Celebrating America’s Rich Harvest at the State Fair

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Overview

Games, rides and plenty of food line of the boardwalk of the state fair

It’s late summer now – the leaves are just beginning to turn from green to yellow; the nights are a little bit chilly; there are commercials for back-to-school sales on television. Kids begin to dread the start of school, while their parents begin to quietly rejoice. Before the kids go back to school though, there will be one last blast of summer in America: the state fair.

What better way to forget about having to study for a test than going to a fair? Riding a Ferris wheel or a roller coaster, eating deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, watching a concert on the main stage, winning a prize at a carnival game – state fairs are a great way for both kids to make fun new memories and for adults to relive their own childhood. But state fairs weren’t always just about fun and games. In fact, state fairs were a much different type of event when they first started.

Let’s take a brief look at the early days of the state fair in America, and how the state fair came to be what it is today.

History

A scene from the South Carolina State Fair in the early 20th Century.

State fairs in the U.S. have an origin that is related to agriculture. Starting in around the 19th century (1800 – 1899), local farmers would get together to show off their wares. These displays soon became more of a competition to see who had the healthiest livestock (farm animals) or the most perfect-looking or largest piece of produce (fruits and vegetables). These were mostly casual events though until one man came along and made these agricultural shows more of a formal gathering.

In 1810, a New England farmer by the name of Elkanah Watson, along with some help from a few neighbors, began holding a local cattle show. A little while later, Watson and his fellows formed the Berkshire Agricultural Society, which organized agricultural celebrations throughout the states of New England (New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine).  A couple of decades later (a decade is ten years), a group of farmers and politicians joined forces to form the New York State Agricultural Society in 1832. In 1841, the New York Agricultural Society held the very first U.S. state fair in Syracuse, New York. The fair featured livestock competitions, rodeos, horse pulls, recipe displays and showcases for award-winning produce. Each of these events formed the backbone for the state fair as we know it today.

As time went on, America became less agrarian (farm-based) and more urban (city-based). In order to keep people coming, state fairs added events such as concerts, carnival rides and games to their more traditional events. Today the state fair is a celebration of both America’s agricultural origins and of it’s modern industrial life.

Notable State Fairs

Big Tex greets visitors at the Texas State Fair

Although state fairs in America have a similar origin, they aren’t all alike. On the contrary, each state fair in the U.S. is as unique as the state itself. Below is a sample of some of the unique state fairs in the U.S. along with some of the characteristics that makes each fair its own animal.

  • Minnesota State Fair is the second largest state fair in the U.S. The Minnesota fair is known for its one-of-a-kind fair food such as the pizzarito, candied bacon donut sliders and cheesy onion French bread.  Once they are filled up with food, fairgoers can catch a concert at the grandstand or check out the amateur talent competitions that feature $20,000 in prizes, including a year’s supply of free pizza.
  • The Great New York State Fair Is, as mentioned above, the longest-running fair in the United States. It features a contest for singing America’s National Anthem, called “Star Spangled Challenge.” If you are looking for a taste of the local fair food, check out Taste NY Marketplace for samples of cheese, jam, maple syrup and jerky from local farms.
  • The Big E is not just a state fair for one state, but for several states. It includes the best that the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont have to offer. Be sure to take a look at the Butter Sculptures of Doctor Seuss characters using over 600 pounds of butter. That will surely make you hungry for a Big E cream puff, which is a staple in the area. You can work off those calories by taking a stroll along the Avenue of States and its replicas of each state’s original New England state house.
  • The State Fair of Texas lives up to the saying “everything is bigger in Texas.” It is the busiest state fair in the U.S. with over three million visitors each year. The State Fair of Texas is well known for its creative competitions, as there are contests in everything from art to canning. It’s also a fun place to sample different dishes like deep fried cheeseburgers, S’mores beer, fried beer and fried peaches.
  • California State Fair has its fair (pun intended) share of crazy fair food. Bacon-wrapped corn, deep-fried PB&J cheesecake, and deep fried twix (Americans do like to fry their food, don’t they?) are just some of the dishes you can try. If you have had your share of fried foods, you can watch or even take part in the Cornhole Championship, which has a social division and a serious division.

America’s state fairs have no shortage of fun ways to spend your time. Not only that but each state fair has its own unique events as well as food that give you a taste of what makes that state its own place. You’ll be sure to have a blast when you go the state fair. Just be sure to bring your stomach medicine with you when you go.

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