History of the State Fair
With flashy midway rides, endless livestock exhibitions, loads of live music, and plenty of wacky foods (of the deep-fried variety), state fairs have become an American institution. Let's take a look at how the rowdy festivities came to be, along with some of the best events of today.
A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.
We have one man and his fondness for sheep (no, no, no – not in that way) to thank for what is now the state fair.
Elkanah Watson, a New England farmer and retired businessman from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was so proud of his Merino flock that he often paraded them through the town’s main square so others could catch a glimpse. In 1810, Watson branched out (with the help of a few neighbors) by staging a local cattle show and, just a year after that, formed the Berkshire Agricultural Society which organized annual agriculture celebrations that would set the stage for later U.S. county fairs.
Roughly two decades after Watson’s fair foray, in 1832, farmers and local politicians a few states away partnered to form the New York State Agricultural Society in order to promote statewide agricultural efforts. Nearly 10 years later, in 1841, Syracuse hosted the very first state fair, featuring livestock exhibitions, rodeos, horse-pulls, competitions for mini-farmers in the making, recipe showcases, and award-winning produce displays — all of which form the backbone of current state fair setup.
Flash forward to today, and it’s easy to see how our country’s rapid industrialization has brought new meaning (and fun) to the highly anticipated events. With carnival games, amusement rides, and car shows, among other modern additions, state fairs have been unstoppable, embracing a timeless aesthetic that continues to attract millions of visitors each summer and fall.
Check out our favorite fair picks below.
Minnesota State Fair
Fair food is one of the main attractions at the more-than-150-year-running Minnesota State Fair, and for good reason. This year, more than 150,000 people will filter through the event each day (it holds the record for daily attendance) as the Midwest shows off bold dishes like candied bacon donut sliders, cheesy french onion monkey bread, paneer on a spear, and 30 other wild creations. Snacks acquired, crowds head to the grandstand, which entices with headliners like Weezer, the Dixie Chicks, Demi Lovato, and Nick Jonas. If that's not your style, fear not. The fair is also packed with loads of traditional agricultural exhibits, parades, and nightly amateur talent competitions, where $20,000 in prizes including (most importantly) a year's worth of pizza are up for grabs.
August 25 – September 5, 2016
Iowa State Fair
The Iowa State Fair has been permanently laying out its midway and fairgrounds in Des Moines since 1878. Repeat fair-goers will find new food this go-around, including ice cream nachos, the five buck cup (baked beans, mashed taters, shredded BBQ pork, and cheese) and cheddar bacon cheese on a stick. For a true state fair experience, head to the Chuck E. Cheese's Ugliest Cake competition, where contestants present entries even animals wouldn't consider eating. Speaking of animals, if you're hiding an uncanny ability to replicate bird calls, you might stand a chance in the duck, chicken, turkey or rooster calling competitions (they attract such a crowd that there are now men's, women's, and youth divisions). If you possess no such talent but happen to have a twin, take your lookalike to the Twins, Triplets and More contest. At the end of this year's fest, don't miss the performance by featured musical guest, seven-time Grammy Award-winning Lady Antebellum.
August 11 – 21, 2016
The Great New York State Fair
Presenting America's oldest state fair: the one, the only...Great New York State Fair. While fairgrounds are technically open year-round, hosting the Syracuse Nationals classic car show as well as more than 40 prestigious equestrian competitions and small community events, everything kicks into overdrive at the end of August. This year, free nightly concerts include performances by Kesha, Dashboard Confessional, and Daughtry. You can also catch some of the state's most talented singers in the "Star Spangled Challenge." Last year, a roster of more than 263 applicants from 35 counties was narrowed down to 12 of the best National Anthem belters. Between livestock shows and spins on the midway, head for the Taste NY marketplace for free samples of local cheese, jam, maple syrup, and jerky before grabbing some to tide you over until next year (best of luck to not eating it all on the car ride home).
August 25 – September 5, 2016
The Big E
Since 1916, West Springfield, Massachusetts, has been tasked with hosting the Eastern States Exposition – aka the Big E. Not an easy feat, considering New England's premiere state fair combines the best of NH, MA, CT, VT, ME, and RI food and entertainment into 17 straight days of fair fun. The hard work pays off as horse shows, 4-H youth livestock competitions, pig races, and aerial acts under the Big Top draw millions of onlookers each year. One Big E tradition that can't be missed: the butter sculptures. Since 1996, food artists Jim Victor and Marie Pelton have been immortalizing Dr. Seuss cartoons and even Norman Rockwell paintings with 600 pounds of butter (donated by Cabot Creamery) in a special cooler housed beneath the fair's rotunda. Devouring a signature Big E cream puff (hopefully after taking a spin on the midway rides) is practically mandatory, while strolling the Avenue of States thoroughfare, with its life-size replicas of each original NE statehouse, is a crowd favorite.
September 16 – October 2, 2016
State Fair of Texas
Pardon the platitude, but the annual State Fair of Texas seriously embraces the state's "everything is bigger" attitude. The Dallas-based event attracts some three million visitors each year, making it the most popular fair in the country. What do you do when your event attracts nine times the population of Iceland? Host a never-ending list of competitions and contests, including more than 1,100 categories just for the creative arts (needlepoint, scale models, ceramics, canning – you name it) and throw in 75 free (yes, we said free) concerts. Though new foods for 2016 have yet to be released, if last year's options — deep fried cheeseburgers, S'mores beer, fried flan — are any indication, we're certain the fair will take care of its visitors .
September 30 – October 23, 2016
California State Fair
Deep fried PB&J cheesecake, bacon-wrapped corn, deep fried twix, and dedicated Honkey Tonk and Blues & Brews stages await visitors at the California State Fair in Sacramento. Sign yourself and a friend up for the round-robin-style Cornhole Championship – your choice of the social or serious division – which sees more than 50 teams of two competing for titles. If you're more of an observer, check out daily shows and sporting events like freestyle motocross, high diving, horse racing, and pro rugby.
July 6 – 24, 2016
Kentucky State Fair
No surprise here, but the Kentucky State Fair is all about the horses. The World's Championship Horse Show unfolds in Louisville over seven days with more than 2,000 saddlebreds, hackney ponies, and road horses competing for a cool $1 million in prizes. Between shows, you can also catch acts from Lady Houdini or take a walk through the Main Street Kentucky and Pride of the Counties exhibits for a history lesson on the Bluegrass state. On the mainstage, country music reigns supreme with headlining performers like Reba, Chris Young and Brett Eldredge rocking out in Freedom Hall. As far as food and drink goes, Krispy Kreme burgers, fried kool-aid, and your typical fair foods (corn dogs, cotton candy, and funnel cake) are up for grabs just about everywhere you look.
August 18 – 28, 2016
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