Early Years

Historical Timeline

The second State Fair, in 1855, was also held at Fairfield on a 10-acre tract. Almost 100 visitors used the same admission ticket, slipping it back over the fence so others could enter without paying. The next year, officials adopted a more reliable ticketing system.

The Legislature appropriated $2,000 in funds to the 1856 Fair held in Muscatine. Officials exulted in attendance on one day tallying 15,000 people. The 1857 Fair was also held in Muscatine. At the first plowing contest, each of the seven contestants plowed a one-fourth acre land in “old, loose and sandy” soil, turning a furrow at least six inches deep. The shortest time required was 48 minutes and the longest 61 minutes, according to records. Fair officials remarked that “owing to the hardness of the times, the attendance was not so large as was anticipated.”

The next two years (1858 and 1859) found the Fair in Oskaloosa. During the plowing match in 1858, the top prize was actually awarded to the slowest plower on the principal that it is “vastly more important that the plowing be well done than that it be speedily done.” At the 1859 Fair, officials reduced Friday’s admission to 15 cents because “the very numerous permits which had been granted to exhibitors to remove their articles had so thinned out the exhibition, that it was unjust to charge the same as had been charged when the exhibition was full.”

The 1860 and 1861 Fairs were held in Iowa City. Two halls for horticulture and fine arts, each 24 feet by 140 feet, were built on the 25-acre grounds in time for the 1860 event.

The Civil War, at the beginning, had an unsettling effect on the Fair but did not stop it. In 1861, the Johnson County Fairgrounds at Iowa City served as the site of Camp Fremont, occupied by a volunteer company up until three days before the State Fair. The directors resolved to carry on as best they could. Admission was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children (ages 6-12). Weather that year was “stormy, wet and disagreeable.” The attendance was small and a drastic curtailment of expenditures was necessary. There was not enough money to pay all the premiums; exhibitors unanimously voted to accept 50 percent of their premiums.

In 1862, only Iowa, Indiana and Ohio held Fairs in what was then considered the Northwest part of the country. Iowa’s Fair, held in Dubuque, was extended one day due to rain. The grounds included a number of refreshment stands as well as an amphitheater with seating for 2,500 people. Despite war hardships, the Fair was greatly successful.

At the 1863 Fair, also in Dubuque, special arrangements gave campers “a good, healthy location” near the river, and a “trusty guard” was paid to “look after it and preserve order” both day and night. “Do not be afraid to bring your wives and daughters,” urged the Secretary. “Parties having ladies in company will receive special consideration from the superintendent of the camp.” Entry fees were charged on all classes for the first time.

Burlington hosted the next three Fairs from 1864 to 1866. In 1864, a “circular swing” amusement ride was set up on the grounds in Burlington for $50. Superintendents were designated by sashes. Fair officials happily noted that there was “no necessity for a single interference on the part of the police to suppress disorderly conduct.”

The 1865 Fair featured a “grand cavalcade,” including the Burlington Cadets in uniform. The National Merchant, “an advertising paper,” published the “Fair Journal,” complete with all proceedings pertaining to the Fair.

Heavy rains plagued the 1866 Fair, and daily changes were made to the program. Fair officials even noted a trace of snow one day.

At the 1867 Fair in Clinton, permits were issued allowing concessionaires and their horse teams to deliver goods on the Fairgrounds until 9 a.m.

At the 1868 Fair, also held in Clinton, silver medals were awarded instead of cash to “extraordinary” exhibits. A few stands served “whisky” and beer although sales were prohibited. The Board ordered the stands closed. Each day, 2,000 daily programs were distributed on the grounds at 2 p.m. and in the local newspaper.

Carriages and campers utilized 20 acres of ground adjacent to the Fair in 1869. Keokuk citizens were the first to offer special prizes of “considerable amount.” The Board secretary’s salary rose to $1500. In 1870, the Board prohibited all games of chance from the grounds in Keokuk. England, France and 15 American states were represented in exhibits.   

The following year, the Iowa State Fair and California State Fair exchanged fruit displays. A class for Holstein cattle was established. The Board paid $450 for the police force to patrol the grounds in Cedar Rapids.

The committee on side shows reported “the remarkable absence of thieves” during the 1872 Fair in Cedar Rapids. An admission fee of 10 cents was charged to horse races held on two days of the Fair. The money was split between the local committee and the Fair. A “ladies salon” was listed as one of the conveniences.

In 1873, long-time Board Secretary J.M. Shaffer retired. The Fair was again held in Cedar Rapids. Camping with teams on the grounds cost $2 per day (50 cents for each additional person). Babcock Fire Extinguishers tested their equipment in front of the amphitheater. Honorable mentions were given in poultry.

The Fair returned to Keokuk in 1874. The treasurer was asked to open two or more places in the city to sell tickets. Rain “drowned out the Fair” on the last day. The 1875 Fair, also held in Keokuk, neared bankruptcy and was unable to pay premiums and other expenses.

In 1876, the Fair moved back to Cedar Rapids for the next three years. That year, there were reported “unprecedented rains during the week before the Fair and continuing during the week of the exhibition.” Officials extended the Fair one day due to the downpour. Finances were so reduced that the Agricultural Society borrowed $5,000 from the City National Bank in Cedar Rapids.

Officials described 1877 as a “great depression of business of all kinds.” Weather was reported as incessant rain, rare sunshine, impassable roads and “unfathomable” mud. A 16-piece band from Marshalltown was paid $150 to perform. Despite the weather, the 1877 Fair was declared the “most satisfactory and profitable exhibition” in many years.

Handiwork from “girls under fourteen years and of boys under sixteen years” was on display during the 1878 Fair. Officials took a stand on gambling and barred all games of chance from the grounds. They also requested an annual Legislative appropriation of not less than $2,500. C.L. DeWolf was paid $200 to ride 20 miles in one hour and five minutes, changing horses every half-mile. He rode the last half-mile with no saddle and bridle, and lassoed a buffalo.