Historical Highlights

of the Iowa State Fair

Historical Timeline

The internationally-acclaimed Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. Annually attracting more than a million people from all over the world, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is Iowa’s great celebration, a salute to the state’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment and achievement. It is the true heartbeat of the Midwest, unequaled and unduplicated.

The Iowa State Fair, the inspiration for the original novel State Fair by Iowan Phil Stong, three motion pictures and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical, is without a doubt the country’s most famous state fair.

National media frequently rank the Fair as one of the top events in the country. In 2004, USA Weekend named the event the #2 choice for summer fun in America, topping New York City’s Times Square, Cedar Point Amusement Park Resort in Ohio and Disneyland in California.

Midwest Living magazine named the Fair one of the “Top 30 Things Every Midwesterner Should Experience.” The Fair is also the only fair listed in The New York Times best-selling travel book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and the subsequent travel book, 1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before you Die.

Iowa’s Fair is also known as “America’s classic state fair” because the event features all of the traditional activities associated with state fairs in a park-like, 450-acre setting (the Fair’s home since 1886). The grounds and the adjoining 160 acres of Campgrounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the buildings pre-date World War I; many are priceless examples of American exposition-style architecture.

Throughout its history, the Fair has been a unique institution, serving to educate, inform and entertain people from all walks of life. It is an outstanding agricultural showplace, boasting one of the world’s largest livestock shows. Also home to the largest art show in the state, the Fair showcases visual and performing arts with a variety of special exhibits and activities.

Each year, hundreds of manufacturers and industrial representatives clamor to rent coveted exhibit space. In addition to its tremendous showcase of agriculture and industry, the Fair is also an entertainment destination for Iowa and the Midwest.

Several ground stages feature more than $500,000 worth of spectacular entertainment free with gate admission. Internationally-acclaimed performers and dynamic track events thrill thousands of fans in the Grandstand (Iowa’s original outdoor concert venue). Nearly 600 exhibitors and concessionaires feature quality merchandise and tasty foods – more than 60 of them served on-a-stick. Hundreds of displays, exhibitions, demonstrations, unique attractions and all kinds of competition – for fun, for ribbons and for the pride of being chosen best – make Iowa’s Fair one of the biggest and greatest.

In 1881, historian James Wilson noted that, “One of the most valuable effects of the State Fair is the fraternizing, humanizing consequences of bringing our people together...No one meets and mingles with 20,000 Iowa men, women and children on the Fairgrounds – the only place they can be brought together – without growth of sympathy.” Certainly, this is even more relevant today, when the pace of modern life tends to isolate individuals even more from their neighbors.