Lee County citizens opened the fair by presenting a 360-pound “great Denmark Cheese” to Governor-elect James W. Grimes. Though primarily showing Iowan goods—including cattle, oxen, horses, mules, sheep, swine, poultry, farm implements, produce, cloth, prepared foods, artwork, and inventions—the fair also attracted first-rate contestants from across the country.
The natural history of Iowa was illustrated by Dr. J. M. Shaffer‘s collection of reptiles and insects, and by a fine collection of birds shown by Mr. Moore, of Des Moines. Benjamin C. Perkins brought his sheep some 560 miles from Rochester, Ohio, winning awards for them. John Andrews of Pleasant Plain, a Virginian Quaker, won the prizes for the best long-wooled sheep.
In 1880, a historian from Keokuk wrote this about the first fair’s highlight…
The most exciting incident of the fair was the equestrian exhibition by ten ladies. This took place on the afternoon of the second and the forenoon of the third day. The first prize was a gold watch, valued at one hundred dollars. It was awarded by the committee to Miss Belle Turner of Keokuk. One of the fair contestants was Miss Eliza J. Hodges, then only thirteen years of age. She rode a splendid and high-spirited horse, the property of Dr. J. C. Ware, of Fairfield. The daring style of her riding, and the perfect control of the animal which she maintained, enlisted the favor and sympathy of the throng present in her behalf. The popular verdict would have awarded the prize to Miss Hodges. A purse of $165, and some other presents, were immediately contributed for the “Iowa City girl,” as the heroine of the day was called. Provision was also made for her attendance, free of all charge, for three terms, at the Ladies’ Seminary at Fairfield, and one term at Mt. Pleasant, all of which she gracefully accepted.
In October of 1855, Fairfield’s second fair enclosed seven acres of exhibits and drew as many as 13,000 to 15,000 visitors. John Deere from Illinois won both first and second prize for best cultivator, and the committee recommended a diploma to the “neat and curious” Sharps breech-loading rifle manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut. The highly accurate, long-range Sharps rifle was the famous “Beecher’s Bible” weapon of choice for John Brown and New England emigrants to Bleeding Kansas of 1855–56, and was favored by U. S. Army sharpshooters and by the cavalry of both sides in the Civil War.
Click here to read more about the 1854 Iowa State Fair and its Secretary, J.M. Shaffer.
After the first two years in Fairfield (1854-55), the fair moved from town to town throughout eastern Iowa: Muscatine (1856–57), Oskaloosa (1858–59), Iowa City (1860–61), Dubuque (1862–63), Burlington (1864–66), Clinton (1867–68), Keokuk (1869–70, 1874–75), and Cedar Rapids (1871–73, 1876–78).
Above is an interesting overview of the first six years of the Iowa State Fair – 1854-1859. This writeup came from a lengthy report the governor on the 1860 State Fair held in Iowa City. Read more here.
(Above left) Wetherby Photography in Iowa City offered ‘State Fair’ specials in 1860. (Above right) The October 17, 1866 edition of the Iowa City Republican reports that in nearby Wapello the steamboat Iowa City took a group of people to the 1866 State Fair, which was held that year in Burlington.
The Fair moved permanently within the Des Moines city limits in 1879. After the Iowa State Legislature and the City of Des Moines appropriated funds for the Fair in 1886, it moved to its current location at East 30th and East Grand in Des Moines.
The fair was not held in 1898, due to the celebration of the World’s Fair in nearby Omaha, Nebraska, as well as the Spanish–American War, 1942–1945 due to World War II, when the state allowed military personnel to use the grounds as a supply depot, nor 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The USPS Iowa Territorial Centennial stamp featuring Old Capitol has its First Day of Issue – August 24, 1938 – at the 1938 Iowa State Fair…
Our Iowa State Fair was the setting for the 1933 film State Fair and its 1945 musical adaptation.
Sing-Along with “Our State Fair” from 1945…
(P-0176) (P-0177) Greetings from Iowa. Over the years, “Greetings from Iowa” postcards have always been popular. Here’s one from the 1950’s (above), and we love artist David Luebke’s “Greetings from Iowa” design from 1988 (below). Read more here.
And you just can’t go to The Iowa State Fair without enjoying the food!
(C-0185) 2015 – Summer Harvest. In Iowa, there is nothing better than fresh summer produce. Watermelon, Cantaloupe, Tomatoes, and especially Iowa Sweet Corn. The art for these four stamps was inspired by vintage shipping crate labels, seed packets, and catalogs.
(P-0207) Finally, let’s end this big State Fair celebration with this Hog Wild postcard from the 1990’s.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Iowa’s First State Fair in Fairfield: 10,000 Visitors Paid 25 Cents Admission in 1854, Rory and Rena Goff, The Iowa Source, August 5, 2013
Jefferson County, Iowa-The First State Fair, History and Genealogy of Jefferson County, Iowa
The History of the 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 52-53
Historical Highlights of the Iowa State Fair, Iowa State Fair, 2020
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