Not from Iowa? Here are 10 things you need to know about the Iowa State Fair

Fairgoers walking along the Grand Concourse at the 2004 Sesquicentennial Iowa State Fair on Saturday August 21, 2004 in Des Moines, IA.  (Iowa State Fair Photo)

(Iowa State Fair Photo)

By Bob Eschliman


Our state fair is a great state fair. Don’t miss it. Don’t even be late. It’s dollars to donuts that our state fair is the best state fair in our state.

OK, enough Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The eyes of the political world have descended upon The Iowa State Fair, and will be focused there throughout the coming week, as nearly every presidential candidate makes an appearance at what even objective observers describe as one of the best state fairs in the country. But, there are some things non-Iowans need to understand when they watch the footage on national television.

So, we put it all together in an easy-to-understand format.


1. The People — Part I

Let’s get this elephant quickly discussed and disposed of properly. You’ve no doubt seen the Facebook page “People of the Iowa State Fair.” It’s a lot like the “People of Walmart” website. Yes, these people really do exist, and yes (sadly), they attended the Iowa State Fair. We recommend you check out “The REAL People of the Iowa State Fair,” also conveniently available on Facebook.


2. The Food

Unless they want to relive the unfortunate photo op of Michele Bachmann attempting to consume a footlong corndog, most of the candidates this cycle will likely stick with a pork chop, or something less … erm … elongated. There are actually two competing interests — food that has been deep fried and food that comes on a stick — and all of it can be found online at the Iowa State Fair’s website (they also have a handy app for smartphone users that will give you walking directions to find specific food items).



3. The People — Part II

The other preconceived notion is that the Iowa State Fair is exactly like what you see in the 1945 musical film. Keep in mind that was based on a novel written in 1932 based on observations of the fair made 10 to 15 years earlier. So, things have changed a bit. We’re not that naïve (well, there is that Barack Obama thing).


4. The Politics

Republicans and Democrats alike want to capitalize on having more than a million people (about 110,000 a day visit the Iowa State Fair) in close proximity while they talk about what they want to do, if handed the keys to government. That’s why so many media outlets are paying attention, too. The Des Moines Register hosts a “soapbox” for politicians every year.


5. The People — Part III

My good friend Steve Deace and his partner in crime, Jon Miller have a very humorous parody song called “State Fair Tradition” that could create the impression that everything I just said in Part I is false. It’s a funny stereotype (yeah, even Iowa Nice has its dark side — seriously, have you never watched Iowa Nice Guy?).


6. The Iowa Nice Guy

Speaking of Scott Siepker (that’s Iowa Nice Guy’s real name), since 2011, he’s been a roving reporter for Iowa Public Television during the fair. They usually have him do something that is moderately humbling (if not outright humiliating — I’m thinking Mr. Legs competition, 2014) that then gets produced into a segment for one of the nightly reports that airs during the final week of the fair. His personal website has a morgue file of some of the good times.


7. The Tents

Yes, we know what a tent really looks like. And, about 30 years ago, they all were still tents. But, putting them up, taking them down, and providing the necessary infrastructure (safely) was a pretty big hassle. So over time, most of the tents have been replaced with permanent structures on the fairgrounds. Among the most famous — particularly on “East Sider Night” (the first Friday of the fair) — is the Bud Tent.


8. The Butter Cow

Yes, every year for more than a century, someone sculpts a cow using a wood and wire frame and several hundred pounds of real butter (which is reused frequently — so the cow isn’t edible). It’s stored in a refrigerated glass case, which draws thousands of gawkers every day of the fair. In the past, it has been targeted by animal rights activists, and has even inspired a dark comedy titled “Butter.”


9. The Other Must-Dos

There isn’t an official “bucket list” for the Iowa State Fair, despite many claims to the contrary, but there are some things almost every first-time visitor to the fair should enjoy. Here’s a quick rundown:


10. The Midway

Honestly, most visitors can take it or leave it. But if you do decide to venture in, and you want to leave with your wallet mostly intact, don’t make eye contact with the carnies. Believe me. They want you to look at them. Because then they’re going to convince you how easy it is to win their game (but it’s not). Eyes forward, and do not engage — no matter what they say.