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10 Things You Didn’t Know About State Fairs: Quirky Traditions And Fascinating History

Ferris wheel on the left, giant slide on the right

As fall approaches us, it’s time for a tradition for many families across the United States: going to the state fair. The history of fairs in the US dates back to the 1700s! The first fair was The York Fair in 1965 (11 years before we became a nation). The York Fair still happens every year and includes 88 acres of fun, carnival rides, and “fair food.” Although not a state fair, The York Fair spawned other fairs across the US.

Almost every state hosts a state fair, except Rhode Island and Connecticut. We explored the biggest, the smallest, and all the ones in between. From Michigan’s on-again, off-again fair, to the four yearly state fairs of Texas, Alaska, and Washington. State fair traditions have even been chronicled in an hour-long PBS special production. The origin of state fairs rests in agriculture and livestock displays, but they also mean fun rides, lots of food, and family fun.

1. Minnesota and Wisconsin fairs include giant slides.

Low-tech is the order of the day in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Both state fairs highlight a Giant Slide where riders sit on burlap sacks and slide down a 170-foot-long, 30-foot-wide piece of searing hot, waxed metal. The slide has bumps that can send you flying through the air if your slide technique is lacking! While other fairs also include giant slides, these two are unique in that they are owned and operated by the original designer’s family. In 1996, the current owners, Stacey Pitroff and Robert Barona were married at the top of the Minnesota slide. They slid down after saying their “I dos” — which is fitting, since they met there in 1993!

Image shows the Giant Slide ride at the Minnesota State Fair. Several guests are sliding down on burlap sacks, while other wait their turn on the stairway leading to the top.
Image from Facebook.

2. Hot air balloons are a family favorite for attendees at The Indiana State Fair.

Indiana has hosted a balloon race during its state fair since 1975. Although the event was canceled in 2023 due to weather concerns, it remains an annual favorite. Using a “hare” and “hound” format, ballons chase a ballon designated as the “hare” across the sky. Riders in the “hound” balloons attempt to toss a bean bag nearest the center of a target marked with (of course) an “X.”

The balloon race at the Indiana State fair is a favorite event. This image shows several balloons in the staging area with an equipment van and several people in the foreground.
Image from YouTube.

3. Wake the neighbors with the The Kentucky Rooster Crowing Contest!

If you live in Kentucky and you have a rooster that crows loud and lonnngggg, you could win five dollars and a bag of chicken feed! A tradition since the 1960s, the contest began as a way to settle a fight between two farmers. Take your earplugs!

4. Did someone say coleslaw was on the menu? It is at The Alaska State Fair!

Giant Alaskan crabs aren’t the only huge thing in Alaska. They celebrate cabbage with the Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. This contest includes $2,000 in prizes. The current world record holder, Scott Robb, was crowned at the 2012 Alaska State Fair with his 138.25-pound entry.

5. Nothing butter than a cow at state fairs in Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio! Nothing!

Nope, that isn’t a typo. In Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio, the state fair includes a full-size sculpture of a cow made entirely with butter! This tradition began in 1903 in Ohio, 1911 in Iowa, and 1922 in Illinois. Other states have jumped into the churn, including Kansas, Michigan, and Minnesota. Straying away from the traditional “cow” motif, some displays have included agricultural icons, historical figures, calves, and even sports heroes! The sculptures are on display inside a refrigerated case to maintain their shape.

The butter cow sculpture is a favorite in many state fair venues. This image shows a full-size cow in a refrigerated display case.
Image from YouTube.

6. In Texas, they do everything BIG!

The State Fair of Texas, held in Dallas, boasts more than 2.25 million visitors over a 24-day span. As the largest state fair in the US, the Texas shindig is held in Fair Park, which is also a registered National Historic Landmark. In addition to the standard food, fun, and agriculture, the Texas fair includes an ample supply of history and traditions for fair-goers.

7. If you can put it on a stick, they have it at The Iowa State Fair

Beginning in 1854, the Iowa State Fair is one of the largest livestock shows. But it is also famous for its abundant food selections. You can find over 50 types of food on a stick there!

State fair food in Iowa means almost everything on a stick. This image shows a woman eating a pork chop on a stick.
Image from YouTube.

8. New York Was The Nation’s First State Fair

In Syracuse, New York, in 1841, the state fair was born. Now named the Greater New York State Fair, this tradition continues. New York sees more than one million visitors each year and is the third-largest state fair celebration.

9. “The Big E” fair is a combined effort including six New England states.

Six states combine their efforts to provide the New England area with a fantastic blow-out fair. This 17-day event is put on by Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It is held in centrally located West Springfield, Mass, and has been ongoing since 1916. In addition to the typical fair sights, sounds, and tastes, the Big E boasts the one-of-a-kind taste of the Big E Craz-E Burger. You might best describe this delightful burger as a heart attack on a donut. They serve this specialty bacon cheeseburger on a sliced, grilled, glazed donut. I don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to tempt fate with that!

10. The Gold Rush spawned the growth of California agriculture — and therefore fairs!

With so many folks rushing to the West Coast to seek their fortune, the need for agriculture also experienced a splurge. The California State Fair was first held in San Francisco in 1854. It moved around quite a bit before finally settling in Sacramento. The fair has more than one million guests over the 18-day duration. Although noted for its musical acts, agriculture and farming are still a large part of the fair.

If you have never been to a state fair in your home state, we recommend adding this to your bucket list. Whether you like food, animals, festival rides, music, or the smash ’em crash ’em of a demolition derby, you will have a great time. I like all of the above, although I tend to avoid the Gravitron lately (especially after funnel cakes, fried ice cream, and a couple of corn dogs!). Let us know your favorite things to do at the state fair.

You can find the source of this story’s featured image here and here.

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