Iowa State Fair Historical Timeline
After the 1855 Fair, Society President Thomas Clagett declared, “The prosperity of the Society will be greatly promoted by the permanent location of the place of holding the exhibition…the Society must be permanently located in some central position and permanent arrangements made for its accommodation.”
In the years to come, the same idea was voiced on many occasions and by supporters courageous enough to put the future of the Fair above other considerations. Finally, in 1879, the Fair moved to Des Moines and remained there, although it took six years to persuade the Legislature to appropriate the money. In the meantime, according to historian George Mills, the Fair took place on the west side of Des Moines. Now a residential site, it was then a city park named “Brown’s Park,” located between 38th Street on the east, 42nd Street on the west, Center Street on the north and Grand Avenue on the south.
At the first Fair held in Des Moines, the state was divided into three districts for fruit judging, and cattle competition was limited to Iowa cattle. A band-wagon was engaged for two hours each morning (Tuesday through Friday) to play on principal city streets to promote Fair attendance. Officials invited President Hayes to deliver an address. The exclusive right to sell ale, wine, beer, cider, “pop-corn,” cigars and tobacco was granted to a concessionaire for $1,050. The Ladies Aid Society sold lemonade in the amphitheater.
Chariot races were featured at the 1880 Fair. The Fruit and Floral Hall was constructed for $600, half paid by the Board, half paid by the local committee. Officials declared that “in the ladies’ (horseback) race they be required to ride as ladies usually do, i.e., not astride.” The Iowa State Agricultural College presented a remarkable display encompassing entomology, botany, veterinary, physics, chemical, mechanical, wood, printing press, zoology and civil engineering.
The Fair was held at its earliest in 1881, on September 5 (opening day) temperatures reached 95 degrees. “Musical prodigy” Little Ella was among the entertainment booked. A violent windstorm completely demolished the new Fruit and Floral Hall under construction and “unroofed” the entire amphitheater just 26 days prior to the Fair. Officials ejected a man from the grounds “for threatening language to one of the Board.” A pyramid of cheese weighing 1,100 pounds was on display. Officials discussed finding a permanent home in Des Moines.
The 1882 Fair was the first to run eight days, up from five. Large signs stating “No smoking allowed” and “Beware of thieves and pickpockets” were printed and placed in prominent places in exhibition halls. Boys were allowed to sell candy and lemonade in the amphitheater. U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture George B. Loring spoke at opening ceremonies.
Former Fair officials held a reunion during the 1883 Fair. The Board voted to receive proposals for a permanent location. Cattle and poultry entries were the largest ever.
Expert judges on “beef and milk breeds and general classes of cattle” were used for the first time in 1884. The entertainment line-up included a balloon ascension race between a man and a woman, bicycle and tricycle exhibitions and races as well as an “exhibition of Japanese day fire works.” The Legislature appropriated $50,000 for the purchase of a permanent location on the condition that the same amount be donated “in cash or property” by the city.
The citizens of Des Moines raised the money to match the legislature’s so the Board purchased 262.91 acres of land from Calvin Thornton for $175 per acre. An additional three acres were purchased for $1,000. Great debate ensued over the size of the track, whether it should be one-half mile or one-mile. When additional appropriations were not granted, the track was made one-half mile. In 1885, Fair officials declared that “special grounds be designated for camping purposes within the Fairgrounds free of charge.” The Fair joined the International Association of Fairs and Expositions for $20.
A historian of the times wrote, “There is doubtless no more beautiful site for the Fair in the U.S. Situated about two miles east of the state capitol, it rises from the plain in a beautiful and sightly eminence from which the country for miles to the west, northwest and southwest stretches out before the view.” Iowa was the second state in the Northwest to acquire a permanent home for its fair. Several waited until the next decade.
The Thornton homestead that was purchased to become the permanent location of the Iowa State Fair is now known as Grandfather's Barn. Over the years, the barn has been carefully renovated and maintained to ensure its structural and historical integrity and is open for Fairgoers to tour.
The house, which was always a private residence and not open to the public, underwent extensive renovations since the 1950s to fit the changing family needs of the residents. These modifications included relocation of exterior walls, removal of the top story, replacement of original siding and windows, as well as many undocumented interior modernizations. After these changes, the home exhibited less than 30% of its original character.
The Iowa State Fairgrounds as a whole was listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. The application mentioned the condition of the homestead, stating: "The barn remains on its original site with a high degree of physical integrity. The farmhouse also remains on its original site but has been modified so as to remove all integrity."
In November, 2011, upon learning the house was not restorable, the Iowa State Fair Board voted to remove it from the Fairgrounds.
The new grounds on the east side of Des Moines, stretching between University and Dean Avenues from East 30th to East 36th Street, were dedicated on September 7, 1886, with addresses by Governor Larabee and other notables. When the Board purchased the land there were four buildings. By Fairtime, the Society had erected 54 buildings, including Pioneer Hall, which is still used today, and private parties had constructed eight buildings. Officials leased two board fences for advertising purposes. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Western Union Telegraph Company were among the exhibitors. About 10,000 people attended a Sunday church service.
In 1887, the Board commissioned 1,500 trees planted at the cost of $330 – that’s 22 cents per tree! The Horticultural Society was given 10 acres for an arboretum. The minister was detained by a storm so no sermon was given at church services. Officials were thrilled at 30,000 in attendance on one day.
A band tournament offering $250 for first place and a best “base ball” amateur class offering $200 for the top prize were both held at the 1888 Fair. Sidewalks from Grand Avenue to Walnut Street were completed as well as one new horse barn. Five more company buildings were constructed and a 32-foot by 36-foot addition was finished for the Dairy Barn. A log cabin built near Des Moines in 1835 was placed on the grounds. Receipts were greater than any other state fair except Minnesota, and premiums offered were more than any other agriculture society’s.
The first “Seni-om-sed” (Des Moines spelled backwards) celebration, a forerunner of the annual parade which kicks off each Fair, was held in Des Moines around Fairtime in 1889. There were 86 floats in the parade. Axtell, the famous horse who set a world record for trotting, was on display in a glass house (the horse was owned by an Iowan). Polk County added a headquarters building on the grounds which is now the Ralph H. Deets Historical Museum. Fair officials allowed horse races to be held on the grounds in June and July as part of a circuit. The Fair closed with a surplus of $10,000.
All the leading newspapers had tents on “newspaper row” during the 1890 Fair. There were three courts of tennis tournaments. A division fence was built in the Campgrounds “to prevent any stampede of horses among the campers.” The largest crowd up to that point – 50,000 – attended on September 3. Electric light was used at night for the cost of $3 per lamppost. A landscape architect was hired to furnish plans for “parks, roadways and walks” as well as locations for new buildings.
Evening devotional services were held for the first time in 1891. A pavilion was constructed for band usage. There was an exhibition of gymnastic drills. Carrie Lane Chapman Catt delivered an address on women’s suffrage. A dozen new buildings were erected, the Dairy Hall doubled in size, the Agricultural Hall increased by one-third and 600 electric lights were installed. An electric light plant was purchased for $4,860.
Three two-story hotels were built on the Fairgrounds in time for the 1892 Fair. The amphitheater was destroyed during a summer storm; two new ones were built by Fairtime. The Des Moines Producer’s Hall, featuring local businesses, was dedicated. Officials remarked the “weather was perfect.” The fastest mile ever trotted on a half-mile track was accomplished. Fairgoers marveled at three balloon ascensions, including parachute leaps by a man and a dog. The Society requested money from the Legislature in order to purchase land for a one-mile racetrack.
After much debate, Fair officials determined to hold a Fair in 1893 despite the World’s Fair being held in Chicago. The “Fall of Pompeii” fireworks spectacular replaced the Seni-om-sed celebration. The Fair featured a dairy display by Professor H.C. Wallace and his assistants from the State Agriculture College. A contortionist, trapeze artists and elk races entertained Fairgoers. Unfortunately, the Fair finished the year $25,000 in debt.
A combination of poor crops, bad weather and hard times ruined the Fair in 1894 and only specific guarantees from the city of Des Moines made it possible to open the gates the following fall. Miss Lillian Cooly (claimed to be the champion rifle and revolver shot of the world) gave exhibitions of her skill with the revolver and gun in front of the Grandstand each day, shooting a ball through a lemon placed upon her companion’s head during the 1894 Fair. Other entertainment included a man fired from a cannon.
Two days of bicycle races and offering prizes valued at $800 took place at the 1895 Fair. Participants, all 600 of them, paraded through Des Moines. Great Western was granted the privilege of erecting a miniature railway to be used in operation during the Fair. Professor K.P. Speedy’s high-dive into a barrel 40 feet below was proclaimed as “the most daring feat ever witnessed on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.”
In 1896, the first of three railway locomotive collisions was staged at the Fairgrounds. Many Fairgoers (estimated attendance was 50-60,000) watched from building roofs near the Grandstand.
Many Indian tribes stayed in an area called “Indian Village” during the 1897 Fair. Chief Black Hawk attended the Fair. Dr. Carver’s diving horse was a main attraction.
No Fair was held in 1898 due to the Trans Mississippi and International Expo in Omaha, and Fair buildings were used by the military during the Spanish-American War.
In 1899, entry fees were abolished, except from money winners and winners in the speed department (horses). Winners paid the Fair 10 percent of premiums won.
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