Iowa State Fair | Exploring the Midwest Podcast Episode 22

Last Updated on July 13, 2021 by Jody Halsted

I am so excited to kick off ‘State Fair Season' with the country's most famous state fair!

As the inspiration for the novel “State Fair” by Phil Strong, three motion pictures, a smash Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and loads of national accolades, the Iowa State Fair has a lot to recommend it.

Mindy Williamson is Marketing Director for the Iowa State Fair.

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Iowa State Fair Memories

About the Iowa State Fair

History

Iowa is historically an agricultural state and even today is top in many of the commodities and food that people eat. One of the reason the fairs started was to improve genetics and agriculture in the state, which is actually a very innovative and forward-thinking way to solve agricultural issues. Farmers and agricultural leaders saw that the corn wasn't growing any taller or producing any more than it had been, so they thought, let's make it a competition of sorts. That's how it started, and today we still have a tall corn contest, which was part of the very first fairs. This is also true for livestock.

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Crowds of people at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines

The first location for the Iowa State Fair was actually Fairfield, Iowa, where they would get 7,000-8,000 people in wagons attending just through word of mouth. Compare that to today, when the Iowa State Fair, held in Des Moines, brings upwards of 1.1 million people with multiple channels of marketing. A mascot named Fairfield today pays tribute to the history of the Fair.

Today, new things are introduced at the Fair, but it's important to keep those traditions alive as well. Ulimately, it's a place for innovation. It's a place where people bring new products, whether that be shammies for your car or feeders for your livestock. The Fair sitll has that today, and they had it in 1854 when it started.

When is the Iowa State Fair?

At the beginning, the Fair was held in October and hopped around for a while in the September-October range. Eventually, it was moved back to August. It has been held everywhere from 7-11 days, but Fair officials have found that 11 days is the “sweet spot,” with two weekends for people to attend. In 2021, the Iowa State Fair will run August 12-22.

Famous Features of the Fair

The Butter Cow is truly iconic, and it's said if you haven't seen the Butter Cow, there's really no proof that you've been to the Iowa State Fair. Over the history of the Fair, five different sculptors have sculpted these life-sized versions made solely of butter, as well as other butter sculptures.

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Be prepared to wait in a long line for a close-up view of the butter cow

The buildings are also very iconic, dating back to 1886. The Grandstand was built in 1909 and has undergone some renovations but is still used today and is very impressive to guests, especially those from other states and countries who visit the Fair.

The Fair covers 450 acres, but roughly 160 of those acres are campgrounds. It started with tents and church groups and exhibitors and has grown to highly sought-out sites which are gifted to family members and currently have a 20-year waitlist.

Activities at the Fair

The Iowa State Fair appeals to so many people because there is literally something no matter your age, from animal buildings to the Varied Industries Building where you can buy almost anything to the amusement park.

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Cow and calf in a livestock building

Each year, the Fair offers half a million dollars of free entertainment on stages throughout the Fairgrounds featuring nearly every genre, in addition to the amazing Grandstand acts. Each of the 11 nights features a Grandstand act, which sees 15,500 people in there for a sold-out show. These are usually pretty big-name acts, from Christian to country to pop to classic rock.

You don't have to look far to find fun competitions to enter in, from bubblegum blowing to cow chip throwing and everything in between. Some you can just show up and join and others you can pre-register for at www.iowastatefair.org. One of these that is pretty amazing is the quilt show. In 2019, a lady entered who had spent six years creating her quilt. There are also plenty of food competitions, which are fun to watch because they are judged live. Sign up ahead of time to enter anything from a simple salad to cinnamon rolls.

Fair Foods

It's always exciting see what the “new Fair food” will be this year. The list is usally released mid-July. Food is the number-one reason people come to the Fair, for everything from porkchop on a stick to about 70 other foods on a stick, among other popular foods. There is actually a purpose behind putting so many foods on sticks. When you invite 1.1 million people to the Fair over 11 days, it produces a lot of garbage. This helps cut down on the trash that is generated.

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Hot Beef Sundae at the Iowa Cattlemen's Building

The Cattlemen's Association's Hot Beef Sundae is always a fan favorite, too, and it seems like everyone has their favorite they have to get year after year. Find a list of all the food at the Fair at https://www.iowastatefair.org/food.

Insider Tips for Getting to the Fair

The Fair opens at 8 a.m., so the earlier you get to the Fairgrounds, the better your chances of getting a parking space in the parking lot. You can also catch a ride from one of the DART locations, including the lesser-used Center Street DART stop, which may be easier to find parking. Taking a DART bus is a stress-free and cheap way to get to the Fairgrounds, at less than a dollar a ride. If you do want to to try to park at the Fairgrounds, you might try after 5 p.m. on a weekday, when tickets are cheaper.

Purchasing tickets ahead of time online also helps you save time so you don't have to wait in line once you get to the gates.


Get all the information, as well as deals & discounts at iowastatefair.org, or download the Iowa State Fair app on Android or Apple phones.

Follow the Iowa State Fair on Facebook or Instagram

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