Sampling the Amusements of State and County Fairs in Pictures

Sign advertising county fair, central Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn, 1938 Aug. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a18883

Sign advertising county fair, central Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn, 1938 Aug. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a18883

Attending county or state fairs in the summer is a tradition for many Americans. While I did not get a chance to go to county or state fairs as a kid, I’ve now been to county fairs on both sides of the country, and find them fascinating. I’ve seen pony rides, clogging demonstrations, chicken, duck and goose competitions, artwork made from barbed wire, prize-winning zucchini, funnel cakes, rides that go up and around at dizzying rates, and even a dairy cow giving birth! And that’s just the tip of the fair iceberg. Each one is unique to the area it serves, and offers a chance for communities to come together and have fun – and often compete!

The rides, the exhibits, the games of chance, the tasty food – what’s not to love about a county or state fair? Take a stroll down the midway through the photos below, which span more than a century of American fair-going, and see for yourself!

View of the grounds at the Vermont state fair, Rutland. Color slide by Jack Delano, 1941 Sept. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a33909

View of the grounds at the Vermont state fair, Rutland. Color slide by Jack Delano, 1941 Sept. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a33909

Westchester Co. Fair - Midway [New York]. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02344

Westchester Co. Fair – Midway [New York]. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02344

For some visitors to the fair, both the young and the young at heart, the goal is to enjoy the carnival rides, such as a merry-go-round or Ferris Wheel. I especially enjoy the rides of earlier years at smaller fairs, such as the three below, where all that is needed for fun is to go around in a circle!

Delta County Fair, Colorado. Color slide by Russell Lee, 1940 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34204

Delta County Fair, Colorado. Color slide by Russell Lee, 1940 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34204

Westchester Co. Fair, bicycle merry-go-round [New York]. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02347

Westchester Co. Fair, bicycle merry-go-round [New York]. Photo by Bain News Service, circa 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.02347

Automobile merry-go-round for the children, state fair, Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a24293

Automobile merry-go-round for the children, state fair, Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a24293

Going around in a circle is still considered a thrill at modern day fairs, but they have definitely upped the ante when it comes to how high or how fast they spin!

Swing ride at the 2012 California State Fair held in Sacramento, California. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.22541

Swing ride at the 2012 California State Fair held in Sacramento, California. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.22541

Texas Star, the 212-foot Ferris wheel that supplies a bird's-eye view of the State Fair of Texas each fall at Dallas's Fair Park, site of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2014 May 15. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.30146

Texas Star, the 212-foot Ferris wheel that supplies a bird’s-eye view of the State Fair of Texas each fall at Dallas’s Fair Park, site of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2014 May 15. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.30146

For some, the county or state fair is a chance to vie for prizes, entering everything from chickens to beets to apple pies into competition, hoping for a blue ribbon. These two photos, one from 1916 and one from 2016, show that entering your best corn hasn’t changed much in a century!

[Prize winners at Sherburne County fair, Minnesota - exhibit of corn]. Photo copyrighted by Samuel L. Rank, 1916. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a46729

[Prize winners at Sherburne County fair, Minnesota – exhibit of corn]. Photo copyrighted by Samuel L. Rank, 1916. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a46729

Prize corncobs inside the 4-H pavilion at the annual Iowa State Fair in the capital city of Des Moines. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2016 Aug. 11. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.39511

Prize corncobs inside the 4-H pavilion at the annual Iowa State Fair in the capital city of Des Moines. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2016 Aug. 11. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.39511

Proud winners, such as the two ladies below, display their prize-winning goods and their ribbons from the fair:

Wife of member of the Casa Grande Valley Farms, displaying canned goods with which she won prizes at the state fair. Pinal County, Arizona. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 May. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b24961

Wife of member of the Casa Grande Valley Farms, displaying canned goods with which she won prizes at the state fair. Pinal County, Arizona. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 May. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b24961

 

Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorado. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34201

Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorado. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34201

And what’s a fair without a few tricky games of skill where prizes are at stake? You’ll see below that the look of the games and prizes of eighty years ago versus those today may have changed, but fundamentally, the idea is still the same!

 

Attraction on the midway at the Imperial County Fair, California. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 Mar. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a31091

Attraction on the midway at the Imperial County Fair, California. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 Mar. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a31091

Tossing rings at objects in concessions, state fair, Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a24166

Tossing rings at objects in concessions, state fair, Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a24166

A glowing stand at which visitors can attempt to win prizes at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2015 Sept. 2. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.34600

A glowing stand at which visitors can attempt to win prizes at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2015 Sept. 2. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.34600

And finally, there is the food! Always a treat, not always very good for you, food and drink stands are a common sight at every fair, as you can see in these photos from over the years. I particularly like the anticipatory smile on the lady on the right in the first photo as she studies her ice cream cone:

At the Greene County fair, Greensboro, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a37175

At the Greene County fair, Greensboro, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a37175

[Minnesota State Fair: refreshment stand]. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, circa 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a46753

[Minnesota State Fair: refreshment stand]. Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, circa 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a46753

Glittering concession stand purveying all sorts of fattening foods and treats at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2015 Sept. 2. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.34598

Glittering concession stand purveying all sorts of fattening foods and treats at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2015 Sept. 2. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.34598

The images above are only a small sample of the sensory wonders of a county or state fair. Some visit the fair to enjoy a day of fun, while others come to the fair as a culmination of a year of hard work raising a calf or a beautiful crop of green beans. Regardless of your reason, I hope you make your way to your local fair – and if you do, have a funnel cake for me!

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One Comment

  1. Marianne
    September 13, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    This is great! You’ve captured so much in so few photos. I love the produce awards. The corn entries at the Iowa fair? That must be like the Super Bowl of fair produce competitions.
    Thanks for all the links too! So much for work this morning.

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