Yes, Minnesotans have a famous state fair, held this year from Aug. 24 to Sept 4. But so do your neighbors to the south, where the Iowa State Fair runs from Aug. 10-20 in Des Moines.
How do the two mega fairs compare? Iowa’s is older — started in 1854, a year before Minnesota’s first territorial fair. Iowa’s fair draws a smaller crowd — about 1.03 million last year, compared to Minnesota’s record 1.94 million. But hey, Iowa has 3.1 million residents vs. Minnesota’s 5.5 million.
And the Iowa State Fair is arguably better known as a “classic” fair, with a traditional focus on agriculture and livestock. It also inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical film “State Fair,” based on Iowan Phil Stong’s 1932 novel.
Beyond this, why not visit Iowa’s fair and make your own comparisons? Last year, Minnesotans were in scarce supply, making up only 2 percent of Iowa’s fairgoers, tied with Missourians. Not surprisingly, Iowans were the vast majority (88 percent), followed by Nebraskans (almost 4 percent).
Here are my recommendations for the Iowa fair, based on my many visits since moving to the state in 1990. I tend to stick with the tried and true, but I’m not averse to new attractions and foods — although I drew the line in 2011 at deep-fried butter on-a-stick, which may or may not have inspired a T-shirt from the popular Des Moines shop Raygun that reads: “I went to the Iowa State Fair and all I got was Type-2 diabetes.”
Agriculture Building: Don’t miss the famous Butter Cow (sculpted from about 600 pounds of butter, since 1911). One of this year’s “companion” sculptures is a butter homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder, marking her 150th birthday. (The “Little House on the Prairie” author’s childhood included stints in Iowa, as well as Minnesota and beyond.) Sample free food including a hard-boiled egg-on-a-stick from the Iowa Egg Council, among the fair’s many food-on-a-stick options. Check out prize-winning vegetables, fruit and flowers. Last year’s Big Pumpkin, at 1,500 pounds, netted $1,900 in prize money.
Livestock barns: Watch Iowa farm kids groom and show their animals in massive early-1900s red brick and stone barns that are among the fairgrounds’ many buildings showcasing American “exposition architecture” — i.e., buildings created for a big public exhibition. In the Swine Barn, visit the Biggest Boar (2016’s winner, Fred, weighed 1,155 pounds), sweet piglets and the Avenue of Breeds, a mini-zoo. In the Cattle Barn, see the Super Bull (2016’s winner, Desperado, was 2,972 pounds). Admire the Sheep Barn’s terracotta tile reliefs, including almost life-size rams’ heads. Wander through the Horse Barn.
Livestock pavilion: Competitions in the ring under the big dome range from the Governor’s Charity Steer Auction to kids’ “mutton bustin’.”
Food Center: Enjoy the air-conditioning in one of the fair’s newer buildings while strolling past glass-enclosed shelves overflowing with homemade marmalade, casseroles, peanut brittle, brownies, biscuits, flavored marshmallows and more. Don’t miss the “Ugliest Cakes” by young bakers. Watch contest judging. The fair’s food department claims to be the largest of any state fair, with 9,925 entries in 203 contest divisions last year. The food awards amount to $58,190 in cash, gift certificates and products. The 2016 winning chocolate pecan pie netted $250.
The Sky Glider: Ride this aerial tramway, dangling your legs high above the Grand Concourse, the fairgrounds’ main drag, packed with fairgoers and lined with food stands selling lemonade, cotton candy, funnel cakes, root beer and more. Landmarks within view include the Grandstand (music headliners include Little Big Town on Aug. 18 and Kid Rock on Aug. 20) and the Varied Industries Building, an air-conditioned showroom full of gizmos and gadgets.
Cultural Center: Iowa’s many talented photographers, kids and adults, display their best shots of the world, near and far. At the nearby MidAmerican Energy Stage, listen to free live music by homegrown favorites the Blue Band and the Nadas.
Ann and Bill Riley Stage: Maybe you’ll chance upon the Iowa State Fair Queen Pageant (7 p.m. Aug. 12) featuring over 100 queen candidates from county festivals and fairs. Or the 58th annual kids’ talent competition (noon Aug. 10-19). Semifinalists in last year’s “Sprouts Division” (ages 2-12) included a baton twirler, clog dancer, lyrical dancer and vocal soloist.
Dining delights: Try the Iowa Pork Producers’ tenderloin and chop-on-a-stick, the Iowa Sheep Industry Association’s lamb burger and kebab, and/or a “hot beef sundae (a cherry tomato atop mashed potatoes atop a small steak) at the Cattlemen’s Beef Quarters. This year’s ballyhooed new foods include “Cheesy Fried Enchilada Funnel Cake” (be advised: not a dessert) and “Thanksgiving Balls,” akin to deep-fried meatballs, made with turkey, veggies and stuffing drizzled with cranberry sauce. The Iowa Craft Beer Tent features 48 breweries including Decorah’s acclaimed Toppling Goliath.
Ice cream: Lines are long outside the Dairy Barn for good reason: big scoops of fresh ice cream. Or visit Bauder’s food truck for its famous peppermint bar (peppermint stick ice cream, fudge and cookie crust/crumbs).
Kid stuff: Low-tech favorites include the Giant Slide and — in the Kids’ Zone — the petting zoo and Little Hands on the Farm, a hands-on exhibit for farmer wannabes, ages 2 to 10. The infamous Midway — a somewhat seedy assortment of amusement rides and games — has been rebranded this year as “Thrill Ville,” offering rides for fairgoers roughly 7 and older. It’s one of three new Thrill Parks. Rides for younger kids have been moved to another location, dubbed Thrill Town. A third location, known as the Thrill Zone, has extreme rides.
Pioneer Town: Built in 1886, the hall fittingly hosts popular “heritage contests” including beard-growing, yodeling, hog-calling, “ladies’ husband-calling” and cow-chip throwing.
Located at E. University Avenue and E. 30th Street in Des Moines, the fairgrounds are about 245 miles, or 3½ hours, south of the Twin Cities. Consider the city bus system’s Park & Ride, which includes free parking at the State Capitol and two other Des Moines locations, followed by a quick and inexpensive bus ride.
Admission is $12 for adults (ages 12 and older) and $6 for ages 6-11. Ages 5 and under are admitted free. Cheaper advance tickets are available online through Aug. 9. The fair’s 160-acre campground offers more than 2,300 sites, some available for last-minute arrivals. For details, visit iowastatefair.org.
Betsy Rubiner is a Des Moines-based travel writer.