield by scores, such a concourse of people never before assembled in Iowa. We think we are safe in estimating the number at 7,000 or 8,000.
[Chris Rasmussen] I think frontier life was so difficult and so isolated that it must have been thrilling to see hundreds or even thousands of your fellow settlers. I think it would have been probably the most exciting event in a lot of people's lives to attend those early fairs.
(Drawing of early fenced in fairgrounds with a long animal barn along one side and a dirt track on the opposite side with people and tents in between)
[Narrator] It was so exciting and successful that they would do it again in Fairfield in 1855. Admission was only 25 cents, which was too much for some folks. Almost 100 visitors used the same admission ticket, slipping it back over the fence so others could enter without paying. The next year, the Fair moved to Muscatine, with a more reliable ticketing system, and welcomed 15,000 visitors. During its first 25 years, the fair would hopscotch around Eastern Iowa and be held in 10 different cities.
(Text on screen: Map shows cities of Fairfield, Muscatine, Oskaloosa, Iowa City, Dubuque, Burlington, Clinton, Keokuk and Cedar Rapids)
[Chris Rasmussen] Part of the reason was to spread the Fair around. As I say, a lot of the early fairs were very local, so by moving the fair to different cities every couple of years you could attract a different group of Iowans to at least occasionally have the opportunity to come to the fair. But it also had drawbacks because it meant that every couple of years you had to create and fit up a new fairground. And as the Fair got bigger and bigger that became more and more of a liability, more and more of a drawback.
[Narrator] While educating the farmer was the main goal of the early fairs, it was the competition that really excited people. The competitions were designed to inspire Iowans to improve their products to the point where the quality would gain national recognition. Winners would receive awards in the form of silver cups, plates, diplomas and ribbons. The Iowa State Agricultural Society thought this ought to be enough. Turns out, Iowans in the 19th century were better motivated by cold hard cash. With the stakes rising, competition intensified. At the same time, the Fair had difficulty recruiting enough qualified judges.
[Chris Rasmussen] Sometimes exhibitors felt as though the judge's rulings were mistaken, they were wrong, and if you were a professional livestock breeder, winning a blue ribbon might really make a difference to your reputation, it might make a difference to your income.
[Leo Landis] The Burgess Brothers', one of their stallions wins an award at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, so they are that big a deal, and yet the Iowa State Fair in the 1880s, early 1890s has barred them from participating because one of their employees has insulted and hung a judge in effigy. So, there's those nuggets of little stories that let you now that not everything was always rosy at the Iowa State Fair, even in its earliest days.
(4-H students shows sheep in front of the judges)
[Chris Rasmussen] That tension endures throughout the fair and I think still to this day. There are the critic's picks and then there are the fan favorites. And that's one of the things that the fair is about. There are judges who bestow ribbons on prize winning exhibits and I'm sure sometimes the people looking at it come to a different conclusion.
(Teenage girl points to a photograph with a blue ribbon attached to it)
[Narrator] Horses were important to farm families. They needed strong draft horses for pulling farm equipment and they also needed good riding horses. How could judges compare the quality of one horse to another and showcase horsemanship and driving? They could hold a race. In the early days, every fairground had a racetrack. Fairgoers found horse racing to be thrilling, despite being illegal in those days. But if something made for better farming practices, a pragmatic Iowan would say, "It's okay, call it trials of speed for the improvement of stock." and they were off. Legally betting on the horses would not be allowed in Iowa for another century.
[Leo Landis] Horse races may have attracted some gambling at times off the side, but was really a way to showcase the skills of the animals, the strength of the animals, the improved breeds of the time.
(Man holds a large cup trophy while standing next to a draft horse with a large ribbon attached to its bridle)
[Narrator] Competitors in all areas enjoyed winning money for their achievements, but the amount depended on whether or not the fair was having a good year.
(On a rutted, muddy road, a man holds a horses bridle while another man checks a wooden carriage wheel)
When the weather was stormy, wet and disagreeable, people didn't come. Gate admissions and entrance fees weren't paid. And there wouldn't be enough money to pay all the premiums. And then, in 1861, the Civil War almost kept the fair from happening at all.
[Leo Landis] The Iowa State Fair is always subject to outside influences and that would repeat itself in Iowa State Fair history. After the 1855 fair, Thomas Clagett felt strongly that the prosperity of the Iowa State Fair depended on a central and permanent location.
(Text on screen extracted from a newspaper: " A suitable location should be selected at some central place. It is our opinion that the State Fair should have a permanent location as much as the seat of the State Government")
The idea was discussed a number of times in the years that followed. And finally, in 1879, the fair moved to Des Moines.
(State Capitol at Des Moines under construction, Des Moines dirt street with interurban tracks down the middle flanked by three-story brick buildings)
[Leo Landis] So, Des Moines is a blossoming city at that time. The first fairgrounds are actually on the west side of town near present day 42nd Street and Grand out toward the west side of Des Moines and Ingersoll area as well. But if you were from a small town, mid-sized town, Des Moines is a big city.
(Horse drawn covered wagons travel along a dirt road in the city)
To be at a place in a city that has electric light eventually or gas light, to see the latest that is being developed in American technology, that would be a hotel or a place with running water would be pretty exciting.
(Two high arches with electric lights attached provide a gateway to a city street)
[Narrator] Des Moines was honored to host the fair and went to great lengths to welcome visitors.
(Crowd gathers on a city street outside restaurants and the Princess Theatre)
A bandwagon was hired to play on city streets to promote fair attendance. Musical acts and balloon ascension races entertained the crowds. Cattle and poultry entries were the largest ever. The desire to establish a permanent grounds remained. Des Moines proved to be a good choice with its central location, growing population and railroad system. The Iowa legislature responded by allocating $50,000 to purchase land and the citizens of Des Moines raised money to match.
[Leo Landis] I'd argue the most monumental decision that happens with the Iowa State Fair is the purchase of the Calvin and Armenta Thornton Farm that is today between 30th and 36th and University and Dean on the east side of Des Moines.
(Illustration of a farm house and barn high on a hill)
[Narrator] And the Iowa State Fair had finally found a permanent home.
(A large, multi-story building marked "Exposition" sits along a grassy road surrounded by trees)
With land newly purchased, the Agricultural Society had work to do to get ready for the 1886 fair in September. Buildings were built, including Pioneer Hall, which is still in use today. Trees were planted. And a half mile track was laid out. In just a few years, they would add hotels, electric lights, parks, roadways and walks.
[Thomas Leslie, Architect and Historian] There was a desire to make it seem permanent and to give it a sense of kind of civic-ness, if you like, that if it was going to be in Iowa's biggest city, it ought to also be a kind of urban event or a civic event. So, the first permanent structures were some of the largest. The Exposition Hall would have been the largest structure most Iowans would ever see. It was larger than any barn in the state and it would have been the largest structure just about in Des Moines. Again, all out of timber, though, all carpentry, because that was the labor available and that was the material that was available at the time. The Exposition Hall was modeled maybe subconsciously, but certainly modeled after the Crystal Palace, the 1851 London Building that was sort of the grandfather of the world expositions.
[Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa] The people that are helping do those buildings are some of those reform groups too, the Iowa Women's Suffrage Association wants to have a building and the Women's Christian Temperance Union wants to have a building in those earliest days. So, again, that idea of reform and improvement is still being promoted at the new Iowa State Fairgrounds.
[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 Horse”)
(Fairgoers ride, and stand in line to ride, on a Ferris wheel and carousel)
[Thomas Leslie] 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] 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.
[Narrator] Fairgoers also took great pleasure in danger, mayhem and destruction. Enormous crowds would gather in the Grandstand to see a person dive from a 40-foot platform into a bucket.
A human cannonball.
Or to witness the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the fall of Pompeii.
[Chris Rasmussen] The disaster spectacles were enormously popular. They were the Grandstand's main attraction for decades from the 1890s into the 1930s, and they were staged by large pyrotechnic companies, usually out of Chicago or some other big city. And these spectacles toured the country. They would be produced on many other fairgrounds as well. As I say, people seem to take a kind of they had a morbid fascination, I think, with the prospect of seeing a recreation of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption or a catastrophic battle from history.
[Narrator] Many of these spectacles eventually fell out of favor as people lost their taste for celebrating trauma and loss. But over the top entertainment would continue to be a mainstay for thrill-seeking fairgoers.
(Woman dives off a high platform while riding a horse)
Perhaps the most iconic feat came from Iowan Joe Connelly, who offered the fair a unique opportunity.
[Leo Landis] So, he goes to the Agricultural Society and says, I would like to stage a locomotive crash in 1896.
[Narrator] His plan was simple. Lay down some tracks, find a couple of train engines destined for the trash heap and crash them into each other. Joe's show played out just like the action movies of today. There was a conflict. In this case, politics.
(Political cartoon states "Free Silver Coinage Craze")
(Political ad features two Democratic nominees and states "Gold and Silver Unlimited Coinage)
[Leo Landis] So, the idea of gold versus silver is a big political issue. One of the locomotives is called the Gold Bug, the other locomotive is called the Silver Bug.
[Narrator] And of course, there was a heroic star, a train engineer who would start the locomotive and jump off at the precise moment it achieved speed, all culminating in an explosive ending.
[Leo Landis] I'm sure it was exciting to see in 1896 if you had come to Des Moines. And it was, it was one of the biggest days of the fair in history up to that time.
[Narrator] Estimated attendance was 50,000 to 60,000 and many watched from building roofs near the Grandstand. Nothing quite finishes the day off like explosions or fireworks, a spectacle that continues to this day. Despite record crowds for the train crash, at the end of the 19th century, the fair again struggled with attendance. External factors always play a role.
(Text extracted from newspaper reads "The State Fair Debt" and "Iowa State Fair Finances")
In 1898, Omaha announced it was going to have the Trans-Mississippi and International Expo, so the Agricultural Society made the decision to cancel the Iowa State Fair for the first time in its history. A week later, the United States declared war on Spain and the fairgrounds became a military encampment.
(Soldiers and horses bivouac in the Midway area of the fair, Exposition and Pioneer Halls appear in the background to the southeast)
The fair returned in 1899 with a century-closing exposition. The grounds were well-established in Des Moines and a new era of prosperity was underway. It was time to make some improvements.
[Thomas Leslie] So, the Fair organizers realized that they basically had to up their game and they first paved the streets, which was a huge improvement.
(Six white, wood-frame barns stand adjacent to the race track)
They also realized that the barns themselves had to go from being something that was temporary and just agricultural into something that was more permanent, more monumental and that reflected the fact that even though this was an agricultural event it was taking place in Iowa's largest city. The barns are mostly symmetrical, they are formal. When you walk into them you might feel a little bit like you're walking into a county courthouse or something. Once you go inside the barns, they are all ventilation and light, they are all built with fairly cheap metal roofing and structure, but the skin around the barns is brick and terracotta. The names of the barns are etched in limestone, a much more formal language of architecture, and one that really relates more to the fact that this is in Des Moines, it is in the biggest city in Iowa and it is an urban event. And that really helped take the Fair from this collection of shacks on a muddy site into something that we recognize almost as an extension of the Des Moines street grid.
[Narrator] The Livestock Pavilion was the first example of this new standard of architecture on the fairgrounds.
[Thomas Leslie] It's an arena. It's a place where you're watching competition and it's some of the best entertainment at the fair. I think that is part of the logic behind the Livestock Pavilion, that the fair did go from something that was very much about farmers comparing notes to something that people came to see, that became more of a spectacle.
[Narrator] And then, the Agriculture Building, the most formal of the fair's brick buildings.
[Thomas Leslie] It has a really overly grand entrance that faces onto the Fair's main intersection and really celebrates the fact that what is going on in there is this really important thing for the state, the best of the state's agriculture is getting displayed and shown and it is a monumental structure that really dignifies that.
[Narrator] There was also the need for a large gathering spot that could seat thousands of people and be home to different kinds of spectacles, concerts, demonstrations and races. The Grandstand became a focal point for the modernization of the fairgrounds.
[Thomas Leslie] Originally a timber structure, like many of the other older structures on the fair, it deteriorated, proved inadequate for the crowds and in the early 1900s they built the center section of the Grandstand, a steel structure, that was designed to be curved both so that everyone had a good view of the finish line and so that they could use it for concerts as a sort of an outdoor arena. In 1927, the Grandstand got extended to its present length and the steel structure was clad in this very monumental brick skin that was designed to be a memorial to Iowans who died in World War I. And to me that is an interesting story. It goes from being this kind of very rag tag event into something that really is one of the largest performance spaces not only in Des Moines, but in the state.
[Narrator] At the turn of the 20th century, America was rapidly transforming. The automobile became a symbol of modernity, progress and wealth. The country as a whole was moving away from a rural, agricultural lifestyle to an urban, industrial economy. Women rallied for the right to vote. The Wright Brothers flew their first powered airplane. Organizers of the fair saw value in looking toward the future of this new America.
(A young girl is pictured in a poster that reads "See the Airship. Iowa State Fair")
And Iowa's eyes turned to the skies.
[An oblong cylinder, rounded on both ends, is attached to a monoplane-like structure directly below where a pilot sits)
The Knabenshue, seen here soaring above the St. Louis World's Fair, was an exhibition airship. Entrepreneur Roy Knabenshue would book his airship at various activities across the country and then arrive in time to set it up and fly it, to the amazement of a paying audience. During the 1906 fair, the Knabenshue airship flew over the State Capitol and atop the fairgrounds, floating miraculously in the firmament. Men refused to believe their eyes and children stood in amazement at the floating dirigible. Aerial photography became possible and popular. People were amazed to see the fairgrounds from a new perspective.
Things weren't just high, they were fast. When automobiles arrived on the scene, drivers wasted no time in pushing their limits. The dirt track racers of the early 1900s were big superstars, like today's football players or rock stars. Barney Oldfield was the first. In 1907, he brought his Peerless Green Dragon to Iowa and showed fair officials they could make a profit with auto racing. When Oldfield swung around the track at an incredible 48 miles per hour, cigar clenched in his teeth, the fair knew they had a winner. An even bigger sensation buzzed around the track in 1914. Lincoln Beachey, an American aviator and barnstormer known as the man who owns the sky, raced his airplane against Eddie Rickenbacker, a race car driver.
(Engine sounds and Duesenberg car is in the lead)
At times, Beachey flew so low, he nearly scraped the Duesenberg car.
(The airplane is half the track length ahead of the Duesenberg car)
Rickenbacker lost the race, but people at the Grandstand would never see a spectacle quite like it again. America's obsession with aviation continued to grow through the 1920s. A bat winged airplane daredevil jumped from a height of 8,000 feet and flapped his way to the ground. The daring Ruth Law completed a transfer from car to an airplane in flight.
(Woman hangs upside down from the wheel axel of a biplane)
With such death-defying stunts, things took an unsurprising turn when a barnstorming troop of stunt pilots, the Sons O' Guns, collided over the northeast edge of the track. One of their planes crashed into the crowd killing one and injuring seven others. Barkers later invited the crowds to ogle at the wreckage for 25 cents each. The fast times culminate in Thrill Day at the 1937 Fair. 60,000 spectators filled the Grandstand to see the famous Captain Frakes.
[Reporter] Some people consider themselves lucky to walk away from a crackup, but not Captain F.F. Frakes. This daredevil has plane crashing down to a science. And today at the state fair, he is trying his 27th deliberate crash. Once he has the plane at sufficient altitude, the Captain will head for the house. Don't worry, it's for rent. He's all set. So, hold your hats! Here we go again!
(Plane engine whirring)
(Plane crashes into a wood-frame house taking the roof completely off)
[Narrator] Crashing a plane on purpose is illegal and law enforcement tried to arrest him. When the ambulance arrived to pick up the victim, Frakes had given them the slip.
(Farmers lead horses and cattle on down the track's front straightaway)
The Roaring '20s released an air of prosperity over the Iowa State Fair. New technologies and industries created an economic boom.
(Two men inspect a tractor engine)
Lifestyles and attitudes were changing fast.
(Women dancing the Charleston)
The mass production of automobiles brought a newfound sense of mobility and freedom. Cars would be transformational for the fair.
(Cars are parked inside and outside of a white wood-frame building labeled "Ford Motor Co. Exhibit")
(Cars drive along Grand Avenue on the fairgrounds)
(Hundreds of cars are parked in the grass on the north side of the fairgrounds)
[Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa] More and more people can get to Des Moines for a day, especially from neighboring counties, by automobile and you can pack a lunch, you can camp and so that idea of camping at the fairgrounds really starts to take off.
[Narrator] In the very early days of the fair, camping was perhaps the only option for overnights. When the Fair settled into its permanent home, a hill in the northeast section was designated as the official camping area.
(White tents cover a grassy landscape with horses, buggies and cars parked close by)
Electric lights were strung in 1888. And soon, so many people were tenting that it became necessary to organize the plots, provide security and lay down some rules. Hallooing and other unnecessary noises would not be tolerated between 11pm and 6am.
[Betty Burgett, Chariton] Well, the campgrounds you could get a spot anywhere, which is not true now. But, you could set up a tent or just anything. We camped with my sister with a tent spread from the pickup out to the ground on bales of hay.
[Grace DeWitt, Former Fairgrounds Resident] They used to have, and it was right behind our house, they would have permanent slabs there. And they would even sink like metal bunkbeds. And then when they came they would bring a tarp and put over their stand that their concrete slab that was there.
[Narrator] Campers outfitted their tents with dinner tables, shelving and chests of drawers. In later years, campers would put up homespun decorations and hold lighting competitions. Families would stake claims to certain plots. And even to this day, camping at the fair is so popular there's a 20-year waiting list to get in.
[Regina Pirtle, Pioneer Hall Superintendent] That group is, it's generations usually, and generations of people that camped when they were young, they camped when they raised their families. Their families started camping. Once they stake their claim they hang onto it, their spot.
[Camper 1] Probably nine out of ten campers you talk to have the best spot on the campground. And you might ask someone in a totally different area and they have the best spot in the campground.
[Camper 2] Which can't be true.
[Camper 1] Yeah, because we do.
(Modern campers and RVs parked in the campground)
[Betty Burgett] Lots of fun, lots of laughs. We've had water fights, all kinds of stuff. And you've got a family and you're used to staying together and playing together. You pull tricks on people. So, it's just like a fever. If you ever go the first time and camp, I guarantee you you'll go back.
[John Putney, Director, Blue Ribbon Foundation 1993-2013] You don't understand the Iowa State Fair until you've seen the campgrounds. Some of them take their vacations, some of them are here the full two weeks and, you know, you really don't understand the fair until you've seen this.
[Narrator] It's also hard to understand the fair without knowing a little bit about agriculture. It is, after all, the reason the Iowa State Agricultural Society founded the fair in 1854. Visitors come from all over the country, even the world, to see the various breeds of livestock on display.
[Leo Landis] When you think about livestock at the Iowa State Fair, we are the livestock kings in the early 1900s. If you want your animals to be shown and be recognized you need to enter the Iowa State Fair.
[Narrator] After the problems that plagued early agricultural competitions in the 1800s, qualified judges became part and parcel for the fair in the 1920s. When judging animals, they looked for proportioned body parts, outstanding traits, resilient breeds that would produce heartier stock and in turn, allow the farmer to make more money from their animals. Even to this day, judging is critically important to the Fair and continues to be a strong driver in the agricultural economy of Iowa.
[Reporter] The buyers are from all walks of life, all interested in the promotion of the great 4-H work.
[Narrator] Youth achievement clubs such as 4-H and FFA formed and taught a new generation how to improve their farming practices, bolster their exhibits and showcase their talents.
[Reporter] We're looking at the Grand and the Reserve Champion baby beefs at the Iowa State Fair. The Grand Champion baby beef of Iowa is a Hereford weighing 1,010 pounds raised by Herbert Olson of Benton County.
[Narrator] Everyone who visits the fair can learn something new about where their food comes from and all the work that goes into producing it. One impressive display after another graces the exhibit space in the Agriculture Building. In the early days, farm families would exhibit their crops in elaborate arrangements, grain and seed bundles, fruits and vegetables, everything grown in their Iowa gardens. Today, the abundance and diversity of Iowa's agricultural products is still there. It's an opportunity for agricultural enthusiasts to learn from each other and educate the public. Farmers and gardeners from across the state can showcase their produce and compete for awards. Then and now, an award from the Iowa State Fair really means something. When most Iowans still lived on farms, the fair was an important social occasion for self-sufficient families, a chance to marvel at exhibits, participate in horseshoe pitching tournaments and listen to John Philip Sousa's famous band.
In 1929, the fair celebrated 75 years, its Diamond Jubilee. It was a record-breaking year for attendance, finances and exhibits, only to be followed by the stock market crash in October, which would bring the Great Depression and a time of economic hardship for many farmers. How would the fair weather the storm?
[Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa] You've had these rural improvement ideas that to a degree stem out of that progressive era of the early 1900s that start promoting youth agriculture, rural life clubs. That carries us through the Depression, it carries us through the Iowa State Fair today, and it remains a place to see the latest in technology.
[Reporter] The progressive farmer is always interested in the latest farm machinery.
[Narrator] Machinery halls of the early Fairs once filled with buggies, plows, harrows, reapers and threshing machines transitioned to farm trucks, tractors and trailers with an endless array of accessories. The Varied Industries Building would become a place to shop for anything a modern farmer or homemaker would need, milking machines, washing machines and even a house.
[Leo Landis] So, the Fair remains a place that highlights innovation through the 1920s and 1930s.
[Narrator] Innovation and experimentation also became prevalent in the art salon at the Iowa State Fair. The best attended art exhibit in Iowa, it was the place for painters to show their work. One of those painters was Grant Wood, a regionalist artist famous for his iconic works of American culture. Wood dominated the competition in the art salon for four consecutive years. Regionalism grew in popularity throughout the 1930s with its realistic and detailed depictions of rural life. The artists were known to be influenced by the social and political currents of the time.
[Thomas Leslie, Architect and Historian] Politics have always been kind of just under the surface at the Fair and the art competition had tended to be a pretty conservative affair, still life and paintings of animals and things like that. In the '30s, especially as the Depression took hold, a lot of artists were painting themes that were more political.
[Narrator] Following his success at the fair, regionalist painter Dan Rhodes was asked to create a mural in the Agriculture Building as a Works Progress Administration project. It depicted the history of Iowa in 110 feet and would take a year to paint.
[Thomas Leslie] And Dan Rhodes in particular painted a mural that showed Iowan farmers sort of hardworking and suffering a little bit, as many were in the '30s. And the reaction to this was really swift. A lot of people had a cultural problem with it. They thought that the mural made Iowans look a little bit bedraggled. But, there was also a political subtext.
[Narrator] Fair Secretary Lloyd Cunningham called the work "an insult to Iowa farmers because it depicted them as club-footed, coconut-headed, barrel-necked and low-browed."
[Thomas Leslie] Some politicians thought that the fact that one of the characters was holding a sheaf of wheat in their left hand was a political symbol and tried to claim that this was sort of a secret Communist propaganda being brought into the fair.
[Narrator] After only 8 years, the fair board called for its removal, the lumber used in patchwork around the fairgrounds.
[Thomas Leslie] After that went back to a very sort of conservative form of judging, the themes that were allowed or that were permeated were no longer those of kind of farmers laboring or struggling.
[Leo Landis] There is often criticism of public art and in this case the public art in the Agriculture Building, we don't have that around to appreciate anymore or decide whether it should have lasted.
[Reporter] And now, to the Women's and Children's Building, where the champion babies are selected by critical judges. Here's the winner, champion Joanne Lewis of Iowa. Her mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Lyle Lewis of Forest City, Iowa, are tremendously proud of this day and they may well be.
B In 1911, Mary T. Watts of Audubon was more impressed with the livestock at her county fair than with the children. This would not do. So, she proposed a contest to promote healthy infant development. Her "Iowa Idea", the Healthy Baby Contest, was instantly popular. Large numbers of parents would submit their children for inspection and scrutiny. Curious fairgoers could view the judging through a glass window.
[Chris Rasmussen, Historian] And doctors and nurses took precise measurement of their body and their weight and they even had some simple psychological tests. And the idea was to assess the babies in some ostensibly scientific way, rather than merely to have a beautiful baby contest.
[Narrator] The scorecards were modeled after livestock competitions, but with the necessary changes to meet the requirements for the human body. A baby could lose points for mosquito bites, birthmarks and bruises.
[Chris Rasmussen] The baby contest unfortunately quickly got very bound up with the idea of eugenics, which was very popular among many Americans in the early 20th century. And that, of course, is a much grimmer and uglier history.
[Narrator] The Healthy Baby Contests were put on hold during the polio epidemic and eventually ended.
[Chris Rasmussen] The Healthy Youth Contest, that was connected to the 4-H. And one of the goals of the Healthy Youth Contest was to demonstrate that farm youths were fitter, healthier, more strapping than their urban counterparts. Sometimes the results of that contest didn't confirm that hope. But, I think there was a great concern in the early 20th century that women and young people were becoming disenchanted with farm life. And the 1920s especially is a moment that there's just almost a head on collision between urban and rural America. And I think some farmers, people who live in rural America, they can feel as though the prestige of being a farmer and a producer is slipping and they can feel the difference between life in town with its amenities and opportunities and the comparatively isolated life on the farm. And I guess they also encouraged people to not forget that in tough times a little bit of enjoyment, a little bit of levity might not be a bad thing. But it was very, very difficult. The fair went deep into the hole for a few years in the early 1930s.
[Leo Landis] And, how do you get people coming to the fair in a Great Depression? Oh, let's have another locomotive crash.
[Reporter] The crash of two locomotives at the Iowa State Fair.
[Narrator] Joe Connelly returned to stage one more train crash at the fair. It was 1932, an election year. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was up against Iowa's own republican, Herbert Hoover. Open cans of fuel in the cars made for a terrific explosion.
[Leo Landis] It's one of the, again, the biggest days at the fairgrounds that year. It is, it's devastating. I think one of the engineers is injured jumping off the train.
(The Roosevelt and Hoover trains are is engulfed in flames as black smoke billows into the sky)
[Reporter] There are no winners here. But it will be a different story in November.
[Narrator] Just as America was crawling out of the Great Depression, a new hurdle for the fair took shape when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
[Leo Landis] The State Fair Board, knowing that rubber is going to be rationed or is being rationed, gasoline is being rationed, foodstuffs are being rationed, recognizes that it would be irresponsible and at the request of the War Department decides to cancel the 1942 fair.
[Narrator] The fair turned its fireproof buildings over to the Army Air Corp to be used as a World War II supply depot. As part of the agreement between the Fair Board and the United States government, the grounds would be leased for $1 for the duration of the war. Building and Grounds Superintendent Henry Deets and his son Floyd, who would later become Superintendent himself, lived on the fairgrounds and helped ensure the fair's property remained intact.
[Floyd Deets, Building and Grounds Superintendent 1946-1985] It wasn't anything that would do any damage to the buildings. We all had credentials, everybody had credentials. It was pretty well guarded. There wasn't much publicity on it. But it was quite an experience working all that stuff.
[Narrator] The Army filled many of the large buildings and barns with supplies and equipment. The Administration Building housed the main offices of the Army Air Corp.
[Floyd Deets] And all this had to be put back after they moved out of there and that was my job, would help dad do that. I think the Fair Board and the state wanted to do something for the cause, you know. They didn't want the money. They wanted to do something to help. We all did.
[Narrator] For the next four years, from 1942 to 1945, Iowa would not hold its annual grand tradition. And when the Fair returned, things would change.
[Thomas Leslie] It was a blow, of course, to not have the fair for a few years. But when it came back it was facing a different customer base, a much younger country, a country that was getting used to the idea of things like television and entertainments that maybe didn't involve driving for three hours to get to Des Moines. So, it had to evolve.
(Des Moines Register front page headline reads "Record Fair Crowd: 89,295)
[Narrator] After a wartime hiatus, in the summer of 1946, the Fair was back. The period that followed World War II brought great changes to America. People found economic prosperity, the rural and urban divide grew, and there was a new sense of optimism for the future of the country.
[Leo Landis, State Historical Society of Iowa] All heck breaks loose because A, it's the centennial of the state year, but also, we are now at peace. The musical "State Fair" is released that year too.
[Narrator] Rodgers and Hammerstein won an Academy Award for the musical adaptation of Phil Stong's novel "State Fair."
(Percy Kilbridge singing “Our State Fair")
♪ Our State Fair is a great State Fair ♪
♪ Don't miss it ♪
♪ Don't even be late! ♪
[Narrator] A nostalgic and heartwarming portrayal of rural Midwestern life, the musical put the Iowa State Fair on the national stage.
[Leo Landis] So, when you talk about Iowans in that post-World War II period, there's excitement and there's also, again, transformation. You haul your livestock not by train, but you might take them on your own in a truck to Des Moines to exhibit at the State Fair. More and more farm families are finding leisure time because they're starting to specialize a little bit more. You've got electricity in your farmhouse.
(Text on screen: Radio Goes to the Fair)
[Reporter] We take you now to the Iowa State Fair, a great fair celebrating the centennial of a great state.
[Narrator] With electricity came radio and a connection to the outside world. The media began to play a bigger and bigger role in the fair, no longer just reporting on what happened, but bringing the fair to a wider audience as it's happening.
[Reporter] The Midway is packed with activity. Ferris wheels, freaks and fan dancers. Here, the 4-H Club boys and girls bring their livestock to be judged for prize awards.
[Narrator] The 1946 Fair brought a new and powerful medium.
[Bill Riley Sr., Bill Riley Talent Search] We brought television to Iowa for the first time. We had the International Harvester tent, it was a great big, beautiful tent, right by the Varied Industries Building just south. And inside the tent were television sets, big consoles with about a nine-inch black and white screen. And there were probably 25 or 30 of them around the inside of the tent. So, the people would come in, they'd look at the television set. A miracle! We'd never seen television. They'd look up on the stage and we would introduce acts and of course people from all over the grounds wanted to come and be on television.
[Narrator] 200,000 people went through the International Harvester tent that year. Through his work in radio and TV, Bill Riley eventually earned the unofficial title, Mr. State Fair.
[Bill Riley Sr.] Ah, what a day! What a day! What a crowd! What a show! This is going to be the most wonderful experience we've had in a long time.
[Narrator] He was fascinated by talented people, especially young people, and started the Bill Riley Talent Search.
[Talent Search Contestant] You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. Thank you.
[Bill Riley Jr., Bill Riley Talent Search] The idea came to my father in the late '50s. The beauty of the show is it runs exactly like it did when it first started.
[Narrator] Performers taking the stage have already won a local or county competition and are hoping to be named the Talent Search Champion on the last day of the fair.
(Five teenage girls perform a clogging routine on the stage)
(Applause and cheering)
[Bill Riley Sr.] Hey, if you're not selected today, you're going to be disappointed, of course. But, let that just be there for a short time and then turn it around and don't be discouraged.
[Bill Riley Jr.] We humans love to watch each other perform, whether it's in a sporting event or at the theatre.
[Talent Search Contestant 2] I love you baby --
[Bill Riley Jr.] I think people love to watch children especially perform. It gives you new energy, it makes you feel young again, if you will.
[Chuck Offenburger, Former Des Moines Register Columnist] It's hard to understate what that contest has done for young people in Iowa because it has really inspired kids from the time they were 8 or 10 years old to enter these contests. And there's been bands, there's been dancers, it's a phenomenal contest. And I think when people go to that f air and they watch those Iowa kids do that and they, it's like oh my goodness, this kid is not performing like back home, this is like big time stuff and it really strikes them. What a training ground that has been.
[Narrator] For many, the fair provides a reconnection with the past. During the 1950s, people were especially nostalgic. They also wanted to celebrate the centennial of the fair in a big way. The 1954 festivities began with a horse caravan. Starting in Fairfield, 509 people, 471 horses and 40 covered wagons traveled the 114 miles to Des Moines. It took them 4 days and they camped overnight in the towns along the way.
[Mark Shafer, Carnegie Historical Museum, Fairfield] And for the whole town basically to put on their buckskins and bonnets and hit the road with the horses and buggies -- and of course in the '50s it was still close enough to horse-drawn farming that all those men knew how to work horses.
[Mike Carlson of Fairfield] It was extremely hot. One of the few things I remember is the clackety-clack of the horses because there were hundreds of horses. It was estimated that one half million people witnessed the caravan from Fairfield to Des Moines, a half a million people.
[Narrator] Over 20,000 people gathered in the Grandstand to honor the wagon train's arrival, officially opening the 1954 fair. Throngs of people, unprecedented media attention, an Academy Award winning musical -- the post-war fair had found a place in the national spotlight. Even before Iowa's role as first-in-the-nation for presidential campaigning, politics would be inevitable.
[Leo Landis] It's 1954 when President Eisenhower visits and brings along former Iowan, former President Herbert Hoover.
[Narrator] Eisenhower met with 4-H members and gave a speech discussing the challenges facing farmers.
[Leo Landis] And there's even a little bit of upset because it had been discussed that nobody would be able to get into the fair without paying admission. So, President Eisenhower covered the admission for him and President Hoover.
[Narrator] He gave $1 to Governor Beardsley for his 50-cent admission and 50 cents for Hoover. There is an argument about what happened to that dollar. Fair Secretary Lloyd Cunningham claimed he got it. Others say it's in the Century Vault. That vault is a 20-foot time capsule called the Centurlon Spire of Time. It was created to celebrate the fair's centennial and it is to be opened in 2054. Now thinking about its future, what will the Fair need to consider in the next 100 years?
[Thomas Leslie, Architect and Historian] As America changes, Iowa changed, the fair had to think about how does it market itself? How does it stay true to what it always had been as an agricultural event? But again, how does it bring in people from the city?
[Narrator] The fair needed a manager who knew both entertainment and agriculture. Someone who understood people and how to improve the fair going experience. Kenneth Fulk was named secretary manager in 1962.
[Connie Boesen, Concessionaire] Well, my dad accepted the job as the manager of the fair and the requirement of being the manager of the fair is that you live on the fairgrounds. So, we loaded up all of 5 kids and we had animals that we had at our acreage and we brought them all with us. He was a huge agriculture guy. When you bring about his background, he would judge cattle. So, he wanted to have the top shows. He wanted to have the top quality. He was always about quality, even on concessions. It wasn't about the amount but it was about promoting the products of Iowa and the quality products of Iowa.
[Kenneth Fulk] That's a smokey-mokey.
[Chuck Offenburger] He was the first of the fair managers to realize how important it was to sell that whole show. He had to sell it beyond a farm audience and a small-town audience. I mean, he had to take it to the city and appeal to urban people and to tourists coming to Iowa.
(Kenneth Funk and a passenger ride on a golf cart on the fairgrounds)
[Passenger] You're a dickens on this thing, aren't you?
[Kenneth Fulk] You've got to be.
[Narrator] Fulk was not afraid to make a change or try something new. One idea he had was closing Grand Avenue to traffic. The change would relieve the miles-long traffic jams that plagued the entrance into the fair. It transformed into the now famous Grand Concourse.
[Connie Boesen] He wanted to get the cars off the road so that people would have a safer and a better experience. He knew the flow of people. And so, if you look at an area of a fair, maybe it's not the best traveled, well how do you get people to go up to that, to spread people out and to get more movement?
[Narrator] New attractions were added every year like Heritage Village, which included a Fort Madison block house replica, and an exact replica of the first church ever built in Iowa. In 1968, the North Lincoln Country School, once located south of Indianola, was donated to the fair. It remains furnished, just as it was in the 1800s.
[Governor Robert Ray] Isn't that what you tell people, come out and spend money?
[Kenneth Fulk] No, no, we never tell them to spend money. We tell them to come out and see everything. And you can see thousands and thousands of things and never spend a penny once you get on the fairgrounds.
[Narrator] Marketing the Fair as we know it now got its start by giving the Fair a new theme every year. The Heritage Fairs of the 1960s celebrated explorers, pioneers, the Gay '90s and Roaring '20s. The '70s fairs were about discovering cultures. Iowa, Mexico, Canada and Hawaii.
[Connie Boesen] It was a way, again, to bring newness to the fair and awareness of different cultures.
[Narrator] Iowa was not immune to the changes in American culture in the 1960s. An explosion of rock and roll music, counterculture ideas, and anti-war sentiment had transformed the country in the span of a decade.
[Thomas Leslie] With the youth movements in the '60s, the fair tended to be seen as kind of a conservative, your parents' event, and they began to lose a lot of the youth demographic that had been really important to them.
[Narrator] Teen Town was created for teenagers by teenagers.
[Grace DeWitt, Former Fairgrounds Resident] I went to East High and I was on All City Student Council and we would meet with all of the other leaders, council members from the different schools, and so he brought this idea of something for the teenagers to do, which I think was great.
[Regina Pirtle] And I remember my friends and I came regularly to that and it was an enclosed area where the teens gathered. We would see people we knew and we would look for new people to get to know.
[Connie Boesen] You couldn't be over 18 to go in. And I think that that's the people my age are still coming to the fair a lot of people went to Teen Town. They had bands and they had dances and it was a place that everybody could go.
[Grace DeWitt] It wasn't rowdy. It was just a lot of people from a lot of different areas would come together and dance.
[Connie Boesen] I think it was to bring the rural and urban together. It was really to bring back the essence of what Iowa was all about, the history and the legacy.
[Grace DeWitt] The other thing that was big were the fireworks. You would have all of a sudden, an Iowa corn stalk. You would have Niagara Falls. You would have whoever was the entertainer that night, they would do their face in fireworks. And then they would have a boat that you would see going across and it's on the back of a truck, but it would be fireworks and it's moving. The fireworks were amazing.
[Kenneth Fulk] A lot bigger than last year, aren't they?
[Man 2] Oh, yeah.
[Kenneth Fulk] This is a ship. That's the Mayflower. That's the Mayflower, that's the Mayflower ship.
[Narrator] Entertainment was where Ken Fulk really shined. He wanted to bring big crowds to the fair, so he went after big names. The first was Iowa native Andy Williams. Williams played five nights in 1965 and was a huge success.
(Andy Williams singing "Can't Get Used to Losing You")
♪ Can't get used to losing you no matter what I try to do ♪
♪ A string of big-name performers would follow ♪
♪ Well, you wonder why I always dress in black ♪
[Reporter] The superstars are on your horizon at the New Horizons '77 Iowa State Fair.
(Dolly Parton singing "Jolene")
♪ Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene! ♪
[Reporter] Sunday, August 21.
[Connie Boesen] I think Andy Williams, this is what my dad says is the story, he went back to Hollywood, told people if you want to get on, if you really want to have big crowds and revenue, good revenue, you should get on the fair circuit. It was a start of really saying that we can have those kind of entertainers coming and it gives them a venue and they could be outside and everybody can take part in it.
[Jan Higgins, Assistant Manager 1990-2005] You wanted to find entertainers that hopefully were either old time popular entertainers that people knew immediately when you said their name or you wanted new and up and coming artists.
[Narrator] Big name Grandstand performers are a mainstay. Even today, fair goers anxiously await the announcement of the next fair's lineup. So, when a Grandstand artist cancels, the fair has to find a sub, or cancel the show. In 1990, it was Ricky Van Shelton who had to cancel.
[Jan Higgins] The decision was made to take a chance on this new artist. And so, the day of the show I go over and immediately I see this gentleman in a large cowboy hat and he walks right up to me and sticks out his hand and says, "Hi Jan, I'm Garth Brooks." Within I don't even think a year he was at the top of the charts.
(Garth Brooks signing "Friends in Low Places")
♪ Cuz I got friends in low places ♪
♪ where the whiskey drowns ♪
♪ and the beer chases my blues away ♪
[Narrator] How does Iowa celebrate its favorite performers, characters and animals? We cast them in butter and put them on display next to the Butter Cow. The beloved and iconic symbol of the Iowa State Fair. The Butter Cow has been a feature of the fair since the early 1900s. But the tradition of creating figures out of butter dates back even further.
[Sarah Pratt, Butter Sculptor] There was a woman named Caroline Shawk Brooks that just started sculpting her butter to sell it. She was an artist and by nature she just loved sculpting. And it just became quirky enough that she gained fame and then she toured the world. She became very famous in that sense.
[Narrator] In Caroline's days, transporting, exhibiting and preserving her sculptures was a challenge. She created her works in flat, metallic milk pans, which she set in larger pans filled with ice. If her sculptures needed to travel, she had to ensure an ice supply along the way. While other industries occasionally use their products to make art, nothing is as popular as the Butter Cow. People flock to the Agriculture Building to see it.
[Reporter] We're here in one of the freeze lockers at the Iowa State Fair with Mrs. Norma Lyon and the cow.
[Norma Lyon] Yes, all 350 pounds of her.
[Reporter] You, I understand, make this Butter Cow every year for the fair?
[Norma Lyon] Yes. This is the 15th one I've made for Des Moines.
[Norma Lyon] Oh, I like to do it.
[Narrator] For 46 years, Norma Lyon sculpted the Butter Cow at the Iowa State Fair. She also sculpted Elvis, American Gothic and the Last Supper. Norma, also known as Duffy, was a dairy farmer and studied animal science and sculpture at Iowa State University.
[Norma Lyon] Well, in '59 I saw a picture of the fella just before me. I went in and I thought, I can do better than that. And I wasn't thinking about taking a job or anything, I was still raising my family. And in '60 it was all my job.
[Sarah Pratt] Norma definitely emphasized the details and very much wanted the Butter Cow to be the ideal show cow. If you march the Butter Cow through the champion ring it should win. She was very particular about all the anatomy that made a dairy cow good and strong and healthy.
[Norma Lyon] The heads are the hardest for me to do and to get that eye just right is real painstaking and I have to go outside and see what it looks like.
[Morgan Halgren] For the past six years, Duffy has had a willing butter carving apprentice, Sarah Doyle. And what do you like about butter sculpture?
[Sarah Doyle] I just like spending time with Norma and learning about sculpting. I love art.
[Sarah Pratt] It was a very gradual process, which I needed, because she would tell people this is Sarah, she's going to take over some day. And I'd say, oh no, no, no, no. And so, I think that she instinctively knew, would prove it to me little by little with giving me more responsibility. The last time the butter was replaced was 2005, which was her last year. So, the butter, a lot of the butter, we have added to it, but a lot of the butter has been touched with her hands as well. I do feel like there's a part of the cow specifically that is nostalgic, that is somewhat unchanging, even though it's a different cow each year. I really see that being parallel to what the fair is about and what we do in every quadrant of the fair, celebrating the past but bringing in what's new and good and exciting about Iowa now.
(Man is shot out of a cannon and lands in a net)
(Clowns play the trumpet and saxophone)
[Narrator] Iowa in the 1980s was big, bold and vibrant. Big food, bright clothing and extreme creativity. Iowans are known for their skill at making something extraordinary out of everyday items.
(Man carves wood with a chainsaw)
(Men race on scooters)
From the ridiculous, to the sublime, once you paid your gate admission, there were hundreds of things to see and do without spending another dime.
(Two men, each standing in a canoe, try to knock each other out)
[Reporter] Got him with a good undercut that time.
[Puppet] Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it's showtime!
(Children in the audience smile)
[Narrator] Things were hot literally and figuratively. The 1983 fair still holds the record for being the hottest.
[Reporter] Gotta mention these steers are hot. It's probably close to 100 degrees down here on the floor of this pavilion.
[Narrator] Racing continued to be the most serious of all state fair attractions.
[Reporter] And they're off and running across the plains of Iowa. But some of the people have tents flying out of the back of their wagons.
(Three men push a bathtub on wheels and filled with water around a track)
[Contest Competitor] And we're going to run these bathtubs through an obstacle course over here and there will be about 8 inches of water in each tub when we start and hopefully we'll have 7 inches of water in the tub after we get down the obstacle course.
(Children race Big Wheels)
[Narrator] No form of entertainment was too destructive.
(Cars crash into each other)
(Men light pipes)
[Contest Announcer] This is the exciting part now folks.
[Narrator] Or too absurd.
[Contest Announcer] Set, go!
(Women hammering nails)
[Narrator] The spirit of competition runs high at the fair. Our urge to compete is part of human nature. It plays a role in our survival, drives innovation, increases efficiency. Many of the fair's contests are longstanding traditions that are still held today. Others live on only in our memories.
[Reporter] First, we're going up to Heritage Hill for that unique sport, rolling pin throwing.
[Narrator] Rolling pin throwing contests had been around since at least the 1920s. In this test of state fair strength, women of all ages and abilities would throw a 2-pound rolling pin as hard and as far as they could. Pioneer Hall spectators saw rolling pins flying dazzling distances for several years.
[Lori Adams, Guinness World Record Holder] Now, this is not a practical rolling pin, it doesn't spin, but it throws. So, you can get a lot of torque when you snap your wrist.
[Narrator] According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Iowa State Fair is home to the farthest flung rolling pin ever.
[Reporter] Lori Adams throwing it 175 feet 5 inches. She's from Iowa State. She's a softball catcher and she knows how to swing it.
[Lori Adams] You can see my brother coming over and giving me a high five and my grandma patting me on the back.
[Narrator] It was a lot of fun. But was it safe?
[Lori Adams] And everybody would scream when some lady would let go too late or too early and the two-pound rolling pin would go careening into the crowd.
[Reporter] Oh, you're the patrol car killer too.
[Woman 1] Well, they were parked down there and they were warned that there was this possibility that they would be hit. But they just didn't believe us until the rolling pin bounced off of the sidewalk and knocked the antenna off of the car.
[Regina Pirtle] One particular year that happened several times.
[Contestant] I got the bop.
[Reporter] Where did you get hit?
[Contestant] Do you want to see? Right there.
[Reporter] Oh, down on your tummy. Yes.
[Regina Pirtle] So, we thought about it and the rubber chicken developed that we toss now.
[Narrator] The rubber chicken. The most dignified and aerodynamic of all fair birds.
[Regina Pirtle] It was soft and we could fill it so that it was heavy and then that's what we have used ever since. We have not come up with a better way.
[Lori Adams] Sports have become so serious. And they were in high school and they were even more so in college. But at the fair, you could, we were actually playing again and play is what we all need, right? We are all trying our best, but we're being playful about it. And that's, what's better, right, than to try hard, as hard as you can and then just laugh because it's just funny?
[Regina Pirtle] Good morning everyone and welcome to Pioneer Hall. Welcome to the Iowa State Fair. Welcome to the Beard Contest.
[Narrator] Hundreds of revered and loved contests connected to Iowa history have taken place at Pioneer Hall.
[Contestant] Pig! Pig! Pig!
[Narrator] Built in 1886, it is one of the original buildings constructed for the first fair on these grounds and is the only one that remains. Today, it's a place where you can express yourself.
[Husband Calling Contestant] Roy! Can you hear me? You get yourself in here right now!
[Mom Calling Contestant] Mooooom! Mom!
[Narrator] Thankfully, most of what is heard inside of Pioneer Hall is a little easier on the ears.
(Three men play accordions)
(Applause and cheering)
[Narrator] Pioneer Hall has been home to a lot of good times and special memories. If only the good feelings could protect it from the ravages of time.
[Regina Pirtle] For a lot of years this building was not maintained very well and things began to deteriorate.
[Narrator] It wasn't just Pioneer Hall. Many of the fair's buildings were in need of repair. And some had already been torn down.
[John Putney] It became obvious, you know, most of these major buildings were constructed in the World War I era up until maybe the mid-1920s. And so, the fair went on and on, but there were no funds to perform maintenance on them. There were some buildings, in fact the Women's and Children's Building they had to tear down and that was a grand old building. And they had to close things such as Grandfather's Barn because of the deterioration.
[Thomas Leslie] The Exposition Hall's demolition I think is a key moment where the fair, while it's beginning to realize that it has to appeal to nostalgia, that's clearly a moment where the fair has to make a decision about what it keeps. Is it a museum or is it an ongoing event?
[Chris Rasmussen] And some people said it would be cheaper just to buy some farmland somewhere and build all new buildings, that would be more cost effective. And I thought it was marvelous that a lot of Iowans made it clear that they were very devoted to this particular spot, to the fairgrounds, and they did not want to see a new fairgrounds suddenly erected.
[Narrator] Ticket sales simply could not provide enough funds for all the renovations the fairgrounds required. Several solutions were tried, with no great success. Des Moines Register writer Rox Laird wrote an OpEd insisting something had to be done about the state of the fairgrounds.
[John Putney] And I said, you know, I hope everybody read that because he was right.
[Narrator] His article would set in motion a series of events that would help secure the future of the Iowa State Fair. John Putney, a farmer from Gladbrook, was hired as the first Director of the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation in 1993. His close ties to the fair as an exhibitor, former president of the Sale of Champions and Beef Superintendent, made him an excellent champion for the cause.
[John Putney] I never got very far from the barns. And then when I took this job I realized a lot of people never got this far south. That became something I really had to think about. How do we take care of all these different areas? The one thing that I wanted to make sure of is that we had no more false starts and that what we had to do is we had to inform and educate the public, not the doom and gloom, we didn't want them worrying about bricks falling off buildings, we wanted to show them how important this was to Iowa and our culture and our heritage and our future.
[Narrator] Putney's plan worked. The Blue Ribbon Foundation soon had enough support to begin restoring some of the fair's older buildings. They were able to add some of the comforts and conveniences modern fairgoers expected.
[Thomas Leslie] And that I think has led to a really interesting mix on the fairgrounds of old buildings that are often in immaculate shape, very well preserved, and new buildings that do some similar things.
[Connie Boesen] And I think they have also helped connect people throughout the whole state to the fairgrounds in a greater way too. When you invest in it you get more, you're more a part of it.
[Narrator] One of the newer buildings on the grounds is the Elwell Family Food Center. A 15,000 square foot space dedicated to housing a multitude of food competitions. Food contests have been a part of the fair since 1854, though it wasn't until the 20th century that the blue ribbon became the sought-after prize that it is today. Through the 1970s, the divisions were the basics, cakes, pies and breads, canned vegetables, pickles, jams and jellies. Today, there are hundreds of divisions and classes to enter. Thousands of foods are judged every year.
[Judge] Let's see, there, that was a nice good pop.
[Narrator] It's a huge undertaking. Some people bring multiple entries.
[Arlette Hollister, Superintendent of Foods 1986-2017] As high as 300.
[Morgan Halgren] From one person?
[Arlette Hollister] Yes. And I don't know how they do it, but they do it.
[Morgan Halgren] How many entries is your daughter going to bring to the fair?
[Child's Mother] She brought today, we entered for her because she's home baking bread like mad, the honey division she's working on, we entered 127 entries for her.
[Narrator] Arlette Hollister served as the Superintendent of Foods at the Iowa State Fair for more than 30 years.
[Arlette Hollister] It is fun to see them bring their things and they're so proud of them. This is their baby. They have made it. This is something they have done.
[Contestant] Popcorn cake and popcorn treats.
[Arlette Hollister] And I tell everybody the first time that they enter that it is addicting. And sure enough, the next year they said, you're right, it is addicting.
[Narrator] She was masterful at keeping the traditional contests going while at the same time allowing the competition to evolve by adding new categories.
[Arlette Hollister] I try to have a lot of children's contests because if we don't get them when they're young, someday we're not going to have anybody.
[Judge] What did you name it?
[Child Contestant] The disgustingness.
[Judge] The disgustingness?
[Child Contestant] Yeah.
[Narrator] Cinnamon rolls are one of the biggest contests with the biggest prize.
[Chuck Offenburger] I got invited to come judge cinnamon rolls at the fair. And I did that for a number of years. I can remember going in and having like 70 rolls that are entered in the contest. And most of them were made that morning. And I'd have to take a bite, I felt like I had to take a bite of every one of them. I would take a knife and a fork and I'd cut in and I'd pull a little square of the center of the roll out and sample them and the I would somehow pick the top three.
Too light on the cinnamon, too dry.
[Chuck Offenburger] And the I would get the recipe from the winner and I would use it in my column the next day's paper.
[Judge 1] I chose this one as first place. The name is Mary Rooney.
[Judge 1] You made these? Oh, it's great.
[Judge 2] And this is our --
[Narrator] It's a big deal to win that contest and Marianne Carlson did it not just once, but twice.
[Marianne Carlson of Jefferson] Oh, that was the most exciting thing I'd ever had happen to me.
[Contestant] I am amazed every year at what I see. It's just a learning experience to see what other people do.
[Male Contestant] We're not going to bad mouth one another.
[Female Contestant] No, absolutely not, that's not what the fair is about.
[Chuck Offenburger] It can be tense. But what I notice is that after the decisions are made there are almost never arguments afterwards. And I guess that's what the fairs are all about.
[Marianne Carlson] I love it. It's fun. I have a passion for it and I love to go and see people. It's just, it's fun.
(Person bungee jumps)
[Narrator] The 1990s racetrack was a place for mullets, muscle and extreme motorsports.
[Announcer 1] One, two, three times at least over.
[Announcer 2] He comes down to the ramp and up and over and he hits it on the front tires.
[Announcer 3] But he's rough and he's tough, he's only got three turbine chargers. He's in a big class with a lot of big tractors. He's throwing water all over the track and he's heading for that mark. He's getting closer, he's getting closer and he got the job done!
[Announcer 4] Getting ready for the Russian dynamite death chair and indeed it is. Mike Davis getting ready to sit down, get this, on four sticks of dynamite.
And you can see nothing left of the chair and Mike Davis really came rolling out of there.
(Concert goers sway back and forth with their hands in the air)
(Starship sings "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now")
♪ We can build this thing together ♪
[Narrator] Elsewhere, fairgoers were bonding over shared musical tastes.
♪ Nothing's gonna stop us now ♪
[Narrator] Exploring the magic of the Midway.
(Teenage girls throw darts at balloons)
[Narrator] And finding a renewed sense of enjoyment in that rural way of life. Attendance records were shattered for several years running and the Fair again attracted national attention. Martin Mull and Comedy Central filmed a farce on the fairgrounds with Fred Willard.
(Martin Mull sitting in guest chair on The David Letterman Show)
[David Letterman] So, you and Fred, what are you going to do there? Are you going to broadcast live? Are you going to do reports?
[Martin Mull] Just kind of do a report on what's going on in the center of this great country of ours.
[David Letterman] Now, you're not going to be out there making fun of those people, are you? Because that's the Heartland. You don't want to do that.
[Martin Mull] I can't speak for Fred, but I know that I'm going to go in there with just the biggest grin you've ever seen.
[Narrator] At the turn of the 21st century, the efforts of the Iowa State Fair's Blue Ribbon Foundation were paying off. There were tens of thousands of things to do and see, thousands of blue ribbons to be won, and food stands as far as the eye could see. Lots of folks, famous or not, decided the fair was worth a visit. In 2002, attendance surpassed 1 million visitors during its 11-day run for the first time. The milestone was attributed to good weather, popular Grandstand acts and new attractions. The New York Times took notice and included the Iowa State Fair in its best-selling travel book, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."
[George Bush] It's good to see so many friends and friendly faces. I think back with fond memories of my travels through this beautiful state, and I mean it's a beautiful state.
[Chuck Offenburger] Another part of this that became a deal in the later part of the fair was the importance politically of the fair.
[Narrator] President Gerald Ford visited during his first year in office, touring the grounds, visiting exhibits and meeting with local farmers and leaders. He gave a speech emphasizing the importance of agriculture to our nation's economy.
[Gerald Ford] And the American farmer stands 10-feet tall in his contributions to this nation's greatness.
[Narrator] Excited Iowans filled the Grandstand to see the President in person.
[Gary Slater, CEO and Fair Manager 2001-2022] We hosted Barack Obama here as President and the plan was that they will buy their tickets, you've got to buy your ticket, politicians don't get in free, and come through the gate and we greet them. Well, as they got up to the window to buy the tickets, the President reaches for his pocket and he's like, uh-oh, I don't have any money. And Tom Vilsack did not miss a beat. He said, "That's okay, Mr. President let me buy," and he pulls out the money and he pays for the tickets.
[Don Gonyea, National Political Correspondent, NPR News] The Iowa State Fair is kind of the center of the universe every four years when it's presidential election time, it just is. President Jimmy Carter campaigned extensively in Iowa. He visited the fair in 1976, the first of the Iowa State Fair political frenzies leading up to a presidential election.
[Reporter] From the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, election '88. The Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate, the economics of America.
[Leo Landis] It's the 1980s when really the Iowa State Fair in August becomes, to a degree, ground zero for political appearances related to the Iowa Caucuses and playing a real national role.
[Scott Walker] I'm going to support a legal immigration system that puts a priority...
[Chuck Offenburger] And then the Register stepped up and had the soapbox, the old soapbox idea of standing up and having your say. And they built these stages on bales of hay.
[Don Gonyea] Every candidate handles it differently. Some candidates decide maybe it's too risky to go to the soapbox and have people that close to you.
[Scott Walker] I am not intimidated by you, sir, or anyone else out there. I will fight for the American people over and over and over...
[Don Gonyea] But, it is a place for a political reporter to go and watch the candidate interact with an audience that has not been screened or pre-selected or vetted by the campaign.
[Joe Biden] I'll tell you what, I've never known the fair to be this crowded.
[Narrator] Hundreds of thousands of people visit the fair, and many of them are Iowa voters and caucus goers. Presidential candidates come to the Fair hoping a strong performance will lead to success.
[Candidate to Robot] Will you caucus for me?
[Robot] I would be glad to do that as long as you have the side of robotics and technology people are talking for you, right?
[Chuck Offenburger] I'll never forget, one of my favorite moments was Bernie Sanders is running and he was speaking on the soapbox that day.
[Don Gonyea] I remember when Donald Trump came. It was in that time period where people didn't see Donald Trump as the eventual nominee. And he landed his helicopter right outside the Fairgrounds in one of those parking areas out there. And after he was done taking a few questions he says to his supporters, a lot of whom had kids with them because, again, it's the fair, it's the Iowa State Fair, he said, "Okay kids, who wants a ride in the helicopter?"
(Helicopter flying away)
[Chuck Offenburger] Bernie is up speaking on the soapbox and all of a sudden there is this racket overhead and you look up and here comes the Trump helicopter.
[Bernie Sanders] Well, there's Donald Trump.
[Chuck Offenburger] You couldn't hear him. It was chop, chop, chop, chop and Bernie's up there on the stage just going, "oh, oh my God."
[Don Gonyea] It feels like even as the world of politics and the world of journalism has changed dramatically over the past 20, 25 years, the Iowa State Fair hasn't changed that much. The soapbox still looks like the soapbox. But it's still a candidate on a stage talking to an audience that is just a few feet away from them.
[Fairgoer] What are you going to do for me to vote for you? I'm a farmer, I'm a rancher. What are you going to do to get my vote?
[Don Gonyea] And that feels like old school politics. And when you're there watching it, it still feels plenty relevant and plenty important.
[Reporter] Governor, is it time for a corn dog?
[Governor] Ooh, no, I'm not doing the corn dog in front of you guys. That's one of my rules.
(Kamala Harris takes a bite of a pork chop)
[Kamala Harris] Oh my God!
[Narrator] Food has always been an important part of going to the fair. In the early days, folks would pack a picnic to spread out and eat on the lawn.
[Thomas Leslie] And so today a lot of the open space is taken up with what are some of my favorite pieces of architecture at the fair, the food stands, some of which are really novel and really interesting all competing to try to grab your attention, all of course paying concession fees, which helps the Fair stay afloat, taking up this space that was formerly kind of promenade space, space where you would lay out a blanket and enjoy the peace and quiet of the fair.
[Narrator] Many of the food stands are family businesses and many of those have been serving food here for decades.
[Reporter] We present the corn dog.
[Narrator] The corn dog is the most iconic food at the fair and a ritual for many fairgoers.
[Helen Little, Concessionaire] And I don't know that one person can actually say, oh I started the corn dogs. Hmm, maybe not. It's just, who was able to make it into something that was actually doable and good and stayed consistent?
[Narrator] Helen's dad, Melvin Little, was the first to serve corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair in 1954.
[Helen Little] When they first came out with the corn dogs, you had your fryer like this and then you had a wheel on the front of it that had little holes in it that you could put a stick into. So, you would take the corn dog and you would get the batter on it, then you dip it into the grease to get it set and then you'd have to whip it up, burn your fingers obviously, and stick them into this wheel so that you had this thing that went around like this on the front of the fryer where the people were walking by you so that they could see this.
[Grace DeWitt] Then in our stands we used to have to yell our slogan, "Get your educated poncho dog. Rides a stick, swims in grease and wears an overcoat. You bite it, it won't bite you."
[Helen Little] We didn't like doing it, so we wouldn't do it until we saw his red hat coming through the crowd, because you'd be watching for that. Then you'd start yelling something, then as soon as he would leave then you'd be quiet again and be cute.
[Narrator] Easy cleanup, no mess and portability. Corn dogs solved a great number of fair food inconveniences. Through the 20th century, concessionaires began to realize the potential of really putting anything on a stick. Want to eat a sweet, sticky treat in the middle of summer hassle free while heading up to Pioneer Hall? Simply put it on a stick. Problem solved.
[Connie Boesen] But we did put everything on a stick because everything is better I guess on a stick. The only thing I don't do on a stick usually is the apple. I slice it. That's just part of the fair.
[Paul Berge] We're going to conduct the first ever interview on a stick. Lindsay Grooters of Indianola, Iowa intends to eat her way through all 49 items in 10 days, which begs the question, are you insane?
[Lindsay Grooters] Pretty much, but I love the fair!
(Lindsay is handed a turkey leg)
This sucker is huge!
[Narrator] Is there a way to make the fair taste even better? Offer free admission and a free corn dog to 11,000 people, like at the 2008 Corn Dog Chomp.
[Robin Taylor, Assistant Director, Blue Ribbon Foundation] It was an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the most number of people eating a corn dog at one time. And it was on the first day of the fair.
[Narrator] Vendors had to scramble to get that many corn dogs ready at the same time and distribute them to the Grandstand crowd.
[Announcer] Three, two, one, chomp!
[Robin Taylor] So, it was a very, very unique way to open up the fair and get a lot of people in on your first day.
[Fairgoer 1] I come here to eat my way through the fair. I've been doing it for, um, close to 60 years now.
[Fairgoer 2] I'm having the Coconut Mountain, I don't even know what it is but I'm having it because I love coconut.
[Concessionaire] We try to come up with something new every year and have fun during the off season, so to speak, trying to come up with new products.
[Connie Boesen] There's no pressure to do something new. It is beneficial to do something new if it's a great item. I always say, you have to be very prepared if you're going to do a new item and you win on production. I think it just tastes better here, I don't know.
[Narrator] Is the food at the fair special because, even as we pushed the limits of reasonable consumption, we couldn't help learning something about where all that delicious food came from?
[John Putney] There's so many young people today that are only one generation removed from the farm and have never been on a farm. We want to bring them here to the fair and show them the Animal Learning Center, how we take care of our livestock, how we take care of our pigs and our cattle and our poultry. And they become educated on where their family have come from. We need to always keep that agricultural sense about the Fair.
[Narrator] Like the family farm, attending the fair is a cherished tradition that has been passed down through generations of Iowans. So, when the COVID pandemic forced the Fair to cancel, many were disappointed.
(Gary Slater speaks at a press conference)
[Gary Slater] I know it will be a long 14 months until the next Iowa State Fair and it seems like it has been 14 months just in the last two.
[Gary Slater] 2020 was one of the most difficult parts of my whole career, no doubt about it.
[Robin Taylor] It was just an interesting perspective to see August in a different way and it made us all miss the fair and realize what an incredible treasure we have. So, it's one of those things that there was a silver lining in a sense of what it taught you and how much you enjoy the f air.
[Narrator] If history has taught us anything, it's that despite war, weather, or in recent cases, pandemics, the Iowa State Fair can survive. As long as people find value in the thousands of things to see and do, the Fair will continue to grow and prosper well into the future.
[Robin Taylor] I just hope that the love and the joy that people have of bringing their family to the fair and introducing new people to the fair continues because it is such a unique festival that brings so many varieties together.
[Thomas Leslie] Fair week is unlike the other 51 weeks of the year. It's a chance to get away from home and to do something very, very different.
[Grace DeWitt] And it's the most fun people watching place you can ever go in your whole life.
[Chuck Offenburger] And I always think, everybody ought to have a goal of entering something in the state fair or doing something at the state fair.
[John Putney] I just enjoying seeing people set up, you know, set up. It's amazing how fast they set up and how fast they can tear down. It's just amazing to me. And just the excitement, the overall excitement.
[Don Gonyea] There are great state fairs out there, right? But, the world knows about the Iowa State Fair and I think that is because of politics, that guaranteed that the national spotlight, the media following presidential candidates brings us right into the middle of that fairgrounds. And it has mattered.
[Sarah Pratt] I would keep everything the same. (laughs) I hope that there's always a sense for the fair of holding onto tradition, but not too tightly.
[Helen Little] I would do anything for the Iowa State Fair because I don't know what anybody would do without it.
[Gary Slater] That heart, it's everywhere here at the fair. When I go to Pioneer Hall it's in the fiddle contest, it's in the children's mom calling contest, it's in the tall corn growing contest. It's with the moms and dads watching their kids show livestock in 4-H and FFA. They're here to be entertained. They're here to remember and relive. You ask where the heart is, it's everywhere, but it's individually everywhere with each person.
[Narrator] It's about the things that change, and the things that stay the same. The story of the Iowa State Fair is the story of an idea that began as an experiment and turned into something extraordinary.
(Text on screen:
- Narrator: Jennifer Clark
- Writer and Producer: Theresa Knight
- Editors: Julie Knutson, Cameron McCoy
- Audio Design and Mix: David Feingold
- Camera: Darrin Clouse, Scott Faine, Eric Gooden, Kenny Knutson, Tipp McClure, Adam Welch
- Graphics: Joe Bustad, Brent Willett
- Digital Archivist: Marci Behm
- Production Assistance: Tiffany Clouse
- Carnegie Historical Museum, Fairfield
- Des Moines Broadcasting
- Ellen Hammond
- Fortepan Iowa
- Getty Images
- Harold Chenoweth Film Collection, University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries' Archives and Special Collections
- Iowa State Fair Museum
- Iowa State University Archives
- Iowa State University Library, AV Collection
- Jay Vigon and Ken Winber
- Library of Congress
- Linda Perrenoud
- Nebraska State Historical Society
- Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines
- Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City
- State Archives of Iowa, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines
- Ellen Hammond
- Bill Friedricks
- Rox Laird
- Leo Landis
- Thomas Leslie
- Chris Rasmussen
- Mary Kay Stanley
- Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation
- Iowa State Fair Marketing Department
Executive Producer: Cameron McCoy
Production Supervisor: Chad Aubrey
Director of Programming and Production: Andrew Batt
Copyright 2023 Iowa PBS
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- Arlette Hollister 1930-2019
- Bill Riley Sr. 1920-2006
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