By James P. ThomasITWPA member
The moment I stepped off the shuttle bus, all five senses were immediately awakened. The bright, warm summer sun touched my cheeks and almost obscured my view of the multitude of booths, food stands, and the throngs of people walking the midway. A cornucopia of aromas created by beef barbeque, pork chops, and deep-fried twinkies engaged my nostrils. The sounds of children screaming in glee on the carnival rides were mixed in with barkers enticing you to view their wares. Music from various watering holes served as the background to the fun. This was what welcomed me to the 2018 Iowa State Fair.
Located in the heart of the heartland, Des Moines, Iowa, the Iowa State Fair has existed since 1856, and in its current location since 1866, the 445-acre Iowa State Fairgrounds has been listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places since 1987. This was no traveling carnival that disappeared into the dark of the night. An annual event that happens in mid-August, the 11-day fair was filled with competitions, entertainment, exhibits, demonstrations, unique and exotic foods, and just plain old-fashioned fun. The competitions ranged from judging exquisite equestrian events to determining the Grand Champion Hog. In between these events, pies and pet lambs were judged. 4-H projects and samples of sewing were scrutinized. Over the 11-days, more than 40,000 ribbons, rosettes, and banners were awarded. The price of admission allowed me to witness all of the day’s events.
Although one would think that the carnival rides were the most popular children’s attractions, actually the “Little Hands on the Farm” exhibit drew the largest crowds. There, if your timing was right, you could witness a calf or a lamb being born or observe one that was just hours old. Watching chicks hatching was always fun and exciting. Standing before the actual miracle of life, children gained a great appreciation for animals, their beauty and their fragility.
If the Iowa State Fair has had one consistent icon, it’s the Butter Cow. A state fair tradition since 1911, a new bovine has been freshly carved out of butter every year. Over the years, four different artists have sculpted this dairy delight that attracts thousands, who line up daily during the fair to file past this unique tribute to the American dairy farmer.
Every night, there was a main entertainment event. The shows were always the highest caliber. Over the years, the acts have ranged from the Beach Boys to the Oak Ridge Boys. However, there was a cost to these performances. Yet, there were five free stages located around the fairgrounds that had over 40 acts to entertain you.
The granddaddy of the free shows was Bill Riley’s Iowa State Fair Talent Search. Created in 1959, long before American Idol, this legendary talent search combs the entire state of Iowa for talent to be displayed on the stage named after Bill. There were two groups of competitors, Sprouts, ages 2—12, and Seniors, ages 13—21. Sitting on one of the benches or under the shade of a tree near the stage, the talent show was a great place to take a break from the fair action and to treat your taste buds to a grinder, a burger, or a pork chop on a stick.
People in Iowa are known for their friendliness and patriotism. A day at the Iowa State Fair was a delightful experience of true Americana. From the horse shows to the Holsteins being herded by border collies, all five senses were continuously stimulated. Toward the end of the day, I found myself relaxing peacefully in the shade of a tree while watching the Talent Search and realizing an additional sense: Harmony. Yes, Harmony in the Heartland. That’s the Iowa State Fair.
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