My good friend and sturdy Kansas patriot Tony Woodlief writes about the best State Fair around in today’s Wall Street Journal.  A sample:

Fairs embody our roots in agriculture, entrepreneurship and rabble-rousing. Where else can you, in a matter of minutes, buy a tractor, ride a camel, sample the latest in waterless car-washing technology, marvel over a 20-pound cucumber and then saunter a few hundred feet to hear Hank Williams, Jr. belt out “Family Tradition”? Let’s face it: no matter how sophisticated we become, a life-size statue of Elvis sculpted from 800 pounds of butter will always fascinate us.

And if you don’t understand this, then I’m afraid you don’t understand America. Don’t look for enlightened insights about American culture from those like Frenchman and “American Vertigo” author Bernard-Henri Lévy, who could afford no more than a “quick visit” to the Iowa State Fair, but who lingered over prisons in a manner that would make Foucault blush. If you’ve never hurled a tattered baseball at a pyramid of milk jugs, run your hand along a shiny new combine, or cheered at a pig race, then save your opinions for people who roll their eyes at Lee Greenwood.

Come to think of it, perhaps a qualification for commentators on American culture should be the ability to explain a cheese curd. The food alone can make fairs worthwhile, all of it from heaven or hell, although I’m not really sure which.

There are the funnel cakes, steak sandwiches, and roasted and buttered corn on the cob so hot you can brand cattle with it. And let’s not forget the panoply of fried delicacies. Every year brings an item that nobody before had thought—or dared—to fry and eat: pickles, Twinkies, HoHos, and—surely a sign of the apocalypse—bacon-cheeseburger doughnuts. Alongside these are all manner of skewered delights: pork chops on a stick, potato chips on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, waffles on a stick and, as ever, corn dogs and candy apples on sticks.

It seems insane to me: Not the unhealthy food, mind you, which I wholeheartedly support, but arming thousands of children with sharp wooden sticks. Perhaps that’s just the usual handwringing from a parent of four little boys who hopes to see them all through to adulthood with two eyeballs apiece.

That is always part of it, of course, both attending the fair and raising children, this fear that harm will come to them. In that sense the fair is not only microcosm but metaphor. At least it is to me as I put my ten-, eight-, and five-year-olds on a whirling, spinning, lighted metal contraption, wave goodbye, and pray to God that the carnies weren’t drinking when they assembled it— all while restraining my three year-old, who is outraged that he can’t go with his brothers. We are always sending them away, one way or another, and hoping the way is safe.

Though it’s a metaphor, however, the fair is gentler than life, because within minutes they come back to us, hair tussled, cheeks aflame, eyes wide. And at the end of it all, long after the sun has set, we pack them into our minivan, where they fall asleep almost instantly. Then we drive home through the dark country night, thankful to have been part of something so exhausting, and hokey, and irrepressibly American.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. According to state propaganda, we here in Michigan enjoyed the nation’s oldest state fair. I write “enjoyed” because given our budgetary woes, the governor canceled the fair indefinitely. Alas, no more Labor Day weekend rush to hear Alice Cooper, chew on corn dogs, nor fondle with our eyes the state’s largest pumpkin.

  2. Grew up in semi-rural central California on a town mostly built from dirt off the shoes of Oklahomans and Arkansans. Our “Aggies” campus was as big as the rest of the high school (minus the football field). But I’ve never been to the fair, state or county. Never really saw the appeal.

    I suppose it comes from my parents. My dad worked long hours so the only recreational activity he allowed himself was church (and yes, church was recreational to him) and my mom didn’t much like crowds. Or maybe it was just that we were broke at the time the fair was in swing.

    I’ll have to settle for memories of putting pennies on train tracks and riding my bike on country roads that seem to lead nowhere. That’s about as much Americana as I know.

  3. Took my two Chinese-born daughters to the LA County fair for the fifth year in a row. Our first stop is always the livestock barn: petting zoo first, then the cows. We manage to get around to the whole thing, including eating ears of corn with condiments (lime, chili powder and even mayonaise) that I don’t think were used on corn at the Shawnee County Fair of my childhood at the defunct Mid-American Fairgrounds. All the same fried food is available here, too, and not a salad to be found except for cole slaw with the “Texas Style” barbecue from a stand next to the place you can get a chicken kabob with babaganoush on the side.

    For the first time we climbed into the bleachers to watch the cow milking demonstration. A couple of hired hands from the vast mud/cowshit wastelands that pass for dairy farms in what remains of unpaved flatland Southern California. The friendly dairy technician talked about milking barns with 100, 200, and even 300 stations and mentioned that a 300 cow dairy is a small operation like you might see north of San Francisco. Sad to remember my three uncles in Jackson County had maybe 30 milk cows each when I was a kid and that not a single cousin farms, except for one who went over to the dark side and married a man with a hog operation.

    I’ll keep going back to the fair and maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to convince my wife that manure smells better than salt air and then we can go back to Kansas and get some cows.

    Hope springs eternal.

  4. We moved to Kansas 34 years ago and went to the State Fair once. What a disappointment! But after an annual trip to the Minnesota State Fair just what would you expect. Next year we plan on going north again to the North Star State and spend a day at the fair. The morning mostly in the stock barnes, then maybe I can pick some fights at the leftist booths in the Grandstand Building, then up machinery hill, and around to see some other exhibits. We’ll not go to the shows, my Dad always said they cost too much and he was, of course, right. Then we’ll all come home exhausted. Not that’s a real fair!

  5. Daniel Harden is right; no other fair can even hold a candle to the Minnesota State Fair. (Although the Texas Rodeo in Houston is pretty cool.)

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