Iowa State Fair

The Iowa State Fair is an annual state fair held in Des Moines, Iowa. The 2008 Iowa State Fair was held August 7-17th and features the theme, "U Gotta Love It."


The first Iowa State Fair was held in Fairfield in 1854. The budget for it was $323. [] The fair was held again in Fairfield in 1855. For the next several years, the fair was held in various towns, mostly in Eastern Iowa. The fair was held in Muscatine in 1856-1857, in Oskaloosa in 1858-1859, in Iowa City in 1860-1861, in Dubuque in 1862-1863, in Burlington in 1864-1866, in Clinton in 1867-1868, in Keokuk in 1869-1870 and 1874-1875, and in Cedar Rapids in 1871-1873 and 1876-1878. The fair moved in 1878 to Des Moines. After the state legislature and the city of Des Moines appropriated funds for the fair in 1886, the fair moved to its current location at East 30th and University in Des Moines [] .

In the over 150 years of the Iowa State Fair, there have only been a few years when it did not take place. In 1898, the fair was cancelled due to the World's Fair in nearby Omaha, Nebraska as well as because of the Spanish-American War. The fair was also shut down in 1942 due to World War II when the state provided the fairgrounds to the military to be used as a supply depot. The fair re-opened in 1946. [] There has only been one year in which temperatures at the fair reached over convert|100|°F|°C: 1983. In that year, temperatures peaked at 106 degrees, and there were 6 days of over 100 degree weather.

The fair celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2004. Also in 2004, the fair set an attendance record with 1,053,978. visits. [] Conservative figures indicate the 11-day Fair is the catalyst for approximately $60 million worth of spending in travel, hotels/motels, restaurants, shopping, etc. []


The fair grounds are made of over convert|400|acre|km2 of which convert|160|acre|km2 are wooded campsites. Yearly attractions include the butter cow, the Midway's Double Ferris Wheel, one of the world's largest livestock shows, the country's largest state fair foods department (approx. 900 classes), the state's largest arts show and 600 plus exhibitors and concessionaires [] .

Livestock and traditional attractions

The Iowa State Fair places a great deal of emphasis on the agricultural presence in the state. To that end, there are many livestock shows and sales. These include the contests for the biggest animals: the Big Boar, the Big Ram, the Super Bull, and the Largest Rabbit. There are also livestock shows of sheep, swine, beef and dairy cattle, goats, llamas and rabbits, as well as cat and dog shows.

Additionally, the fair is home to several traditional contests and tournaments, including rooster crowing, sheep shearing, pigeon racing, turkey, duck, and chicken calling, wood chopping, pie eating, arm wrestling, banjo, fiddle, accordion, harmonica, mandolin and piano playing, and backgammon, chess, cribbage and checkers tournaments.

Furthermore, the fair traditionally has many free musical and other events going on. These include Latin music, a cappella music, country music, rock music, Jimmy Buffett and Beatles "tribute bands", stilt walkers, magicians, puppet and marionette shows, acrobats, and exotic animals like tigers and alligators.

The Heritage Village located on the fair grounds contains many items of historical import to the state of Iowa, including replicas of Native American traditional domiciles, a one-roomed school house, a church and others.

The Varied Industries Building traditionally holds many vendors offering "fair specials" and free items, such as pens and pencils and magnets.

The butter cow

One of the most well-known features of the Iowa State Fair is the butter cow. Each year, a life-size cow figure is sculpted from butter. The butter cow has been a fair staple since 1911. In 1960, butter sculptor Norma "Duffy" Lyon created her first bovine masterpiece. In the following forty-five years, she sculpted all six breeds of dairy cow, as well as Garth Brooks, a butter version of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic, Superman, the "Peanuts" characters, Elvis Presley, various animals, John Wayne, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and a butter rendition of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper". Her butter sculptures were featured in national magazines and on radio programs, as well as on "The Today Show" and "Late Night with David Letterman". Following Lyon's retirement in 2005, longtime apprentice Sarah Pratt took over the sculpting duties, in 2007 pairing the butter cow with a butter Harry Potter. In 2008, along with the butter cow, Pratt produced a butter Shawn Johnson made in the likeness of the Olympic gymnast who is from the Des Moines area.

The Bill Riley Iowa State Fair talent search

In 1946, Iowa Falls native Bill Riley emceed variety shows held at the Iowa State Fair by KRNT radio. In 1957, Bill approached Fair secretary Lloyd Cunningham about showcasing talented kids during the State Fair. Two years worth of convincing later, Bill Riley’s first Iowa State Fair Talent Search was held. By August of 1959, Bill had crisscrossed the state holding numerous talent shows. During the Fair, the state’s brightest young stars performed for delighted Fairgoers.

“Our daily shows started at 2 o’clock,” Bill recalled. “They were so popular that people weren’t attending the afternoon shows in the Grandstand, so the Fair Board asked us to move our start time to 1 o’clock. Then, people went on the Grandstand, but they got there late. So finally, we started our shows at Noon.”

Affectionately known as “Mr. State Fair,” Bill retired from the Talent Search in 1996. That same year, the Plaza Stage was renamed the Bill Riley Stage. In 2006, Bill celebrated his 60th Fair. He passed away in December 2006.

Today the Talent Search is still thriving. Nearly 100 local qualifying shows are held across the state. There are seven days of preliminary competition for Sprouts (ages 2-12) and Seniors (ages 13-21), followed by the semi-finals and, ultimately, the selection of six Sprout champions and one Senior champion. Bill Riley’s son, Bill Riley, Jr., continues to host the show. []


The Fairgrounds' grandstand, which holds about 10,500 people [] , is used every night of the State Fair, either for auto races, tractor pulls, monster truck events, or musical concerts. The fair has brought in many big names to perform, with an emphasis on Iowa natives. Popular past and present guests at the Grandstand include Iowa native Andy Williams, Liberace, Lawrence Welk, Johnny Cash, The Jackson Five, Charley Pride, Sonny and Cher, Elton John, Tammy Wynette, Liza Minnelli, The Beach Boys, Chicago, The Eagles, Reba McEntire, The Nadas, Train, Raven Symone, Brooks & Dunn, Goo Goo Dolls, Christina Aguilera, Bob Dylan, Big and Rich, Cowboy Troy, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, and 2005 opener Switchfoot. The 2006 headliner was James Taylor. In 1974 Grateful Dead played a nearly 5-hour concert at the grandstands to a sold-out crowd. It has, however, seen its share of flops, including a Hoobastank performance in 2005 that only drew 2,500 people, which was reported to be even less than a free America concert going on nearby.

A national cultural event

Iowa is an important state in Presidential election races because the Iowa caucuses are the first in the nation to be held. For this reason, in years with pending elections, one can find presidential hopefuls at the State Fair, as well as national and international media reporting the event. []

In 1999, Martha Stewart and her production company taped an episode of her show at the fair, which was shown nationally. []

The Iowa State Fair once appeared on "The Simpsons" 2000 episode "Behind The Laughter", which featured a fictional performance by the Simpson family. In the episode, the performance turned into a heated argument and was saved from disaster by former President Jimmy Carter and his "comic breakdancing."

In 2004, the sesquicentennial of the fair drew the attention of "Country Living" magazine, "USA Today", the "Minneapolis Star-Tribune", the "Dallas Morning News", ESPN (which featured the "Outhouse Races" on the "Play of the Day"), and CBS News "Sunday Morning", as well as Monster Productions, which produces some of the Discovery Channel's programming. []

The Iowa State Fair was the inspiration for the acclaimed novel, "State Fair", written by Iowa native Phil Stong (and uncle of aforementioned butter sculptor Norma "Duffy" Lyon). The novel was later made into three movies, the first "State Fair" in 1933 starring Will Rogers, as well as the 1996 Broadway musical "State Fair". [] [] Due to this portrayal, as well as recent media coverage of the fair, the Iowa State Fair is seen as the classic and quintessential state fair of the United States.

While the Iowa State Fair is not the oldest or the largest, some have deemed it a "must-see" event. The fair has been noted in a best-selling global travel book, "1000 Places to See Before You Die". Notably, it is the only Iowa attraction in the book, as well as the only state fair in the book. [] . The fair has also been listed as second only to Las Vegas as a summer destination spot by "USA Weekend" magazine. [] . It is also included in the June 2004 issue of "Esquire" magazine as one of the "15 Superlative Things to Experience Before Labor Day." [] In addition, "Midwest Living" named the fair to its list of "30 Things Every Midwesterner Must Experience." In 2004, the fair was one of the events listed in Spread the Word Advertising's list of "Discover America 200 Events." Over 3000 national events were reviewed for inclusion in the list. [] .

Future Dates

Pending approval by the Fair Board:

* 2009: August 13-23
* 2010: August 12-22
* 2011: August 11-21

External links

* [ Iowa State Fair website]

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