The internationally-acclaimed Iowa State Fair annually attracts more than a million fun-lovers from around the world. In 2005, Midwest Living magazine named the event one of the "Top 30 Things Every Midwesterner Should Experience." The Fair's Sesquicentennial celebration in 2004 was named the #2 choice for summer fun in America by USA Weekend.
Considered America's classic state fair, Iowa's ag-extravaganza is also featured in the New York Times best-selling travel book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. The book has been described as "an around-the-world, continent-by-continent listing of places guaranteed to give you the shivers." Iowa's Fair is spotlighted as the only Iowa destination and the only state fair in the country as one of the world's must-see events.
A proud tradition since 1854, the Fair inspired the internationally-acclaimed novel, State Fair, three motion pictures, plus Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway musical. Special features include one of the world's largest livestock shows, the country's largest state fair foods department (approx. 900 classes), the state's largest arts show, hundreds of competitive events and wacky contests; 600 plus exhibitors and concessionaires selling quality and tasty treats, and 160 rolling acres of campgrounds.
The State Fair is Iowa's largest event, annually attracting a million visitors from all over the Midwest, as well as the rest of the U.S. and many foreign countries.
The largest attendance in Fair history - 1,109,150 - was set in 2008. Fairs ran 10 days long from 1951-1975; the 1976 Bicentennial Fair ran 12 days; from 1977-1988, Fairs ran 11 days; in 1989 they became 12-day events; in 1992 the Fair reverted to the 11-day schedule. Traditionally, the Fair ended eight days before Labor Day. In 1994 the Fair Board moved Fair dates up a week to accommodate increasingly earlier school openings. Thus, the Fair now ends approximately two weeks before Labor Day. A complete list of attendance figures can be found on page 8 of the Media Guide.
Blue Ribbon Foundation
The Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation was established by the Fair Board to conduct a major capital campaign for the renovation and preservation of the historic Iowa State Fairgrounds. Since its inception in 1993, the Foundation has raised over $100 million through individual contributions, state appropriations, in-kind services, and corporate, federal and state grants. For more information on the Blue Ribbon Foundation, visit their website.
Sprinkled with Iowa wildflowers and shaded by century-old hickory, oak and walnut trees, the 160-acre Iowa State Fair Campgrounds are perfect for summer or Fairtime relaxation. Camping facilities include 2300 sites with water and electrical hookups (734 sites with sewers) and many more without. Three dumping stations allow for convenient waste disposal for RVs and trailers. Three large bathhouses with showers, toilets and sinks accommodate thousands. A unique safe shelter, including an office and bathhouse, was completed in 2003. Iowa Emergency Management and the Fair collaborated on the tornado shelter, which is a prototype for shelters across the country. Reservations are only taken for campers staying the whole fourteen-day camping period. Overnight and weekend Fairtime campers do not need a reservation.
Several Fair buildings, including the Agriculture Building (1904) and Sheep Barn (1917), are priceless examples of classic, exposition-style architecture. Youth Inn (1939) is an outstanding example of Art Deco. Other major buildings (and dates of construction) include: Pioneer Hall (1886), Pavilion (1902), Horse Barn (1907), Swine Barn (1907), Administration Building (1908), Grandstand (1909), Varied Industries Building (1911), Cattle Barn (1920), Ye Old Mill (circa 1921), 4-H Exhibits Building (1937), Cultural Center (1949, renovated in 2014), Family Center (1956), Earth-Sheltered Home (1983), Walnut Center (1989), the Iowa Tourism Building (1990), Service Center (1995), Richard L. Easter Museum Complex (2004), Susan Knapp Amphitheater (2006), Ralph H. Deets Historical Museum (renovated in 2007), Animal Learning Center (2007), Stalling Barn (2008), Elwell Family Food Center (1990, renovated in 2009) and the Jacobson Exhibition Center (2010). The Fairgrounds cover 435 acres, including 160 acres of Campgrounds (open April through October), as well as Fairtime parking facilities for approximately 13,000 cars.
The first Fair was held in 1854, in Fairfield, with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people in attendance and a budget of $323. From 1855 to 1879, the Fair was held in the following cities:
- Fairfield, 1855
- Muscatine, 1856-1857
- Oskaloosa, 1858-1859
- Iowa City, 1860-1861
- Dubuque, 1862-1863
- Burlington, 1864-1866
- Clinton, 1867-1868
- Keokuk, 1869-1870, 1874-1875
- Cedar Rapids, 1871-1873, 1876-1878
The Fair moved to Des Moines in 1878. The Legislature appropriated $50,000 for the purchase of the present location in 1884, on condition that the City of Des Moines raise an equal sum for site improvements. The new Fairgrounds were dedicated on September 7, 1886. Thus, the 1986 Fair marked the 100th anniversary of the Fairgrounds; that same year the Iowa State Fair and Exposition Grounds Historic District was officially entered in the National Register of Historic Places. For more Fair history, check out our Historical Highlights.
With more than a dozen major building and exhibit facilities, plenty of parking and a full-time planning staff, the Iowa State Fairgrounds are a complete, year-round meeting and exposition center! More than 160 events taking place on nearly 480 interim use days attract more than 600,000 people each year. Large events include the Iowa Beef Expo in February and the World Pork Expo in June. Several flea markets and gun shows each attract 8,000-9,000 visitors during two-day runs. Additional facilities include parking for up to 15,000 cars, a 160-acre campgrounds, outdoor stages, picnic shelters, indoor/outdoor show rings, horseshoe courts and an outstanding half-mile dirt track suitable for auto racing, as well as truck and tractor pulling.The Fairgrounds planning staff can help arrange for caterers, decorators, sound equipment and lights. They will provide tables, chairs, benches, forage and hay, dozers and forklifts, plumbers, electricians, hauling and clean-up at surprisingly low cost. And the full-time security staff can assist with any special needs. Visit the Iowa State Fairgrounds website for details.
The Iowa State Fair Authority is established as a public instrumentality of the state. The Authority is not an agency of state government; however, it is considered a state agency for the purposes of various administrative regulations. The law provides that all operating expense, maintenance, salaries, costs of entertainment, etc., shall be paid out of Fair revenue. No tax money is used. Legislative appropriations are used only for capital improvements or repair.
The Iowa State Fair Board employs approximately 60 people year-round. During the Fair, the roster swells to approximately 1400 employees, including grounds, traffic coordination, judges, etc., in addition to contract services personnel. Concessionaires and exhibitors independently hire another 1000 workers.
Themes began in 1967 to give a feel to each year. For a complete list of Fair Themes see page 10 of the Media Guide.