“I’m still transfixed by the deep-fried stick of butter on a stick.”
Encased in glass, the great jaundiced bovine gazed sidelong at me. A cow made entirely out of butter—the same six hundred pounds of butter can be reused over the course of ten years to form, deconstruct, and reform this same paean to the dairy block of the food pyramid—it exists solely because it always has.
For the past few years, the Iowa State Fair’s slogan has been “Nothing Compares.” This is a bold claim to make about the event, which for a week and a half every August hosts stands selling a variety of fried foods, displays a multitude of livestock, offers carnival rides made of bolted steel, and is home to an overwhelming number of free events, contests, and displays which attract over a million visitors to the fairgrounds, an area on the east of Des Moines, Iowa’s capital.
As bold as the “Nothing Compares” slogan may be, I can’t think of anything quite like the Iowa State Fair. Throughout my childhood, I attended the fair every year, memories that at this point have congealed in my brain as one sun-soaked, humidity-saturated amount of time featuring an opaque carousel made of images of corn dogs and large pigs. There are county fairs, and even other state fairs, that claim to be superior (New York, Minnesota, Texas), but I refuse to believe any of these events come close to matching the pitch of this delirious celebration of agronomy.
Started in October 1854, a mere eight years after Iowa achieved statehood, the first fair was held in Fairfield, now renowned as a national Transcendental Meditation destination, and moved from town to town before settling on grounds built specifically to house it in 1886. The fair was conceived and executed by two men from Fairfield, not farmers but members of the county agriculture society who wanted to build a kind of convention to showcase Iowa agriculture.
After nearly a decade, I was finally returning to the fair. I was joined by three friends from New York. Throughout the fair, I planned to stop average fairgoers and crack the code: What kept drawing the people of Iowa back to this event, which started as basically a farmer’s convention, for over 150 years?
The Varied Industries Building enjoys prime real estate near the entrance of the park. The musk from the barns and the deep-fried perfume of the concourse are shut out, replaced by an entire warehouse that smells like a thousand freshly opened boxes containing something made of plastic.
This year, as in other years, the contents of the Varied Industries Building included nearly everything under the sun that can be sold. Hot tubs, plastic and empty, dared you to imagine them taking up residence on your back porch. The HydroMassage machines were available for test use. A garden of ghostly, blue-lit apparitions lay indifferently on beds as small car washes worked over them. Billy Mays acolytes goaded people to buy cookware.
Among the cacophony of live-action infomercials were booths for every college and university within driving distance. School colors blazing, these booths seemed a curious suggestion that education is considered a luxury commodity on par with hot tubs.
Iowa State, already known as the agricultural and science school, had their messaging as the top Iowa school for science and agriculture down and were in the right place for it. University of Iowa pushed their business school. Others, like Drake and Simpson, jostled for who could offer the best in “smaller college experience.”
Could you enroll in a school in this very building? I did not speak to a recruiter long enough to find out, but the entire building is essentially aspirational. I never saw a single person purchase a product, not even from the relatively cheap tchotchke stands.
I noticed, across a field of hot tubs, a booth for the Farmers Union. The second largest general farm organization after the Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union has existed for over a hundred years and has been a strong advocate for liberal policies that support farmers and subsidies that allow small and middle-sized farms to stay afloat in a market with growing corporate competition.
Two men, one young and one old, looked warily from the booth out at the spectacle. I tried to strike up a conversation with the older man, slouched back in a plaid shirt and worn cap. He wasn’t all that interested in conversation after I identified myself as a journalist. I didn’t blame him. Who is more widely reduced and made to conform to stereotypes for the purposes of journalistic pathos or to fit neatly into a specific political narrative than the American farmer?
About a week after the fair, I spoke with an acquaintance who is a member of the Farmers Union. The booth that day didn’t generate a lot of interest, she told me. Perhaps a union struggled to appeal to those soaking in the environment of luxurious purchases. Perhaps one day the hot tubs will be replaced by booths representing the Machinists Union or the American Federation of Teachers. That would be a different America, a different Iowa State Fair.
Compared to the Varied Industries Building, the Agriculture Building seems docile and unassuming. Ribbons adorned apples. Sweet corn was roped off from the public, awaiting judgement. Floral arrangements had been judged and waited in an unpeopled corner. From the second floor, you could look down on the crowds milling about while purchasing some locally made honey or some powerful glue.
The main attraction of the Ag Building, though, is also perhaps the most iconic symbol of the state fair. The butter cow, like other hallowed monuments in this country (think the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore), appears much smaller in person than in popular images. A tradition that dates back to 1911, it’s now carved every year, along with another sculpture made of 100 percent cream butter. This year it was a likeness of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the children’s book author, who lived in the state briefly as a child. With this gesture, she now joins a long tradition of Iowa claiming and celebrating notable figures who may have only briefly lived or passed through the state.
The butter cow has, over the years, become a national symbol of Iowa. Anyone who watches cable news would recognize it, and that’s not due to the niche craftsmanship that makes it possible. That would be the presidential aspirants and their attendant press corps, strategic positioners, and on-the-ground managerial staff that arrive in the state every election season. In 2015, Hillary Clinton caused a gridlock in the Ag Building, a crowd so thick that Donald Trump was unable to reach it. The butter cow has also borne witness to Senator Ted Cruz admitting to the world that his daughter’s first words were “I like butter.” And in 2007, the butter cow’s own carver endorsed Barack Obama.
One of the more peculiar aspects of living in Iowa is experiencing the rotating spotlight that falls like an astral event upon the state every four years The solar system of the fair, which in most years revolves around the big attractions: whichever musical act is playing at the grandstand (this year is was Pentatonix and Kid Rock, among others), Thrill Town (carnival rides), the Varied Industries Building, the livestock, the food, and, of course, the butter cow. Once every four years, all of this becomes set dressing for politicians who come by seemingly just to show everyone how human they really are.
In 2015, the fair set an all-time record for attendance with 1.1 million visitors.
This year, the 2015 record was broken, barely, with 1.13 million (the 2016 attendance was only barely over 1 million). This largest-ever amount of fairgoers was attributed to the surprising lack of unbearable humidity, often a hallmark of Iowa in August, and clear skies throughout. But maybe, after the turmoil of the last election that has yet to abate, people in Iowa are getting a little tired of politicians shanghaiing the event. After all, it’s a lot easier to see the butter cow in the political off-season.
There are two aspects to livestock viewing at the fair: attending the various showings of cows, pigs, horses, goats, and lesser beasts or visiting them in the pens and stables where they are kept. Having always felt repelled by the public showing and evaluation of farm animals—I witnessed the traumatic selling of some of my grandma’s horses after the death of my grandpa in just such a format—I directed the foreigners in my company toward the livestock barns.
Wandering down the dimly lit, sawdust-carpeted halls of the cavernous livestock buildings allows you to encounter the pedigreed horses, muscular cows, and over-ripened hogs in a space without the mediation of an announcer, a crowd, a stage, and often without their owner. It’s as pure and intimate an interaction you’ll have with any kind of farm animal outside of an actual farm.
Before entering the warehouse where all the cows were housed, I spoke with an older man, Tom Bronnel, wearing the unmistakable uniform of the rural Iowan, a faded blue-jean shirt and sun-leathered skin. In an equally rural Iowan drawl—a cadence built of words falling downhill and tumbling into each other—he proudly told me that he attended the state fair every year for half a day, primarily to see the livestock and view the latest developments in farm equipment. He treated the fair as more of a convention for farmers than as a spectacle, just as the founders intended. When I asked him how things had changed over the years, he noted that the air-conditioning was great, but that the equipment was getting large for his operation. He still had older tractors on his small farm.
In his essay in Harper’s in 1994 on the Illinois State Fair, David Foster Wallace sought an explanation for the fair’s attraction for people in rural areas. He hypothesized that people were alienated from the land they lived on precisely because they had to work the land constantly to sustain themselves. The state fair was a chance to glorify and worship what they could not otherwise. But what was true then and even more true now is that the average small farmer is not alienated from the land by the nature of his work, but by the increasing proliferation of large and corporate-run farms.
When I spoke with Tom about his farm, it was clear from the way he tucked his thumbs into his pockets and the way his clear blue eyes looked out from the folds of skin beneath his cap and described to me the size of his farm (around two hundred acres, a relatively small operation) that he was proud of what he did and his identification as a farmer. I thought of my great-grandpa, who farmed throughout his life, even after he took a job at the Maytag factory to make ends meet, and my grandpa on the other side of my family who lost his farm during the farm crisis of the 1980s. My grandma still lives on the land my great-grandpa farmed and now rents a portion of it out to a neighbor who grows corn and alfalfa for hay on it.
I asked Tom about his children and grandchildren, about the future of his farm. With his tumbling drawl he told me that his children worked different jobs, lived in different places, that his grandchildren didn’t seem all that interested in farming. He ended his response with a phrase that struck me as quintessential of a farmer and the attitudes I’ve known them to have toward life and the land: “We’ll see.” It’s a phrase that places the farmer just above the kind of pessimism that, like a strong tide, will draw you under, but not so high on the hill of optimism that he can view the valley below.
From 2006 to 2012, corporate farm ownership in Iowa rose by 11 percent. This followed a larger national trend of all farms becoming larger and larger in average acreage. Since 1950, the number of farms in Iowa has fallen from over 200,000 to under 100,000 and the average size of a farm has grown from 169 to 256 acres. Even the family-owned farms have come to resemble corporate farms in size. Many farmers farm land that isn’t owned by them. Smaller farms persist, but mid-sized farms are continuously getting squeezed out. Many of the attendees of the Iowa State Fair probably have roots in rural Iowa and great-grandfathers or even grandfathers who were farmers, but they themselves are not.
Thinking of Tom and the past and present state of farms in Iowa, I wandered the livestock corridors. The goats were the liveliest, the horses friendly (except for the miniatures, who can be very snooty), the pigs did little but lie motionless beneath several tilted box fans, and the cows are always eager to see if anything edible is contained in your outstretched hand, but the main event is unequivocally the baby animals. In recalling the fair, the small building adjacent to the large barns was a noted favorite by everyone in the East Coast contingency. One cage contained chicks, freshly hatched from the eggs that lay in shards beside them.
To see the piglets, we had to line up and walk across a metal platform that looked down upon their enclosure. The piglets squealed and grunted in their mad rush to feed from their mothers. Around the enclosures were signs making claims about the economic, environmental, and health-related benefits of pork production. Another sign states that the pigs are sponsored by the Iowa Pork Producers Association, a nonprofit that takes in over seven million dollars a year to promote pork consumption and the Iowa pork industry. Members of the state’s enormously profitable food processing industry are also listed as sponsors: Hubbard Feeds (five to ten million dollars in annual revenue), Sleezer, Inc. (one million dollars in annual revenue), and Kane Manufacturing (owned by Lee Container, ten to twenty million dollars in annual revenue.)
Outside the sheep barn, a food stand advertised products made from lamb. This stand was particularly on the nose, but a unique aspect of attending the fair is that, in general, you’ll rarely be in such close proximity to the animals that will be made into food you’re eating.
Some of the food rides on shock value—I’m still transfixed by the deep-fried stick of butter on a stick, introduced in 2011. The Hot Beef Sundae (mashed potatoes covered in pot roast with a cherry tomato on top) could be mistaken for wry commentary on the modern cooking trend of “deconstructing” a dish.
As dusk descended, my feet ached, and my body attempted to digest funnel cake and pork tenderloin, I thought back on those I’d spoken to as I traveled through the fair.
There were Catherine and Kathy, middle-aged friends I spoke with at the dollhouses exhibition, a collection of intricate, homemade miniatures. Catherine came every year for the bands and the rides. Today had been her third day at the fair this year. Kathy came for the photography exhibitions, in the same building as the miniatures, as she was trying to get into photography herself. They both came for the food and to see the livestock (Catherine grew up in rural Iowa, though not on a farm, and Kathy grew up in the city, but both lived in the Des Moines area now and never saw livestock outside of the fair). I asked them why they kept coming back every year. Kathy told me quietly: “You get city and country type of stuff. You get arts and music, but also cows and pigs.”
There was the young couple I found sitting on a bench near the livestock. They had that dazed, bewildered look most fairgoers get about midway through their journey through the grounds. It was Lindsay and Dylan’s third day at the fair this year. They both liked the food and drink. Lindsay made a point of visiting the chicken section of the livestock barns. Growing up, she never missed an East Side night, the one day of the fair every year that celebrates those who live in the working-class neighborhood the state fairgrounds are incorporated into. Going to the Iowa State Fair every year wasn’t a choice for her. “It’s what you do,” she said.
A poll conducted this year through the Des Moines Register found that 40 percent of Iowans hadn’t attended the state fair in a decade. It’s easy to see why: The attractions and the experience changes little from year to year. But that sameness, the unchanging familiarity, is attractive to people who come again, year after year, to see the familiar food stands, livestock, and spectacles. As the outside world changes rapidly, and many Iowans see their lives changed by events outside their control—rising political tensions and the proliferation of corporate farms—the fair offers a stable refuge.
There was an older woman in a jean skirt and floral blouse chatting with her friends, one with a cane and one on motorized scooter. When I approached her, she perked up and smiled at me, friendly and eager to speak with any stranger as I’ve known some Iowans, especially the older ones, to be. She proudly informed me that she had attended the state fair every year for what she estimated to be seventy years. She liked the people-watching and free shows. In the past, she came for the horse harness racing.
The grand concourse of the past could be a little racier than the family-friendly attractions now, with peep shows and oddities to attract attention. She recalled seeing the bearded lady and the other sideshow attractions that drew crowds decades ago, now gone. She recalled seeing Roy Rogers, how handsome he was and how he got bucked off his famous horse, Trigger. When I pressed her on why she comes back, year after year, she looked at her friend and said, “Well, it’s a tradition.”
Writer and journalist covering culture, food, and books. Currently living in Des Moines, IA with a wonderful partner and patient cat. Read more words: www.aaroncalvin.com