The lead story on the Associate Press wire for September 20, 2009 described the daring escape of “an insane killer” from the Spokane County Fair in the state of Washington. On the following morning, tucked away inconspicuously among the obituaries and movie listings, came word that the killer in question had been captured without incident when he tried to hitch a ride in what proved to be a sheriff’s car.1 Although the short-lived escape gave television anchorpersons something to talk about on a slow news day, the fleeting interest in a county-fair outing for mental patients gone awry seems to have come as much from the setting as from the event itself.
Aren’t fairs supposed to be the last bastions of All-American, Disneyesque wholesomeness and innocence? Cows, chickens, rickety Ferris wheels, all manner of fried foods on sticks, apple-cheeked 4-Hers, and amazing products for sale by old-fashioned pitchmen with a slick patter and an endless supply of discount vegetable-sculpting kits? And more than just entertainment, state and county fairs held across the nation are markers in time, too. School is starting up again. The growing season is wrapping up. Winter won’t be far behind. Prize pigs and now-elderly lambs are off to the slaughterhouse. It’s time to indulge in deep-fried candy bars, greasy hot dogs and a little whipped cream in preparation for epic bouts of sanctioned gluttony during the holidays.
The fair is history in a paper napkin. It tastes of ancient rituals, rites of passage for kids and fat steers with ribbons braided into their tails. It’s a cosmic talent show in which grandma’s quilt, mom’s best strawberry jam, sister’s homemade dress and junior’s dwarf bunnies are all eligible for accolades. More often than not in the 21st century, the competitors also include garage bands, gourmet cooks and Elvis impersonators. Fairs do change with the passage of time, but not too much.
Phil Stong’s 1932 regionalist novel, State Fair, captured the eternal elements well. The novel follows the adventures of the rural Frake family at the Iowa Fair in Des Moines in the early 1930s. Everybody is on a private crusade to excel (except daughter Margy, who just wants to have fun). Father Abel brings his biggest boar. Mother Melissa, her pickles. And son Wayne, the hero of the book, comes determined to best the ring toss game on the Midway. Things are pretty much the way they were in 1854, when the Iowa Fair was founded. Farmers trade tips on crops and animal husbandry and learn about the latest advances in scientific agriculture. Their wives see modern products that haven’t reached the country store yet. Wayne starts to grow up, observing for the first time that all is not as it seems, especially when playing “Hoopla” for glamorous “silver” prizes made of cheap lead and metallic paint. As for Margy, she has fun, as they all do. Fireworks. Pageantry. A welcome change from the daily grind which, for all the vigor and self-reliance it nurtured, could be pretty boring, too. They had, as Stong wrote, “stepped for a moment into fantasy.”
As for what does change, consider the three successive movie versions of State Fair. The first iteration (1933), starring Will Rogers, is a quasi-documentary portrait of a hardscrabble era, when the fair provided a welcome distraction from daily life. Earnest agriculture/homemaking is the heart of the tale. The better-known 1945 remake, a bubbly musical with a score by Rogers and Hammerstein, is very much a peacetime entertainment—an ode to joy and prosperity. The last gasp is a tepid Pat Boone vehicle (1962), a teen flick with every sexy pore of the star visible in Cinemascope and Technicolor. In other words, the tone and emphasis change over thirty-odd years, but the pies and pigs persist.2
Americanizing the Fair
As all-American as state and county fairs seem to most Americans, and as much a part of the image of America that fairs represent abroad, the basic concept long predates the American founding. The ruins of vast marketplaces can still be seen in Athens and Pompeii. Religious and other seasonal village and town gatherings have a long history in Europe and elsewhere. Almost any Peter Breugel painting comes to mind when we think of them. In the medieval era, travel to periodic fairs—cloth fairs, animal shows, entertainment, displays of piety—is often credited with the first stirrings of economic modernism across Europe. Surely, American immigrants brought with them either direct experiences or generational memories of European fairs from Lancashire to Leipzig.
But these experiences and memories took on new shape and new meaning in the new circumstances of an independent United States of America. The American agricultural fair, which traces its roots back to the earliest days of the 19th century, became a kind of diagnostic institution when patriots began to wonder what fate would befall the new nation, absent British colonial commerce and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. As it happened, George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, was among the first to promote American self-sufficiency in the textile industry, the greatest engine of wealth and global trade of that era. Beginning in 1803, Custis hosted (on the site of today’s Arlington National Cemetery) the first of his annual sheep-shearings. These were gala affairs, held under the very campaign tent that once sheltered Our First President during the desperate hours of the Revolutionary War. The object of the Custis gathering was to encourage native industry and the breeding of suitable wool-bearing animals.
The crusade was taken up around 1807 by Elkanah Watson, a visionary promoter of canal-building, up-to-date farming practices and “domestic manufactures.” In that year Watson moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts and, one fine late summer day, led his flock of purebred merino sheep into town for what he called a “cattle show.” By 1810, an annual Pittsfield Fair was in full swing under the auspices of a newly founded Berkshire Agricultural Society, offering prizes for crops, animals and items made at home, mainly by the ladies. The sponsoring organization and its fair served as the templates for all subsequent classic American county and state fairs. Wherever the pioneers of the 19th century wandered, the so-called Berkshire Plan fair became a fundamental institution of community cohesion.
The great spate of fair founding came between the 1850 and 1870, the “golden age” of American fairs. Many of the managers vying for historical precedence today are willing to take any and all gatherings involving the exhibition of animals/corn/butter as legitimate, full-fledged fairs, the direct ancestors of their fair. In fact, though, most of the largest, longlasting examples began as unassuming wandering shows, subject to the political and economic vagaries of the day. The Minnesota State Fair, which drew almost two million visitors in 2009—out of a population of five million—began as a peripatetic “circus-wagon” affair, hosted here and there between 1855 and 1885, when a permanent location was finally chosen, exactly halfway between the rival cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Whereas Minnesota was still a territory during those years on the road, the State of New York underwent a similar process between 1841 and 1905. Although Syracuse, in the heart of the upstate agricultural belt, welcomed all kinds of wandering agricultural events, it was not until the latter date that the fair settled into permanent quarters. As late as the 1940s, however, the ever-fractious New York State Legislature was still introducing bills to move operations elsewhere.
Wherever the focus of the fair, and whatever its size, there were always five fixed architectural features that defined the spatial character of the event: a peripheral fence to control admissions; a Main Building, for the bulk of the produce; an area where show animals could be tethered; a Floral Hall or Women’s Building, where hard-fought battles over vinegar pies and rag rugs raged for days on end; and a racing oval for “contests of speed” between local horses, vigorous wagering and daring “equestrienne” matches in which the costumes and comeliness of the riders counted for as much as which lovely miss finished first. The center of the racing oval, where cattle were often mustered for parades around the track, also served as the usual spot from which leather-lunged orators harangued the masses.3
Among these basic architectural features of the fair, assorted medicine men and purveyors pitched amazing labor-saving products—the “miracle” spot-removers and Ginsu knives of a century ago. Eventually, too, itinerant balloonists and aero-plane pilots would draw crowds. But the most popular form of 19th-century entertainment, in an era in which ordinary Sunday sermons could drag on for several hours, was the aforementioned full-bore speechifying. Editor Horace Greeley was popular with fairgoers in the Midwest: It was he, after all, who recommended that young men go West in the first place. But the champion mid-century talker was Cassius Marcellus Clay, the Kentucky Congressman who delivered his message of emancipation in states sympathetic to his abolitionist beliefs in speeches lasting two hours or more, embellished with all manner of rhetorical flourishes. After his verbal marathon at the 1860 Minnesota State Fair, some observers found the language a little hifalutin for the occasion, but everybody admired a man who could go on that long in the summer’s heat (and without a microphone).4
Politicians in search of votes still pester fairgoers in search of little more than deep-fried Twinkies on a stick. But a century ago a fair, because it attracted such a large number of people to one place in the days before electronic mass communication, was a great spot for news-making. Not for nothing did President McKinley travel to the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York in 1901, though the news he made there was unanticipated (namely, his assassination). Teddy Roosevelt, too, made a splash by announcing his “Big Stick” policy from the Minnesota State Fair grandstand later in that same year.
By that time, however, there were even more compelling reasons to attend fairs. Midways were taking shape. In the wake of the giant amusement zones at the Chicago (1893) and St. Louis (1904) World’s Fairs, Ferris wheels sprouted at fair time from Ohio to California. All around them were temporary streets formed by the tents of grifters with peas and walnut shells, shooting galleries, Tunnels of Love and sideshows inspired by P.T. Barnum’s collections of fat ladies, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and “genuine” mermaids. The more remote the location, the greater the chance that the girlie shows of scantily clad maidens would set up shop after hours in a dark corner of the lot to offer more than just some hoochy-koochy dancing. County sheriffs were paid to look the other way. The carnies who set up the Midways called it “playing strong.”
Especially after the success of the American World’s Fairs of the fin de siècle era, smaller fairs attempted to bring many of the same experiences to their local patrons in the hinterland. Mass entertainment came to small-town America via its fairs. Motion pictures were shown in Midway tents years before Palaces and Bijoux sprouted on Main Street. Evening fireworks shows enhanced by actors, costumes, cardboard buildings and scripts dazzled fairgoers with ambitious re-enactments of “The Last Days of Pompeii”, “The Battle of Gettysburg”, and such current newsworthy disasters as volcanic eruptions, floods and fires. The Frakes witnessed one of these spectaculars, and so did the young F. Scott Fitzgerald up in St. Paul. As the thrill of fireworks waned, grandstand shows of the late 1930s and 1940s booked radio celebrities in the flesh. Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy, of course) was a special favorite.
Likewise, “modern” machinery of all kinds reflected a new image of the stereotypical hayseed farmer as a kind of practical scientist and visionary. Daring aviators flew through flimsy barns. Autos edged out horses on the race course. Surely, farmers would soon survey their fields from the air and ship their crops to market in gas-powered vehicles (thus evading the clutches of avaricious railroad monopolies). Nearby, herds of Fordson tractors showed their stuff by performing “square dances” on scores of Machinery Hills. In Main Buildings everywhere, regional department stores set up temporary shop, bringing the latest fashions to farm families. Cream separators, cloche hats, sewing machines, kitchen ranges, mechanical apple peelers and model farmhouses tempted the rural housewife. Children became secret ambassadors of science through 4-H clubs (endorsed by Teddy Roosevelt): They came home to advocate for blooded cattle, safe canning methods, milking machines and the efficacy of sending kids like themselves to burgeoning agriculture programs at state universities.
Fairs, in short, were not only economic markets, they were also places for not-so-near neighbors to mingle and feel united as a larger community, something they could do in such numbers at no other time of the year. Above all, fairs were powerful agents for change—economic, social, political—even as they seemed to be the most old-fashioned of all American institutions, with their contests for the biggest pumpkin, the most prolific breeding sow and the chubbiest baby. Fairs stood on the side of progress in that great crease between a still-predominately agricultural society and the rapid advance of industrialization.
Fairs are still a lot of fun and very popular in much of the country. The State Fair of Texas annually claims the attendance record: Three million souls passed through the fair gates in 2008, although, truth to tell, thousands were alumni bound for the big A&M; football game held on the grounds. (Others probably came to see a statue of King Tut sculpted from 800 pounds of unsalted butter, in honor of an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts on display at the downtown art museum). The numbers are Texas-sized, but Number Two (Minnesota) and Three (Iowa) complain that bigger-than-life numbers are further inflated by the duration of the event. While the two Midwest states make do with a 12-day run, Texas celebrates for almost a month. Because of the current recession, however, everybody was nervous about ticket sales for 2009, until records began to break. The allure of the fair proved impervious to job loss and IRA shrinkage. French fried cheese curds, grandstand shows starring Kid Rock or Kelly Clarkson, more animals than any zoo and un-urban prices make state fairs economical “staycation” sites.
But fairs as a vacation bargain do not explain their continuing popularity. American state and county fairs are at heart Jeffersonian events in what is still in many ways a Jeffersonian culture. At the fair, socioeconomic distinctions are muted by the heat, the smells and a fine lack of pretense. In the old church-run dining halls left over from the era of huge farm dinners at noontime, everybody enjoys the same meatloaf and mashed potatoes recipes their grandparents once devoured. Everyone sits elbow to elbow at long tables where strangers still chat away about the eternal topics: weather, politics, prices and whether or not the pies look good this year.
More than that, fairs are ongoing rites of passage, transmitting joys, troubles and values from yesterday’s settlers to today’s city people, whose experience with husbandry and manufactures rarely extends beyond mowing the lawn and maybe a little knitting. The yesterdays, todays and the tomorrows of the littlest 4-Her come together in this time-honored place, for one brief moment just before school starts, the leaves turn, snow falls, and we have more important things to do—until next summer. But fairs seem better able to do what they have always done to the extent that the crease between the agricultural and the suburban-industrial is still discernable. I’ve seen this for myself.
I began a lifetime of fair-going at the age of five, when I coerced my father into taking me to the Monroe County (New York) Fair in order to see my radio hero, hillbilly singer Ferlin Husky. Alas, the Monroe County Fair has fallen on hard times. Its biggest attraction this summer was a Mexican-style wrestling marathon, complete with masks and a tiny but rabid cheering section. There were no major country singers and not much of anything else, including livestock. Galloping suburbanism has all but swallowed the little fair I remember, except for the herds of tough, restless boys hanging around the “star” wrestlers. Even the rides have lost the glamour once attached to the world-wise, tattooed, side-burned “carnies” who ran the machinery. The 2009 bunch could have been out-of-work dads or recent grads on a summer lark.
On the other hand, there is still Minnesota. For more than thirty years, I attended the Minnesota State Fair religiously, and one memorable summer, I also went to 32 of the small county fairs that fed the “premium lists” (prize categories) of the big show itself. Things are better out in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. There is still a vigorous local agricultural community, enhanced by hobby farmers and fresh food advocacy groups, flourishing just below the level of corporate agribusiness that figures so large, for good and for ill, in the economic health of the Midwest. Pride and cash prizes bring them out with their chickens and vegetables. All the major television stations establish themselves on the fairgrounds for the duration. Anchormen milk cows during the six o’clock news. Members of the State Legislature, university professors and local celebrities of all stripes vie for ribbons without the usual fanfare. A friend of mine, a famous educator and performer, once won a Hormel-sponsored competition for the most creative use of Spam (his Spam soup had to be tasted to be believed).
One main difference between Minnesota and the eastern fairs I have visited is the fairgrounds themselves. In Minnesota, where the State Historical Society and the Fair were both founded before the territory became a state, the place functions as a kind of architectural museum, with spic-and-span structures from many eras, all serving their original functions. Even cookshacks are handed down from father to daughter. On the county level, that sense of walking back into one’s own history is just as pronounced, if on a smaller scale. The fence, the domed Main Building and the old Floral Hall are all still there, resting content the year round under many layers of paint, ready to be polished up once more every August. This is not to say that an historian’s solemnity prevails—just that the pace seems more reflective.
In two summers at the New York State Fair, on the other hand, I was surrounded by honky-tonk, from vendors of sleazy trinkets to Midway games where the barkers all but admitted that the odds were rigged against the players. The food was terrible and expensive. But two concrete structures at the head of the ceremonial mall just inside the Main Gate were serious and interesting venues featuring the excellent system of New York State Parks. Indeed, wildlife experts were everywhere, suggesting that New York is playing to its strengths during hard times. If the factories of the upstate region are stalled, the forests still promise continuity, tourism and a serenity that rarely comes through in fairgrounds. Elsewhere, in almost every quarter of the grounds, the State of New York handed out free information, pens, rulers, recipes and services. This is truly a state fair. Government is everywhere. The fair is, or so it seems to me, a publicity agent for the inherent worth of the Empire State.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s nothing to be surprised about in a country where hucksterism has always matched high-mindedness stride for stride. Fairs adapt. They always have. And the end is nowhere in sight, thank goodness.
2Critic Leonard Maltin, in his annual Movie and Video Guide (Signet, 2004), calls the 1962 version a “BOMB.”
3An excellent inventory of the topography of the typical small-scale 19th-century fair is provided by Laura Ingalls Wilder, County Fair (Harper Trophy, 1998), a redaction of the popular Farmer Boy, an early number in the popular “Little House” series. This third volume is about Almanzo Wilder and pays close attention to the physical setting. See also The Fair: Insider’s Guide and Daily Deals (n.p., 2009), p. 21, for a day-by-day list of livestock competitions.
4Coincidentally, Horace Greeley edited Clay’s public papers. See H. Edward Robinson, Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom (University Press of Kentucky, 1976).