Why We Love the State Fair
As we have been learning about harvest festivals around the world, we wanted to feature one of the most iconic American manifestations of the harvest festival: the State Fair. Have you ever been to a State Fair? Several years ago, I introduced my British husband to his very first State Fair, and coming back, one of his comments after our visit was that it was one of the most iconically American things he had ever experienced. So let's talk a bit more about this American icon.
Unique to the sheer size of the USA, the agrarian acreage of this nation is as far flung and diverse as the states themselves. What grows in California is different to what is farmed in Minnesota. Each region has its specialty, deserving of recognition and celebration. As such, these varied communities celebrate their local culture and the earth's harvest. A way of life lived by real every day townsfolk and ordinary working class Americans rather than the mass manufactured cultural output which so readily defines cities and business in our day.
State Fairs originated in the 19th century as a way to promote the agricultural industry. Like the "World's Fair" which promoted new technologies and international marvels, the State Fair was a more localized fair to explore and showcase new technology in the farming industry in each state as well as a some healthy competition for raising the crops and livestock and even recipes using the crops. Farmers were some of the most creative inventors, as they learned to make their agrarian lifestyle flourish despite many challenges faced.
Over time the State Fair has been immortalized within classic American literature such as E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and State Fair by Phil Stong. State Fair is a charming story, later turned movie musical by the indomitable Rodgers & Hammerstein, about a family taking the prize hog to the Iowa State Fair in 1928. The children are faced with the moral dilemmas of being introduced to a "worldly" environment like the state fair.
For rural farming families, the State Fair was one of the biggest events of the year. Dressed in Sunday best, many families had annual family portrait photos taken by itinerant photographers who made the rounds at local fairs. Families came to enjoy time and experience the variety the fair had to offer. Competitions, prize games, good food, races, attractions and rides were big draws for those in rural areas.
Today the State Fair is a rustic rumination of the past, but still is a way to promote the agricultural pursuits of each state and local rural culture. Almost every state in the union has an annual State Fair. Lots of fairs feature events that haven't changed much in the last century or so, but then there are usually a few things that are unique to each state.
Most State Fairs feature livestock competitions, judging the health and size of local livestock. Children are frequently the ones who raise livestock to bring to the competition. And of course it is a chance to show off your animals in events like mutton busting, sheep-shearing, or trick-riding. Horse races are a big part of the fairs in the Eastern states while rodeos are the draw for the Western states.
Fairs also feature crop competitions. Perhaps the most famous contest are the pumpkin growers who bring giant pumpkins to be weighed and judged. The pumpkins are HUGE, often driven into the fair on large flatbed trucks. Watermelons are also held up for blue ribbon price winnings judged on size, shape, sweetness, number of seeds, etc.
Often a State Fair will also feature competitions for the domestic arts including cook-offs, preserve tasting, and sewing competitions. Here in Utah, our State Fair features a fruit pie bake-off judged by the state governor and a home-made ice cream competition using cream from local dairy farms. Is there anything better than fresh baked pie and homemade ice cream?
Next are the attractions. Some want to grab their sweetheart and steal a kiss at the top of the ferris wheel. Magicians and ring toss. Carousels and kissing booths. Fortune tellers and fun houses. Truly, the State Fair is an American icon that has charmed generations and become the source of memories and perhaps even a few tall tales.
While we encourage you to attend your local State Fair, at the very least for the experience for yourself the joy of a ferris wheel ride and a fresh fruit pie. Here is a list of all of the State Fair dates for 2021. Most of the Fairs occur in August and September, but there are a few outliers to enjoy during other times of year.
If you can't go to the State Fair this year, here are a few ideas for you to bring the fair to your own homestead or neighborhood. To keep the competition alive, why not host a watermelon seed spitting contest, pie-eating contest, or bake-off in your neighborhood. Let people bring and show off the produce from their home gardens. Make some blue ribbons for first place winners, red for second place, and white for third. Try our cranberry preserves or do a taste test of your own.
We also love to have a few fair games like these bell darts, bean bag toss, three-legged races, ring toss, horseshoes, and more! And naturally, you will need this brass bell to announce the winners of each event and maybe some matchbox puzzles to offer as prizes. We hope that you find some way to enjoy this iconic American harvest festival.