About ten years ago I put together a short project on the history of Iowa’s State Fair. It’s the only book published by Princeton Architectural Press to feature a corn dog recipe, and it’s been a regular seller every August when fair time rolls around. (And how do pork chops and deep fried twinkles on a stick relate to the day job? I got interested in the Fair’s animal barns and how their agricultural interiors were dressed up by locally produced brick and terra cotta when they were built from 1902-1927).
Anyway, there’s a great new book of State Fair images and essays out by Iowa photographer Kurt Ullrich, and this week an exhibition of his photos opened at Simpson College. Kurt, myself, and historian Chris Rasmussen were invited by the Iowa History Center there to do an evening panel on the Fair’s history, and it was a great chance to revisit some of this ‘research’ (some of which, I’ll admit, was done with said pork chops on a stick firmly in hand in 2004).
The Fair remains an iconic Iowa event, and it encapsulates our state’s split between rural and urban. Something like 90% of Iowa’s land is agricultural, but more than a third of Iowans live within metropolitan areas. And out of a total state population of three million, average Fair attendance is over one million every year–so nearly a third of us attend regularly. I can’t think of another state that has a single event that pulls such a huge percentage of its population together annually (OK, maybe Packer’s games if you count Wisconsinites watching on TV…?)A
A truly fun evening–a good crowd, and between the panelists I think we covered the range of ways that the Fair remains a meaningful institution. Kurt’s photographs are extraordinary, Rasmussen has a more complete overview of the Fair’s history coming out this Fall, and the exhibit will travel after its run at Simpson…I’ll be lecturing at the Dubuque Art Museum on 13 September (tentatively) to celebrate Kurt’s show there.