Rides on the midway, fried food, sideshows, carnival games, blue ribbons ... there is something uniquely American about state and county fairs.
Many of these fairs have their roots in agriculture. They were launched to provide a meeting place for farmers and/or to promote local crops to the general public.
The agricultural aspect is still present, though it now may be relegated to the background in favor of food, rides and big-name musical acts. Even so, the concept of these fairs has changed little over the past century, even as their popularity has grown. The largest state and county fairs draw millions of people now, which makes them a custom that isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.
Here are 10 state and county fairs that are still going strong.
State Fair of Texas
The State Fair of Texas starts on the last Friday in September. (Photo: Caleb Feese/flickr)
The State Fair of Texas, held over a 24-day period starting in late September, has drawn more than 2 million people a year in recent years. That's just an estimate; the organizers claim to not keep an exact tally. But the Dallas-based event is almost universally considered America’s largest fair in terms of attendance (by a wide margin).
The State Fair of Texas has been held every year since 1945. It was first launched in 1886 and takes place at Fair Park in the center of Dallas. College football games at the onsite Cotton Bowl, a large parade, an auto show and other events fill the calendar, and recently there has been an increased focus on foods (mostly of the deep-fried variety). Agricultural events still play a large role in this fair with everything from a rooster crowing contest to longhorn shows.
Minnesota State Fair
The Minnesota State Fair draws almost 2 million people annually. (Photo: m01229/flickr)
Like the State Fair of Texas, the Minnesota State Fair's attendance reaches into seven figures. It has come up just short of 2 million annual attendees in recent years. Like its peers, this event, nicknamed “the Great Minnesota Get-Together,” has its roots in agriculture. Livestock shows, crop displays and 4-H exhibits are housed in the permanent structures at the fairgrounds, but the fair is probably best known for its sometimes-creative, sometimes-strange fried foods (from fried pickles to fried candy bars to cheese curds).
The Minnesota fair takes place in late August, and the final day is always Labor Day. The event was first held in 1859, one year after Minnesota became a state. It moved to its current permanent site in 1885. The fairgrounds are officially located in Falcon Heights, a suburb between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. This “neutral” location was meant to stop the Twin Cities from hosting competing festivals.
Iowa State Fair
For many, the Iowa State Fair is the quintessential fair. The famous film "State Fair" was set at the Iowa fairgrounds. First released in 1933 and starring Will Rogers, it has been remade a number of times over the decades. This fair draws more than a million each year during its week-and-a-half run in August. For some of these people, the offbeat, often-fried spins on classic American foods are the highlight. For others, it is the concerts and talent shows. But for anyone who wants to find a state fair that has managed to hold onto its traditions, Iowa is a good bet.
Blue ribbons are awarded in 900 food categories each year, and the fair claims to have one of the country’s largest livestock shows. Then there is the Butter Cow, the symbol of the Iowa State Fair. Sculpted every year using real Iowa-produced butter, the life-sized cow is often accompanied by other figures. The cow’s past companions have included Iowa native John Wayne, characters from the comic strip Peanuts, Elvis and the straight-faced farming couple from American Gothic.
The Big E
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine make up the Big E. (Photo: Tom Sartain/flickr)
The Eastern States Exposition, often referred to by its nickname, the Big E, is a fair that includes six New England states. Despite its multiple participants, it is considered a “state” fair, and even refers to itself as “New England’s Great State Fair.” It is held each September in West Springfield, Massachusetts. The event was originally meant to promote agricultural careers and education. Even today, organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) are well represented at the Big E.
Livestock and horse shows take place at the onsite Big E Coliseum, and there is a living history village, a midway, and a parade. Each state is well represented at the fair. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine all send participants. Replicas of the six state houses are located on the Avenue of States. In all, more than 1.5 million people came to the most recent fair.
Washington State Fair
The Washington State Fair is in September. It lasts for three weeks, with a second four-day event in the springtime and other happenings, such as an Oktoberfest celebration, held at the fairgrounds in Puyallup. To differentiate it from similar events in other parts of Washington, the fair was called the Western Washington State Fair until 2006. It was also known as the Puyallup Fair. Some people still refer to it as the latter, and one of its recent marketing slogans was “Do the Puyallup.”
The fair started in 1900, and attendance has topped one million a year since the 1980s. Puyallup’s events were put on hold during World War II when the grounds were used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans.
Erie County Fair
The Erie County Fair eclipses the New York State Fair in Syracuse in terms of attendance and, arguably, in terms of notoriety. This is the largest county fair in the country outside of California, and it was the largest nationwide, in terms of attendance, through the 1970s. More than a million people attend each year. Now held in the town of Hamburg, the fair was organized by the county agricultural society and early incarnations took place in Buffalo in the 19th century. It moved into its current home in the 1880s.
4-H, agriculture and baking contests are a still a major part of the festivities, though many people are drawn to Hamburg by the large midway, which has been run by the same carnival company for nearly a century. There is also a focus on folk arts and crafts, with blue ribbons handed out for things like woodcarving, homemade wine and beer, and restoring antique farm equipment.
San Diego County Fair
The San Diego County Fair is held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Not only is this the largest county fair in the country in terms of attendance, it is one of the largest fairs, period. First started as a farm-related event in the 1880s, the fair was held at various locations in southern California until arriving in Del Mar just before World War II.
The event runs from early June through the 4th of July weekend. Agriculture and crafts are a major part of the proceedings, though many attendees focus on the food, rides and events such as a bubble gum blowing contests. Each year, the fair has a different theme to try to provide new attractions for annual visitors.
Florida Strawberry Festival
Some fairs are focused on a single product. Though the Florida Strawberry Festival, held each March in Plant City (in western Florida), now has a midway, parade, pageant, livestock shows and 4-H exhibits, it began as a simple small town fest to celebrate the strawberry harvest.
There are 10,000 acres of strawberry fields in and around Plant City, but wider Hillsborough County is one of Florida’s busiest agricultural areas with a total of 2,800 farms producing a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Concerts are held every day during the fair, and a large flea market has become an important part of the proceedings. Strawberry Fest has drawn more than half-a-million visitors each year.
Wilson County Fair
The Wilson County Fair is about 30 miles from Nashville. (Photo: Evelyn Maxey/flickr)
Some county fairs, such as the Wilson County Fair in Lebanon, Tennessee, strive to keep in touch with their rural roots. Judged contests for agriculture, horticulture and livestock are always an important part of the proceedings in Wilson County, as are events like a lawn mower demolition derby and tractor pull. Novelties like pig racing are on the agenda, and there is a full concert calendar featuring regional and national acts.
This fair, which draws approximately half-a-million people annually, has a lot of events for families and children. In addition to the midway, recent fairs have included Lego-building competitions, a building with STEM activities, sack races and fireworks shows.
The York Fair, in York, Pennsylvania, claims to be the oldest fair in the country. Actually, if you consider the two-day agricultural market begun in 1765 a “fair,” then the York Fair started before the United States was even a country. This original festival was expanded in the 1850s and again in the 1880s, when it moved to its current site.
The York Fair starts the weekend after Labor Day and runs for 10 days. Other events are held on the fairgrounds during other times of the year. For example, a newer tradition, begun in the 1980s, is the Olde York Street Fair, which is held on Mother’s Day. The York Fair itself has a typical array of carnival rides, concerts, contests and “fair foods.”