Who can forget their first visit to the fair — a magical land of sights and sounds and smells beyond the reach of teachers, bosses, worries, and chores? There is nothing quite like that strange, veritable city that rises anew year after year on the outskirts of town to fill youths with wide-eyed wonder and adults with vivid memories of their own childhoods. For many people and many generations, the fair has occupied its own special place on the calendar and in the heart. For generations, Americans took fairs to heart and expanded them in an unprecedented fashion. Along the way, the state fair became a piece of bedrock Americana, with elements so familiar that they seem quintessentially domestic.
The reason for this popularity is that, throughout their sprawling, tumultuous history, state fairs have always reflected the basic elements of the national character: the strengths and weaknesses, the common sense and faddishness, the unities and discords that have long marked Americans’ unique development as a culture.
The American state fair is a conceptual curiosity, a celebration of agriculture that is at once a fantastic departure from the discipline and labor of the farming life. Even at the earliest fairs, agricultural displays and discussions competed for space and attention with horse races, carnivals, and shows. And innovations only widened the gap. The plowing contest became the tractor pull, and the horse race led to auto and motorcycle races and automobile stunt shows. Horse and hog contests blossomed into competitions among every kind of animal and vegetable, with baking and sewing contests right alongside. Like the prizewinning livestock and produce they showcased, state fairs expanded in size and number, becoming a national institution.
Agricultural fairs reach back to biblical times and promise to stretch far into the future. In America it was around the time of the Civil War when many of the country’s best-known and largest state fairs were first held. Before that, fairs were mostly local or county-wide affairs, more serious and less entertaining. But after the Civil War, the thrill shows, contests, and pageants that became such an integral part of our fair experience appeared to enliven the event.
Fairs have changed with the people who have sponsored them, but tradition and innovation remain constant. In the 1860s and 1870s, fairs closed at dusk because gaslights and electricity were still decades in the future. Implements from that time, then considered revolutionary, live on in exhibits of agricultural history. By the 1950s, the Texas fair was installing a monorail, and the Indiana fair was displaying a replica of an atomic pile at an exhibit of nuclear energy. But at both fairs, the venerable Ferris wheel, invented at the turn of the century, was still a centerpiece of the midway.
Sure, fairs are corny — that’s why folks love them. Where else could you see a replica of the Statue of Liberty made of ears of corn? Or the state’s tallest corn stalk? Or watch contestants vie to slice off the longest apple peel? Or see a Liberty Bell made of apples? New meets old at the fair, and always takes something fresh from the encounter.
Excerpt from The Saturday Evening Post June 2009