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.: August 2006 --> Are State Fairs dying?

Are State Fairs dying?

» State Fairs, once a staple summertime activity, are going out of style. This article speculates that they are just not as attractive as they once were to an audience that now has the choice of everything from casinos to water parks. But I think there's something deeper at work.

I think it has to be connected, to some extent, to the loss of the family farm. Farming used to be embedded in American life. If you weren't a farmer, you knew a farmer. State and county fairs weren't just entertainment: they were industry events. They were a chance to show off your skill, your expertise, your talent, whether that was raising pigs, growing zucchini, or making jam. (Compare log-rolling—once a chance to test a real work skill against other practitioners—and now just a quaint novelty, performed by people who have only ever rolled logs to entertain, not to actually cross the river in the course of their work).

And because farming days are necessarily spent cultivating crops in the field and processing food in the home (both surrounded by acres of farmland) farming can be a lonely life. I once knew a woman who used to show horses. She told me she learned a trick one summer. In the middle of the day when she got hungry, she would stop her trailer in front of any farmhouse she came upon. She said that invariably, the woman inside—husband out in the fields for a long day of work—would come out to see what was the matter, and then, starved for company, invite her in for lunch.

With so many farmers now just cogs in the industrial US farming machine, perhaps the same pride of work just isn't there anymore. Maybe even farmers have lost their connection to farming.

I love the State Fair. I grew up going every year, and we would walk through every barn and look at every exhibit and admire every piece of livestock. Then there was the pavilion filled with the hawkers, fast-talking pitchmen with a gadget to sell. And the food, and and the wildlife exhibits, and the butter cow. Every year, the butter cow and then ice cream. Salt-water taffy on the way out. No rides. Put up overnight, as they were, my father considered them unsafe. I love the fair. I don't want it to go away.

 [ 08.18.06 ]


What a lovely tribute to state fairs! When I was young,(some 50 years ago) my parents took my brothers and me to three different county fairs every year. If money was available, we could also go to the state fair! I remember going through the 'Women's' building and being mesmerized by the awesome quilts, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, etc. that were on display. Only the 'best of the best' articles made it to the state fair!
I won a blue ribbon at our county fair for an embroidered dresser scarf and felt so proud!

You're right about the loneliness thing. The State Fair was connected completely to the rural lifestyle in the United States. Not to people who live in small towns but to people who live a mile from their neighbors on a farm. It's no coincidence that State Fairs are scheduled just after harvest time in every state. The farm would complete the majority of its work for a year and then the whole family would head off to town for a few days of relaxation and the opportunity to meet the other farmers that they only see at the state fair. It is a sad passage.

Dear Rebecca,

Thank you for bringing this subject up, and for commenting on it.

I just returned from the Jackson County Fair, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. One of the things I noticed this year is that rides are more numerous, the tractor pull seems to be all the rage, and that exhibits seem to be more about pageantry than about quality. Had it been the average county in the US, I would have understood, but Jackson County is agrarian by nature.

The change was typified by the auction I attended one evening, where my nephew--who had had Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion lambs the previous two years--was hoping to sell his lamb for top dollar. Unfortunately for him, a pattern soon surfaced: Other participants, who had livestock of lesser quality and were barely able to control their entries through the use of effective showmanship, got much more money per pound than my nephew did.

Why? Because my nephew--who is now over six feet tall--was not a cute kid.

It would be unfair to extrapolate from this single instance, but it does have to make you stop and ponder. Because if this pageantry is being paralleled across America, it is inevitable for the farmer to be the ultimate casualty of the banality of our times.

I live in Orange County, California, so having to deal with frequent examples of cultural shallowness is de rigeur for me. But if this vacuousness has somehow infected the Heartland, I think we can fairly say that, as a nation, we have truly lost our way...

With more than 1 million visitors annually, the Iowa State Fair may be the only one gaining momentum. And the reason may surprise you.

I too grew up with an annual visit to the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. One thing I don't recall, however, is the hoard of presidential hopefuls wandering the fairground 2 years before an election.

The good news is that while the politicos do their politicking, the rest of the fairgoers will be watching grocery bagging contests, looking at the sheep judging, and of course, filing past the butter cow.

At least Pataki got it right when he said that "You know, there's going to be a million people here and they're not here to meet the politicians. They're here to have fun at the fair and have a pork-chop on a stick." For more on odd mix of politics and state fair kitsch, visit

I am from Orange County, Calif. And every year that I can, I go to the OC Fair in July at least 2x to see all the agricultural shows and animals (one week sheep & goats, one week cattle). I don't go for the deep fried Mars bars or for the rides, but to see who is growing the best lemons and zucchini in their backyards in Huntington and Orange, to see which local High School has the best cattle or sheep (Fullerton? Buena Park? Costa Mesa? etc).

And each year that more of OC gets turned into cookie cutter ugly stucco'd McMansions is the year that I drag more friends to the animal and ag events at the Fair to celebrate the folk who are gardening and husbanding in the cracks of suburbia.

((p.s. I am in Ireland this year, and thus missed the Fair, but I heard from my friends that it was grand.))

In Illinois, anyway, the State Fair actually seems to be bouncing back. Very good news, indeed!

I'm so heartened to read your tribute to fairs! I've always loved the Idaho State Fairs (we have one in the eastern part of the state and one in the west), especially the home arts exhibits. This year, I finally got brave enough to enter some of my own work.

While some of my friends find this very quaint, others are planning to participate next year. I think it's part of the longing some of us feel to produce something tangible, something useful, something that involves absolutely no typing and can be displayed without a browser.

But then, I live in a state where potato farming is still one alive and well (although much more corporate than in yesteryear).

The official New Jersey State Fair is in Sussex County, and it's still alive and well, though it's got the same issues with agriculture vs. rides as many other fairs seem to have. Before it became the "state" fair, it was the Sussex County Farm and Horse show, and many of the people who have been involved in that aspect of the fair for years aren't necessarily thrilled with moving up to the big time. I for one find the agriculture end of the fair to be much more interesting than the carny stuff: I love to see the hard work that the 4H kids have put into the animals they show. Just over the border is the Orange County (NY) Fair, and it's been in decline for years. The few times I've been there, the only livestock I've seen has already been deep fried. Too bad.



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