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Appreciating the Midwestern State Fair

Updated on March 5, 2013

The State Fair

The American state fair is a grand tradition, especially in the Midwest.

County fairs date back to the mid-1700s, but the idea of having one huge fair for the entire state dates back to 1841, and the first state to hold one was New York. That very first state fair attracted over 15,000 people.

Now, the largest state fair, in Minnesota, had a recorded attendance in 2012 of 1,788,512 people...that's over a third of the population of the state. On some days, the state fair temporarily doubled the population of the city of St. Paul. New York still has a large fair, as do Ohio, Iowa and California.

The state fair is a celebration of agriculture and, as such, is normally held in August, at the height of production. Most modern state fairs are held on permanent facilities, that are often rented out to other events for the rest of the year - horse shows, auto shows, rodeos, cattle expositions and the like are held on the grounds.

What to expect

There are, essentially, four elements to the typical State Fair.

1. The agricultural show. This reflects the local culture and climate. Animal shows are normally central to the event, however - horses, cattle, pigs, etc. The animal barns are open to the public as well as the show arenas themselves, which may be inside the barns, outside or in a separate indoor arena or coliseum. (Note. Nothing is more delightfully chaotic than young children trying to show pigs). Horticultural shows are also normal - the Alaska state fair is known for its giant cabbages.

2. The expo. This being America, yes, people at the state fair are trying to sell you stuff...all kinds of stuff. Some of it makes sense with the agricultural connection - at the Minnesota state fair you can buy saddles and tack, tractors and 4 x 4s, dog treats, and all kinds of produce. Others might not. Want a new kitchen? Some jewelry? A hardwood floor? You can buy almost anything at the fair - and there are also charities shilling for your money.

3. The Midway. Every State fair has one. Some even have more than one, with it not being uncommon to have a separate playground with rides for the young children. Most of the rides are portable and are moved from fair to fair, but some sites may have permanent roller coasters. And, of course, there's the usual selection of sideshows and games. (Are they rigged? Some of them probably are...)

4. Food, food, food. Saving the best for last...given the state fair is a celebration of nature's bounty, it's not surprising that there would be plenty to eat. Most of it not very healthy. Much of it served on a stick. Some fairs have a tradition of weird or strange offerings - one recent candidate for winner being tater tot pot pie...on a stick.

Increasing your Enjoyment

1. Take cash. Many vendors do not take credit cards for small items and food. While it is often possible to get cash on site (and sometimes even cheaper than elsewhere), it's a good idea to keep cash with you. Besides, that way you can set a budget and stick to it more easily.

2. Get a map. The last time I went to a State Fair, they promised an app that would have a map, give you directions to food vendors, etc. It crashed my phone. Don't rely on your electronic devices...take a map at the front gate. Besides, you're likely to kill your phone's battery taking pictures anyway.

3. Choose your day carefully. Weekends are more crowded. If the fair runs into Labor Day, that's likely to be a record. If you have the opportunity to go when most people are at work, go will still give you the impression everyone in the state is there at once, mind. (Everyone goes to the fair. Everyone. Including Buddhist monks). Look at the schedule for events or concerts you might be particularly interested in.

4. Be open-minded. Be willing to try something new. Don't be shy...hiding in a corner won't give you the full experience. Crowds can be stressful, but they can also be fun energy, and the more you relax, the better.



1. Assume pickpocket activity, as you would in any crowded area. Keep your wallet in an inside pocket if possible, if carrying a purse guard it at all times. Be extra careful if you just visited an ATM - thieves know you have more cash.

2. Take appropriate precautions for being outside all day in the summer. Wear a hat. Most big fairs have air conditioned buildings you can duck into, smaller ones may not. Drink plenty of water. Every year, people collapse from heat exhaustion at state fairs...don't be one of them. You may also want to carry a rain jacket. Wear sunscreen and sensible shoes. Don't drink too much alcohol.

3. Be aware that livestock can carry disease. If you touch livestock, wash your hands before eating, and use soap. If there is a specific disease alert out, then avoid touching the livestock. Pigs are often the highest risk as their viruses jump readily into humans. Don't touch any animal that looks like it might be sick. There should be hand washing stations at the entrance to each barn - use them both when entering and leaving. If you have a compromised immune system, you may want to avoid touching animals. Do not take food or drink into the barns.

4. Remember that livestock can bite, kick or otherwise injure humans. Be wary when you approach animals, especially cows and horses. Do not touch any animal from the rear, when it might not have seen you. Keep small children under control at all times and consider keeping toddlers on a leash - serious injuries have occurred when toddlers have run into stalls or pens and startled the occupants. If an animal doesn't look like it wants to be petted, don't touch it. (A lot of the time, though, you're likely to have the opposite problem...I've seen goats climb fences to get extra attention). Do not feed any animal.

5. Do not allow or encourage your children to board rides if they are under the minimum size. Keep body parts inside the ride and secure long hair. Don't ride if you think it might aggravate a health condition. Always follow ride operator instructions. Don't get out of the ride if it hasn't fully stopped...people get injured that way all the time. Don't push your children to get on a ride if they don't want to.

6. Make sure you have a rendezvous point if the family gets separated, and that it is by a very obvious landmark. Some fairs require that children under a certain age wear wrist bands with their name and address on them. Make sure your children know what to do if they get separated from you.

Enjoy the fair.

Have you been to a state fair?

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