Is there a documentary about fairs? I NEED IT
August 27, 2018 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I need to know everything about state/county/regional fairs. Anecdotes, data, history, all of it, I need it.

On a whim, I visited my county's fair and had such a good time that I then went to the regional fair, and the state fair. I love them all so much, I want to immerse myself in fair culture. It's sort of an anachronism, but I guess I only think that because I grew up very removed from rural culture and think of "farming" as being old-timey, which is clearly ridiculous.

Anyway, I have read Charlotte's Web and I know there's a musical called State Fair. Are there any documentaries about the fair? Books? I guess I would prefer narratives over a strictly-historical book. Like if there was a reality show about the kids in the FFA, I would binge it all right now. Any media that can help me scratch this itch would be most appreciated as fair season is winding down and it'll be months before another one! Even tangentially-related and fictional (like Charlotte's Web..haha) is fine--I just think every bit of it is so charming and fascinating from the animals to the quilts to the rides to the monster trucks.
posted by masquesoporfavor to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The Illinois State Fair was a huge part of my childhood (I was in the ponytail and pigtail contests every year as a child and I was in the bake-off as a teenager). David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about it called "Ticket to the Fair," which is behind Harper's paywall. I usually love David Foster Wallace's essays, but I hate this one. He does not get the State Fair at all.
(I figured someone would bring it up eventually, so I'm mentioning it first.)
posted by FencingGal at 11:36 AM on August 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Book: Pennsylvania Fairs & Country Festivals, by Craig Kennedy.

Documentary: The Grange Fair - An American Tradition
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:36 AM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

There's County Fair, Texas that follows four kids raising animals to show at the fair. You can rent it via Vudu. I remember really enjoying it.
posted by darksong at 11:37 AM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are interested in the wild world of state fair foods, there's a show on Food Network Canada about it, Carnival Eats, which is extremely fun if you can get your hands on it.
posted by ITheCosmos at 11:47 AM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

How about the Instagram account of the Pennsylvania Farm Show? Or its Flickr photos? A walk-through (YT)?


I...I might be a fair/festival/farm show fan myself, so thanks for this question.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:48 AM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Even though it's definitely a historical book, I wanted to include a plug for a history of the state fair that I know best, Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair. It has lots of wonderful photographs! It looks like the University of Iowa Press has published a scholarly history and a book of photographs of the Iowa state fair, too.

On preview: oh goodness, yes, Instagram!
posted by Anita Bath at 11:49 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't subscribe to Harper's and I found DFW's essay "A Ticket to the Fair" here.
posted by holborne at 11:50 AM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a rural community that still had a grange and I currently live in a rural community that still has a grange and I spend summers in a (third!) community that still has a grange, all in New England. I go to State Fairs whenever I can.

I agree, that DFW article is annoying but worth reading because it'd a particular view of state fairs. A lot of people don't know that the Obama administration did a State Fair Tour in 2010. Sort of to stump for policies and etc, but it's worth reading the few blog posts about it (you may have to use the search to find more than five posts b/c the current link to "more articles" is broken)

Wikipedia has a State Fair category so you can click around for links to state fairs (in the US and canada) and factual information. I learned a lot about old state fairs in Vermont by looking up old photos from the Library of Congress. There are a LOT of images there but you have to drill down to find a lot of them. Click around.

This article from the Saturday Evening Post
is one I would read and I might also watch the movie Butter, a comedy about butter sculpting that has an all star cast and is very very true to State Fair culture.
posted by jessamyn at 11:50 AM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


I believe they just came out with a book on the history of that fair, it should be at their web site.
posted by Melismata at 12:14 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also if you want a really deep dive, there are a lot of brochures from old state fairs online in various places. Here's a sampling from Open Library.
posted by jessamyn at 12:19 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Here's a vintage 10 minute documentary about the Indiana state fair. As a bonus, this link has the MST3K crew riffing on it.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 12:25 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Butter sculpture is a big deal at the Minnesota state fair.

Here is a slideshow of 87 photos from our county fair. This one of 4H kids & costumed goats and the following photos of 4H kids & their animals are pretty typical of my experience there.

The kids & I entered several things at the county fair. 8-year-old won a blue ribbon for her chocolate chip cookies. I won blue & red ribbons for several photos & my 11-year-old won grand champion for one of her photos and several blue ribbons for her pet rooster.

The 11-year-old also had a rooster entered in the 4H poultry competition. This meant that we had to go to the fair (20 minute drive away) at least once a day to clean out his cage & refill his food and water. We spent a lot of time admiring all the other poultry, goats, sheep, rabbits, and horses. (Seriously - we spent hours in the goat barn!) We also checked out all the quilts, paintings, jams, fresh vegetables, and cookies that people had entered.

On competition day, all the poultry kids had to be at the fair by 8 am in white shirts & dark pants. We then spent hours sitting around an enclosed ring as each group brought up their birds for judging. (Brown egg layers, white egg layers, meat birds, turkeys, ducks, hobby poultry, etc.) After about 5 hours of this, it was time for showmanship, when the kids came up & had one-on-one time with a judge. They were asked questions to see how knowledgeable they were. (How long does this breed of chicken take to hatch? What are some characteristics of this breed that we should look for?) During the down time, kids would sit in circles on the ground with their chickens in their laps or walk around & offer to let people pet them.

When we got hungry, we ate cheese curds, milkshakes from the 4H dairy booth, tacos sold by the VFW, and corn on the cob.
posted by belladonna at 12:45 PM on August 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

I know there's a musical called State Fair.

Yep, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, though it was originally written for the screen. It's based on a 1932 book called State Fair (surprise!), which has been adapted five times: a non-musical version in 1933 (with Will Rogers), the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 1945 and 1962, a television pilot in 1976, and, finally, a 1996 Broadway musical based on the Rodgers & Hammerstein material (though both Rodgers and Hammerstein were long gone by then). The only one of these that I've actually seen is the 1962 version with Ann-Margaret and Pat Boone, which is worth seeing, though by no means great. That version was set at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, for which I have a soft spot.
posted by ubiquity at 12:48 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

There is, of course, the food, the games, the petting zoos, etc. But are you also interested in the mechanics and physics of the rides at fairs, since that is a big draw?
posted by CollectiveMind at 12:51 PM on August 27, 2018

Response by poster: There is, of course, the food, the games, the petting zoos, etc. But are you also interested in the mechanics and physics of the rides at fairs, since that is a big draw?

posted by masquesoporfavor at 12:52 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

For completeness, I include this
posted by Glomar response at 1:13 PM on August 27, 2018


Ok, my quick county fair virtual tour:

Pay your $5 at the gate & turn right. First is the goat barn. Say hi - goats are very friendly. Did you know their pupils are rectangles? Look at the posterboard signs the 4H kids have put up with photos of them & their goats. These kids love their animals. Admire the grand champions and their purple ribbons. Repeat for the rabbits, sheep, swine, & poultry.

Take a break from animals & sit on the $60,000+ tractors.

Get some cheese curds or a corn dog. Eat some pie at the 4H booth.

Admire the 4H projects - photography, woodworking, baking, robotics, gardening.

Cross over to the petting zoo. You can pay a couple bucks to hold a baby goat, a crocodile, or a lemur, but it's best to just stick to petting things for free. Buy a paper cup of food & feed the alpaca and the sheep. Wonder why the petting zoo is mostly made up of the same animals in the competition barns.

Walk along the row of booths outside. It's a combination of people running for election, the fire department, a radio station, churches, and people selling MLM products. Let the kids go in the bouncy house sponsored by the sheriff's department, then over to the bouncy house sponsored by the fire department.

Since it is $1 ride day, buy a few tickets and let the kids go on the ferris wheel & merry-go-round. Decide that the other rides look a little dangerous. Be glad you aren't paying $4/ride. Tell the kids that they can't play the stupid carnival games no matter how much they want to win the giant inflatable hammer or stuffed teddy bear.

Go into the display building & marvel at the jars of jam, crocheted afghans, photos, cookies, and giant cucumbers. Tell yourself that your garden produce is prettier & you really should remember to enter next year. You might win $3 and a blue ribbon!

Walk through the "marketplace" building, which is filled with home improvement companies & churches. Explain to the kids that everyone here is selling something - either windows or Jesus.

Pass the kids competing in the "unroll the toilet paper" contest & head over to the horse barn. Once again, admire the posters & the way each kid has decorated their horse's stall. This year's theme was mostly tropical, but there are a few patriotic stalls with flags and streamers as well. Watch the riders in the ring for a few minutes, then realize it is 89 degrees and you want to get out of the sun. Decide that the cattle barn is slightly cooler, if more pungent.

Catch the free trolly that circles the fair & ride it over to the log cabin that the historical society maintains. Watch someone weave a rug & listen to an old man talk about what is what like when he & his 8 siblings lived in this tiny cabin. Feel very grateful for indoor plumbing and central heating.

Get back on the trolly & ride past the people prepping for the evening's demolition derby. Stop back in the chicken barn to make sure your bird has enough food & water for the night. Give the floor a quick sweep since somebody spilled sawdust near your cage.

As you leave the fair, get your hand stamped if you're coming back for the evening's events (demolition derby or concert). Get in the car, turn on the A/C, and sigh.
posted by belladonna at 1:22 PM on August 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

Farewell Ferris Wheel
posted by loveandhappiness at 1:34 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Images of America books have quite a few about various fairs:
posted by leaper at 4:15 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

The American Dairy Association of Indiana published a book called Buttercup's Big Day. I'm looking at my kid's copy now so I know I didn't imagine it. It is a cute overview of the fair experience from the perspective of an animal.

The book doesn't seem to be online but I found this reference on (Seriously! That is the site. I love that they picked that because GotMilk was taken.)

Written in 2012 to coincide with the Indiana State Fair’s theme (Year of Dairy Cows), the story is all about Buttercup the Cow and her first visit to a state fair.
posted by cessair at 4:22 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

My grandparents were big in the Grange, which led to an old family joke. Whenever a pie or cake or any food turns out really good-looking, you say, "That one must be for the Grange." Or the person cooking might say, "Leave that one alone; the good one's for the Grange." It's kind of a weirdo way of saying, "too fancy for the likes of us."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:34 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

For a historical fiction account, there's a chapter in Farmer Boy (the volume in the Little House series about Almanzo, Laura's husband) about his time at the County Fair.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:44 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Twin Cities Public Television has State Fair Stories narrated by Kevin Kling about the Minnesota State Fair.

I have been to the annual meeting of MN Federation of County Fairs a few times. A colleague & I went to their convention because they have the Entertainers Showcase--every potential county/state fair act from jugglers to cowboy acts to magicians to bands/music of all sorts to ventriloquists and everything in between all in 5-10 minute segments in a big hotel ballroom. Really great fun. We did have to get special dispensation to attend, because we are not 'fair people.'

The convention exhibits are vendors selling all the things a county fair needs from ribbons to amusements to carnival rides along with entertainers displaying their talents. There are concession vendors, tent suppliers, radio operators, and more. The educational sessions are on food safety (e coli!), behavior management (visitors & animals), animal care/housing, legal issues, 4-H, public safety, lobbying, and lots of other topics. There is a church service on Sunday morning. County Fairs are run by the County Agricultural Societies and they are really close knit groups. In some counties, it's a family thing with fair board positions passed down from father to son/daughter. You really see what a subculture it is. It was fascinating to see the 'insider' view.

Wednesday of this week--Aug 29--is Read & Ride Day at the Minnesota State Fair. Discounted admission if you show your public library card at the gate. MELSA, the regional public library system in the Twin Cities, organizes this (a lot of work!). It is a day of stage acts for kids & adults (hence the entertainers showcase), crafts, games, prizes, literary activities, a story walk, and more to showcase libraries & literacy. Library staff from all types of libraries from around the state volunteer during the day--they get a cool t-shirt, admission, & the Bargain Book. I work across the hall from MELSA in another library system, so we hear all about the planning and I encourage my staff to work the day. I won't be there this year, but I hope you Minnesotans will be!
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 10:05 PM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Here's a link to David Foster Wallace's Ticket to the Fair. I've been to the Illinois State Fair 3 times—unlike FencingGal, I thought he nailed the experience.

In fact, there was a time when I thought A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again was the essay about the fair.
posted by she's not there at 10:47 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nosey Mrs. Rat, what an amazing convention that must have been! It has somehow never occurred to me that fairs need to source many different objects.

Last weekend, I talked to one of the important but low-visibility moving parts of a fair--a perfectly lovely woman whose son now runs the family company, providing safety and First aid services to county fairs and festivals. She told me about a recent emergency at a regional county fair where a pig passed out from heatstroke (revived successfully) and another pig just keeled over. She explained that the unexplained nature of the death meant that her son's team had to find a way to remove the pig from its enclosure, procure 80 pounds of ice, and break out the body bag so the carcass could be sent via their ambulance to the state veterinary lab for autopsy (verdict: broken trachea), all while trying to not upset the scads of small children in the immediate area. She was grateful that the hauler was a day late, because they couldn't have released the other pigs from the fair for fear of infection. Security mom has been at this for 19 years, and I was only sorry that there wasn't time for more stories.

I find the behind-the-scenes stuff fascinating, and am reading the DFW piece in disappointment. A "special vacation from alienation"? I think of the 4-H kids, getting up early every day, school and summer, to care for their animals, of their resentment, exhaustion, fidelity, of the way they do the work required without anyone ever witnessing their labor--how they make proud banners and posters to decorate fair stalls, the planning that goes into collecting past ribbons and stringing them like little flags from wall to wall over the animal, the way they need to think ahead in packing coolers, sleeping bags, folding chairs, shovels, feeding pans for the hours they'll spend overnight at the fair, crashed next to their pride and joy--these are the kids who are showing off their skills to each other and to the suburban fairgoers. It's not love that finds them in the barns at home every morning, but commitment, and they are finally, finally getting to show off their work and, at the same time, they're hoping to impress potential buyers, doing the math on how much a successful sale will add to their First Tractor fund. I reject DFW's implicit assumption that fairs are as magical for those who make them work as they are for its visitors; that's just silly. It's a different kind of satisfaction for the ag folks. Ribbons are eye candy for the easily pleased. The check from the fair, though? That's seed money for the future.

Anyway, have some tractor square dancing.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:40 AM on August 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: ALL OF IT PLEASE!!

I would like to take you to the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which is about to enter its 103rd year. It's become one of my very few family traditions, the first taste of the new year and guarantee (it is said) of ice storms. Farm Show Week? Batten the hatches! But as long as the sun shines, all roads lead to Harrisburg, the state capitol; highways near the Farm Show complex are jammed, with state troopers directing traffic closer to the building. (This is, per one former trooper, the reason you don't piss off your superiors because they will put you outside in the freezing cold and exhaust fumes.) Parking is tight and the show rents lot space from a local college, running shuttles every few minutes.

The building itself--the complex--is 11 halls strung together, 24 acres (a million square feet), everything under cover, and as soon as you enter the hall at the near end, you feel both warmth and the energy of people, because every hall is PACKED. School groups, families, farm folks, parents with strollers (a mistake), everyone polite if squeezed.

The BEST plan is to slowly make your way to the other end of the building, to the food hall. Deep-fried mozzarella balls. The once-a-year Farm Show milkshakes. Shroomies and whoopie pies. You must fortify yourself for the day. Sluggish and milkshake-filled, you can make your way to the exhibits at the back of the food hall. The solar panel vendors are here, the Lancaster Farming booth (get your free copy!), the veterinary school exhibit for kids--not just coloring pages, but identify that skull--and the joy of all ages, the duckling pool race. If you can find a spot on the bleachers, you can watch the ducklings climb the ladder, slide down the plastic ramp, and splash into the water, surprised and quick to do it again. Everyone smiles. Ducklings!

Then it's out of the hall and up the escalator to the event halls. Interested in dressage? Tractor square dancing? Sledge pulls? Rodeo? Take a set in the stadium; all will come to you eventually.

Between performances, you can make your way to the smaller halls, maybe catch an auction (corporate folks seem to be winning bidders; lucky 4-H kids!) or the sheep-to-shawl competition or the livestock judging. Passers-by get caught on the wrong side of a gate to let the animals through, and it's always amazing to see how often the animals are bigger than the kids leading them into the ring.

Smaller specialty halls hold 4-H farm safety projects, the state's pine tree association (lots of trees, still looking good post-Christmas), samples of hay and corn and nuts. This is where Turkey Hill pitches its free ice cream cup booth, and folks pass the time in line looking at artfully decorated straw bales.

The main hall, now that's where the action is. It makes the old-fashioned carousel--all rides for charity--look tiny. At one end, rows of vendors, all Pennsylvania products, like honey and hot sauce and picked everything. Penny candy and sausage, maple syrup, cheese samples, wine tastings, each booth featuring something yummy from some corner of the Commonwealth. It's January outside, but in here are the seeds, all of the seeds. Next, the larger booths for forestry (a walk-through wood identification trailer), Penn State's extension service (lots of handouts about fruits and vegetables), Pennsylvania museums (the canoe, hollowed out of a large tree), interspersed with more food stands, and isn't it time for another milkshake, because YET AGAIN your child has asked for "a little bit" of your once-a-year treat. This time she wants some Farm Show fries, too, thanks Pennsylvania Potato Growers Association! She also asks you to buy honey sticks at the honey producers booth. It's Farm Show--why not? At the far end of the hall, the beauty--the creations of the hand. Canned goods. Best in Show. Baskets of produce. Glass cases filled with hand-spun yarn, knitted and crocheted objects, cross-stitch, skirt suits, and next to them, the gingerbread houses. The art. Ribbons, ribbons, ribbons. Because we are proud of making things in Pennsylvania.

And now to the heart of the main hall, the annual butter sculpture. That cow! The six-sided refrigerated case is a destination for visitors, and you make the kids pose in front of it every year, even with their milkshake mustaches.

Then on to the barns, with their endless rows of low-fenced pens. Goats. Sheep (cold sheep!). Draft horses. Cattle. Cows, and their 4-H kids, shoveling poop away almost as soon as it falls; taking clippers to an animal; refilling food and water; asleep in a folding chair, boots up; chatting with friends in other stalls. The last high school jackets are roaming the halls here, embroidered with FFA affiliation in white cursive embroidery across the back. It smells, yes, but not pungently, and you can see a little bit of the work these kids do every day.

Backtracking, now, because you never quite see everything--honestly, it's my fondest wish to go to Farm Show for the day BY MYSELF, so I can see what I've missed in other years--and you fly by displays of cider-making, farms in miniature, and suddenly everything is too crowded and the kids are cranky and it's time to go. "Mama," I hear, "we missed the chick hatcher!" Yes, yes we did. But there's always next year.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:09 PM on August 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You're all blue ribbon answerers in my book, thank you so so much!!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 10:24 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

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