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There's nothing more synonymous with summer in the United States than state fairs. A classic American tradition, these festivals attract millions of visitors every year. People eager to play carnival games, eat ridiculous foods, and compete in a variety of contests flock to their local state fair to feel like kids again. However, despite being seasonal attractions, state fairs are strongly rooted in American history.
The state fair as we know it today is a descendant of the agricultural fair of the 1800's. Originally, these fairs were a way for rural farmers and families to learn the latest agricultural technologies and equipment. These first state fairs were mainly agricultural, and largely used for education. As colleges and universities began developing schools of agriculture in the 19th century, fairs became an excellent opportunity to display new farming discoveries and disseminate literature. One of the first agricultural fairs was organized in 1807 by Elkanah Watson of Pittsfield, Massachusetts and consisted of a sheep shearing demonstration along with a market fair. Then in 1841 the New York Agricultural Society hosted the first State Fair in Syracuse, NY.
Today, 47 American States have their own state fair; only Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts do not. While many of these festivals still maintain an agricultural aspect, with competitions for best produce or livestock, they have evolved to include much more. Millions of Americans visit state fairs every summer, with the Texas State Fair as the largest with roughly 3 million visitors this past year!
State Fair Attractions and Events
From live entertainment and wacky competitions to unique foods and thrilling rides, state fairs offer something that everyone can enjoy. Most state fairs provide a wide variety of attractions. There is typically a "midway" which is where you will find different rides and carnival games to try. Are you a music buff? State fairs are also great places to hear live music, as most host free concerts from big name performers. Then, there are the more traditional events such as livestock and produce contests, where local farmers still display their most impressive animals and crops.
State fairs are also known for having attractions that you don't find everyday--that's what makes them so much fun! Here are 10 examples of what you can do and see at different state fairs.
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1. The Iowa State Fair Butter Cow: To use the Iowa State Fair's motto, "Nothing compares" to this 600-lb, solid butter sculpture. Each year, the Iowa State Fair commissions an artist, since 2006 native Iowan Sarah Pratt, to construct this famous attraction. It is also accompanied by a companion butter sculpture that changes each year, such as a butter Harry Potter (2007) and a butter Tiger Woods (2005). After the fair, much of this is recycled and reused for up to 10 years!
2. Moo-la Palooza Mooing Contest, Wisconsin State Fair: To continue with the cow-theme, it seems Wisconsinites also love these dairy-producing animals; in fact, they love them so much they devote an entire contest to imitating our bovine friends. Contestants in this contest dress up in their best cow costumes and have two chances to give the crowd their best "Mooo!" The best moo-er, who is selected based on the realism, style and originality of their presentation, receives a $1,000 cash prize, a cow-print coat, the Golden Cowbell trophy, and a year's worth of sandwiches from Cousins Subs, a local Wisconsin company.
3. The Giant Slide, Ohio State Fair: Among the many rides and attractions at the Ohio State Fair, the Giant Slide stands above them all. Standing at 45 feet tall and approximately 104 ft long, this is not your typical playground slide! Thrill seekers must first climb 105 steps to the top before gliding down in traditional burlap sack!
4. World's Championship Horse Show, Kentucky State Fair: Each year in conjunction with the Kentucky State Fair, Louisville, KY hosts this prestigious horse show. More than 2,000 of the world's best horses compete for over $1 million in awards. Unlike other horse shows where the audience members are expected to hold their applause, the spectators at the World's Championship Horse Show cheer loudly for their favorite horses.
5. Pig Races, Texas State Fair: While there are innumerable attractions that draw nearly 3 million visitors to the Texas State Fair each year, Pig Races are among the most memorable. This event was brought back by popular demand in 2005, and now dressed-up pigs race through the Pan American Arena three times each day. According to the Fair's press release, "The audience will finally see pigs fly as the competitive porkers vie for the scrumptious prize at the finish line, a chocolate sandwich cookie."
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6. Mutton Busting, Colorado State Fair: Adults need not apply, this competition is for children ages 3-6 years old, who weigh less than 60 pounds. The objective is simple; the riders must remain on their sheep for six seconds before they are judged on their abilities.
7. Giant Produce, Alaska State Fair: Sticking to the traditional roots of state fairs, Alaskans pride themselves in presenting the biggest cabbages, pumpkins, zucchini and other produce. The giant cabbage contest was first held in 1941 and has continued ever since. Some of the record holders included a 64.8-pound cantaloupe grown by Scott Robb in 2004, and 42.85-pound beet grown by John Evans in 1999.
8. Hay Bale Decorating Contest, Nebraska State Fair: In preparation for the annual fair, local businesses receive a hay bale to decorate in commemoration of the state fair. The hay bales are then put on display at the fairgrounds and throughout the city of Grand Island.
9. Outhouse Races, Iowa State Fair: You need to be 15 or older to compete in this wacky Iowa tradition. Teams of four are required to construct their own wheeled-outhouses. Then, they race 200 feet to a toilet where the driver must clean chocolate smears without using his or her hands. Next, they must dig through a cattle trough to find a variety of items, and then race back to the finish line. The winning team receives the "Golden Throne," a golden toilet seat.
10. Hermiston Watermelon All State Seed Spitting Contest, Oregon State Fair: This year will mark the 18th Annual Hermiston Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest. Men, women, and children of all ages compete to see who can spit a watermelon seed the farthest.
State Fair Food
Today, State Fairs are undoubtedly most famous for serving up the most decadent and unhealthy foods you can find in the U.S. Fair foods are unique both in flavors and how they are presented. Whole meals and smaller snacks are often served on sticks so as to allow fairgoers to eat while they peruse the fairgrounds. Definitely not to be eaten on a daily basis, these wacky foods are great for a special indulgence. Here are 10 of some of the most memorable fair foods in the United States!
1. Spaghetti and Meatball on a Stick, Minnesota State Fair: Mashed up meatballs and cook spaghetti are formed into balls, dipped in garlic batter and then deep-fried. Served with marinara sauce, this is definitely not your grandmother's recipe!
2. Deep Fried Coca-Cola, Texas State Fair: This fair treat sounds impossible, but Abel Gonzalez, Jr., the verifiable king of fair foods, has created it nonetheless! Gonzalez deep fries a Coca-Cola-flavored batter and then tops it with Coca-Cola syrup, whipped cream and cinnamon sugar.
3. Fried Ice Cream Burger, Florida State Fair: This Florida specialty has been described as a "milk-shake burger." This bizarre food consists of a cheeseburger topped with a scoop of deep-fried ice cream coated in crushed cereal. Ask your doctor before eating a whole one of these!
4. Deep Fried Butter on a Stick, Iowa State Fair: While Texas' Abel Gonzalez Jr. can again take credit for first inventing this artery-clogging treat, the vendors at the Iowa State Fair have taken in to a whole new level. Opting to deep fry an entire stick of butter, instead of bite-size morsels. Just what it sounds like, this snack is a cinnamon honey batter-dipped stick of butter, fried and coated with sugary glaze.
5. Chocolate Covered Bacon, California State Fair: Sweet, salty and simple, the cooks at the Fire and Ice stand at the California State fair are dipping bacon in chocolate, much to fairgoers delight.
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6. Buffalo Chicken in a Flapjack, Texas State Fair: 2011's Best Taste winner at the Big Tex Choice Awards, Allan Weiss created this bizarre concoction. Served on a stick, this snack consists of a buffalo chicken strip coated in flapjack batter, rolled in jalapeno break crumbs, and deep-fried. Breakfast and lunch all in one!
7. "Koolickles," North Carolina State Fair: Ever wonder what pickles soaked in Kool-Aid taste like? The folks at the North Carolina State Fair are one step ahead of you! Selling dill pickles soaked in Kool-Aid apparently tastes like a sweet-and-sour pickle, but you'll need to try one yourself to know for sure!
8. Hot Beef Sundae, Indiana State Fair: Invented by Indiana's Beef Cattle Association, this "sundae" is a bowl piled high with mashed potatoes, marinated beef, gravy, cheese, corn "sprinkles" and a cherry-tomato on top!
9. Fried Jelly Beans, the "Big E" New England Fair: Have you ever had to make a decision between jelly beans or funnel cake? Well thanks to the vendors at the "Big E" you will never have to! Rolled jellybeans in funnel cake batter and deep-fried, these, treats will definitely bring out your inner kid!
10. Alligator on a Stick, Illinois State: For more adventurous eaters, the Illinois State Fair is serving up deep-fried alligator. Prepared teriyaki style and skewered, alligator is one of the fair's most popular foods!
So make sure to keep an eye out for your state's fair this summer and early fall! There are so many fun things to do and foods to taste. Going to the state fair is a quintessential American experience that we hope many of our participants will get to enjoy!
To find a fair near you, check out this site!
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.