In 1945, Rodgers and Hammerstein produced “State Fair”, a musical centering on the trip an Iowa farm family took to their state fair. It was somewhat ironic that the songwriting duo chose this as a topic, since by the time the musical was made into a movie in the late 1950s, family farms and agricultural shows were disappearing. However, in central New York, the New York State Fair is a big event; as I have discovered since moving to this area two years ago, nearly every conversation eventually gets to the fair: “Did you go yet?” “What did you see?” “How was the traffic?”
New York state’s fair is the oldest in the nation, premiering in 1841. The idea of showcasing agricultural and other rural accomplishments, though, had begun in the first decade of the 19th century, when a New Englander organized a livestock and agricultural show in western Massachusetts. But the New York state fair expanded the contests and amusements by including recipe contests, flower judging, and, in an age of hoaxes and frauds, various freaks and oddities. As our nation expanded westward, other states also began to hold big fairs, usually in the mid to late summer (before farmers had to be home to harvest).
Wisconsin and New York showed, heavily dependent on their dairy industries, included butter sculptures; other states emphasized their own industries or features also. Crafts received a great deal of attention (as they still do, at least in New York): knitting, sewing, crocheting, tatting, wood carving and candle-making. Each of these craft competitions have various categories, including a “junior” level and now a “senior citizen” level. In New York, where sheep and alpaca raising have become important farm activities, there is also a competition to see who can shear a sheep, spin the wool, and turn it into something useful the fastest!
As electric lights and electrically powered machinery became affordable, state fairs stayed open later and added amusement rides. They also added beauty pageants (such as the “Better Baby” contests sponsored by the American Eugenics Society in the 1920s). Other contests, such as an Abe Lincoln look-alike contest (in Illinois at the 1959 State Fair) also have proven popular. (Hmmm, I think NYS has missed a wonderful opportunity by not sponsoring a Donald Trump look-alike contest this year…maybe next year).
Over the years, state fairs have also been a venue for manufacturers to show off the latest inventions, ranging from tractors to dentists’ drills to home appliances. It was at a Midwestern state fair in the 1940s that many people got their first glimpse of television. The Pepsi company used to introduce new soft drinks at state fairs. Until the early 1970s, cigarette manufacturers took advantage of the crowds to promote new cigarette brands, handing out free samples to fair-goers.
Politicians and entertainers are still a big part of state fairs; the New York State governor never misses an opportunity to make a public appearance, usually accompanied by his favorite local politician. Entertainers, ranging from Frank Sinatra to hip-hop artists, have also visited here then. The Beatles performed at the 1964 Indiana State Fair, much to the chagrin of parents of teenagers!
Food and oddities are a big draw, of course, whether it be contests to see who can eat the most ___ (ears of corn, pancakes, hotdogs, you name it) or odd combinations of food (deep-fried ice cream or “alligator bites” covered with guacamole). People at the NYS fair line up to get a small dish of potatoes slathered in butter, or pay 25 cents for a tiny cup of milk, both of which are products of NYS farmers.
IN a sign of the ways in which the nation’s economy has changed since the first state fairs were held, fairgoers can also ride a free farm wagon over to the barns and sheds that house cows, sheep, goats, chickens, and pigs; for many Americans, this is the only experience they will ever have in an agricultural setting. Perhaps that is part of the attraction, then: to see what people can produce with their own hands and perseverance.