Iowa State Fair opens Thursday
The Iowa State Fair opens Thursday for an 11-day celebration on the fairgrounds in Des Moines, but the fair actually got its start 159 years ago in Fairfield.
An editorial column in the April 11, 1853, Fairfield Ledger, which suggested holding a fair in Fairfield because, at the time, it was the center of the state’s population, sparked the idea for a state fair.
Later that year, a statewide agricultural association was formed, and the first state fair was set to begin Oct. 25, 1854, in Fairfield.
The fair was held on six acres of land between West Grimes and West Lowe avenues and North Second and North Fourth streets.
The fairgrounds, with the entrance on the corner of North Fourth Street and West Grimes Avenue, were enclosed with a 10-foot-tall rail fence. The grounds included a long shed protecting a 5-foot-wide, 250-foot-long table; 130 stalls; 60 pig pens; an office for the Board of Control; a 25-foot-wide, 1,500-foot round track with a rope guard to protect the bystanders and a platform in the center for speakers and judges; and space for visitors ranging from 30 feet to 150 feet. It cost $322.20 to set up the grounds.
Entire families came to the fair by covered wagons and horseback and stayed all three days, living in their wagons or camping near the grounds. On its busiest day, the fair drew 8,000 visitors, who each paid a 25-cent admission fee.
Contests were held for farm animals, crops and domestic manufacturing, which included items like flannel, carpets and clothing made by families. An exhibit of feminine horsemanship was a highlight.
Receipts from the first fair totaled about $1,000. After money for bills and prizes were taken out, there was a balance of $50, and the association decided to hold the second state fair beginning Oct. 10, 1855, in Fairfield.
The second state fair was held at a different location, on 10 acres opposite the southeast corner of Fairfield’s city limits. It drew 12,000 on its busiest day and included the same contests as before.
After the second year, the fair moved to different locations around the state. From 1879 to 1884, it was held on grounds west of Des Moines, but in 1884 and 1885, Des Moines citizens raised $50,000 to purchase the land which formed the original nucleus of the present fairgrounds on the east side of the city.
Seventy-one years after the first state fair, on Sept. 24, 1925, the Log Cabin Chapter and Iowa Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, set up a historical marker at Fourth Street and Grimes Avenue. The boulder’s bronze tablet proclaims it “Marks the Entrance to the Site of the First Iowa State Fair, Held at Fairfield October 25, 26, 27, 1854.”
The boulder was rededicated July 2, 1964, when Fairfield celebrated its 125th birthday. Now the rock has been moved a few feet east to accommodate work at the intersection of Fourth and Grimes.
In 1954, an Iowa Centennial State Fair Caravan was held to commemorate the first state fair in Fairfield and to open the 100th Iowa State Fair.
The caravan left Fairfield Tuesday morning, Aug. 24, with 350 people, 300 horses and 30 wagons. People were able to join the caravan along the route, so by the time it pulled into the state fairgrounds Friday evening, Aug. 27, it totaled 578 people ranging in age from 6 months to 76 years old from 95 towns in Iowa, six states and the District of Columbia; 526 animals; and 30 horse-drawn vehicles.
The caravan traveled about 24 miles each day on main highways, camping overnight near Ottumwa, in Oskaloosa, near Monroe and at the Iowa State Fair campgrounds.
The group used 750 bales of hay, 600 bushels of oats and spent $2,300 in feeding participants.
Thirty-seven National Guardsmen prepared the food, as well as hauled 15,000 gallons of water, 500 steel posts, 500 heavy planks and 6,000 feet of rope for corrals.
Saturday, Aug. 28, the two-mile-long group opened the centennial Iowa State Fair by parading around the track in front of the grandstand.
A historical marker on the southwest corner of Fairfield’s Central Park, designates the park as the starting point of the caravan. The Fairfield Jayceettes erected it in 1955.
A second plaque added to the marker in 1970, states: “Official records of 1954 Caravan are buried below. Not to be opened until 2054 A.D., the 200th anniversary of the Iowa State Fair.”
In 1979, to mark the 125th anniversary of the first state fair and the 25th anniversary of the 1954 Iowa Centennial State Fair Caravan, about 70 people on horseback and in at least five horse-drawn rigs left from the Wilbur Horton farm, 1 miles south of Fairfield on Highway 1 at 8 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 18. They went around the square once, and then headed out on Brookville Road, with Hedrick as the first-day overnight destination. The group also had overnight stays in Oskaloosa and Monroe.
Horton made the trip in a simulated covered wagon drawn by a team of matched mules. The wagon and harness made the trip to Des Moines in the first caravan; the animals and occupants were different.
About 400 people from 17 states, with 45 wagons and around 250 horses made a second caravan trip from Fairfield to Des Moines in August 2004 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the fair and the 50th anniversary of the 1954 caravan.
The caravan kickoff celebration Saturday, Aug. 7, in Central Park included the showing of a trophy won by Jesse Hinshaw for his 2-year-old colt at the first Iowa State Fair.
The small, less than 3-inch tall, engraved silver cup trophy is believed to be the only existing memento in Iowa from the first Iowa State Fair.
The 2005 caravan set out Sunday morning Aug. 8 on its four-day trip to Des Moines, with overnight stops in Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Monroe and Pleasant Hill. The procession, with special guest riders from the 1954 caravan including Loretta Diers and Lois Brokken, paraded through the state fairgrounds during opening day ceremonies Thursday, Aug. 12.
The 2013 fair offers half a million dollars in free stage entertainment, delectable foods, livestock galore and more.
The fair boasts one of the world’s largest livestock shows, with more than 5,570 exhibitors and 23,600 entries ranging from chickens and pigeons to llamas and hogs as well as 10 different breeds of horses.
Batavia residents Dwight and Marge Westercamp, the reigning champions of the Iowa State Fair’s biggest rabbit contest plan to enter another big Flemish Giant rabbit this year for the contest set for 6 p.m. Aug. 16 in the Poultry, Pigeon and Rabbit Barn near Gate 4.
A complete listing of fair activities is available at iowastatefair.org.