1860 – Let’s Visit The State Fair!

(P-0255) Welcome to The Iowa State Fair!

Most folks don’t realize that the world-renowned Iowa State Fair – which began in 1854 – didn’t start off in Des Moines – but in Fairfield (see pic below). As a matter of fact, the Fair stayed in communities throughout eastern Iowa for 25 years before making it to Des Moines in 1879! Read more here.

Iowa City – Clinton Street in 1860.

After two-year stays in Fairfield (1854-55), Muscatine (1856-57), and Oskaloosa (1858-59), The Seventh Iowa State Fair came to Iowa City – and the good people of Johnson County were certainly ready to host the event. As you can see from the article below (left), 1860 was a pivotal year for both Iowa and the nation. A young senator from Illinois – named Abraham Lincoln – was running for President, and in October – one month before the election – his rival Stephen A. Douglas was scheduled to speak in Iowa City. But before that big event, the first week of October 1860 was set aside for all Iowans to come to the fair.

Here’s the location of the 1860 Iowa State Fair – near where the airport is today.

Throughout this article, we’ll be offering informative cuts from two reports on the 1860 State Fair: 1) 1861 report from the Fair Committee to Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood (in yellow), 2) 1926 Palimpsest article (in green). Enjoy!

Let the Fair begin!

Day One – after hours in the new Johnson County Court House

Two large halls were built for the Fair. The first was the Fine Arts Building – where a large number of displays were offered to fair goers (see article below)

The tradition of displaying art from talented folks around the state continues at the fair today. As you can see from the report, the Fine Arts Building featured two large paintings from George H. Yewell – made in Paris and shipped here for the 1860 State Fair. (JP-006) Above is a rare postal cover to Yewell during the time he was in Paris. Read more here. (Below) Wetherby Photography in Iowa City offered ‘State Fair’ specials – most likely taken in the Fine Arts Building.

(Below) Here are the Art Displays from the 1906 and 1910 State Fairs.

The second large hall built for the fair was the Horticultural Building. Take a look at some of the goodies at the fair (see article above).

Read more about Iowa City’s Educational Institution for the Visually Impaired.

Day Two concludes with yet another evening presentation at the new Johnson County Court House

8,000 attend the “Trial Of Speed” – the proper name for horse-racing – followed by the plowing match which had slower speeds and less crowds!

What’s a State Fair without competition & blue ribbons? One Iowa City company – Shephard & Darlington – did very well with farm implements…

(JP-004) Here’s a rare cover from 1861 featuring the Shephard & Darlington logo!

And Shephard & Darlington impressed the judges with their hogs & swine…

(JP-003) Shephard & Darlington – Iowa State Fair winners in 1860!
(C-0029) This rare cover is postmarked November 21, 1859 – from “Mother” Catherine Paxson Darlington – in West Chester, PA. and is addressed to Stephen P. Darlington, Iowa City, Iowa. The letter “arrived November 24, 1859” and was “answered November 27.” Stephen Paxson Darlington (1836-1915) was born in Chester County, PA, and relocated to Iowa City, with wife Josephine Lewis Darlington (1836-1910) where they had three children.
(JP-002) Here is another rare cover between Iowa City and West Chester, PA – this time – a Civil War patriotic one from Stephen P. Darlington to his mother – Mrs. C.P. Darlington – Postmarked May 1 1861. We know that in September 1868, Stephen’s cousins invited him back to West Chester County where he became a partner of Hoopes Brothers & Darlington Wheel Works. Both Stephen and his wife, Josephine, are buried in Oaklands Cemetery in West Chester County, PA.

The fair finally comes to a close…

The 1860 Iowa State Fair, despite the weather, was the most successful fair in its six year history. The Fair returned to Iowa City in 1861 – but as you might expect, the Civil War had broken out – making everything different – not only in Iowa City – but across the USA. Click here for more about Iowa and the Civil War.

Read more about The Iowa State Fair here.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Shephard & Darlington, 1860 Iowa State Fair, Seventh Annual Report of the Iowa State Agricultural Society to the Governor of the State, 1860, F.E. Palmer, Des Moines, pp 5, 52-61, 85-86

The Seventh Iowa State Fair, Bruce E. Mahan, The Palimpsest – Volume 7 Number 10 – Article 3, October 1, 1926, pp 309-320

The history of the Iowa State Fair’s old, inclusive art show, John Busbee, Little Village Magazine, August 15, 2022

Historical Highlights of the Iowa State Fair, Iowa State Fair, 2020, pp 8-9

Stephen Paxson Darlington, Find-A-Grave


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