46 State Fairs and What Makes Them Special

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One of the most quintessentially American traditions of all is the State Fair. New Englander Elkanah Watson is credited with creating the first agricultural fair in the U.S.: the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Cattle Show in 1811, which exhibited animals and awarded prize money to the best oxen, cattle, swine, and sheep. In the next few years, county fairs popped up throughout New England, and by 1841, the country had its first state fair, in Syracuse, New York, designed to show off New York’s agricultural prowess with livestock and giant-vegetable competitions.

Today, there are over 3200 fairs in North America each year, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, and attendance is booming. Several draw over a million visitors each year. You’ll still find most of the things you’d have seen at those early fairs today: a chance to show off the best agriculture, livestock, horticulture and other products from that region, even though far fewer Americans are involved in agriculture than when they got started. But you’ll also find a whole lot more, and part of the appeal is unabashed celebration of sheer quirkiness—where else can you find veggies on steroids, moose-calling contests, butter sculptures, and not just racing pigs, but racing dogs with monkey jockeys? 

Here are a few highlights of what you’ll find at fairs across the country today.

1. ALABAMA — Alabama State Fair

Location: Pelham, AL
In operation since: 1947
Standout events: Alabama might be the only fair with more events in the modeling and talent competitions than livestock competitions. They’re serious, too: Aspiring models ages 4 to 28 are judged on runway, jeans, and swimwear, and those past age 15 must meet height requirements. Winners get photo shoots and meetings with agents—a big step up from the ribbons sheep and horse show winners get. 

2. ALASKA — Alaska State Fair

Location: Palmer, AK
In operation since: 1936
Standout events: Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to Alaska for the state fair. But if you happen to be in town, you can witness a peculiarly Alaskan pastime—giant cabbage growing. Alaska’s farmers seem to have a knack for growing steroidal vegetables. The most recent world record, in 2012, went to Scott Rabb and his 138 pound cabbage (above).

If mega-vegetables aren’t your thing, maybe you’d have better luck in the speed-texting or moose calling competitions. Note: must know the difference between—and demonstrate—separate bull and cow calls.  

3. ARIZONA — Arizona State Fair

Location: Phoenix, AZ
In operation since: 1886
Standout events: Most states’ fairs feature unique sources of state pride, so you’d think that Arizona might have gone with the Grand Canyon. Instead they created Trekkie Mecca. Of course, there are all the standard state fair attractions—performances, cooking and livestock competitions, a demolition derby and midway—but according to their website, organizers are especially proud of the exhibit featuring sets, costumes, and props from all five Star Trek TV series and 11 movies. Live long and prosper.

4. ARKANSAS — Arkansas State Fair

Location: Little Rock, AR
In operation since: 1938
Standout events: Arkansas’s events include the Great American Spam Cooking contest, but the real competition centers on the pageants, where fairgoers vie for the title of Fair Queen, Rodeo Queen, Mrs. Fair Queen, and Little Mr. and Miss Pageant. For those craving more adrenaline-fueled competition, it’s also a tour stop for a team of professional bull riders.

5. CALIFORNIA — California State Fair

BigFun.org

Location: Sacramento, CA
In operation since: 1854
Standout events: The highlight of California’s state fair in the early 1900s was a massive train crash staged each year to delight audiences with destruction, mayhem, and screaming twisted metal. It came to an end around WWI, when wrecking much-needed locomotives just for the fun of it was deemed a little too wasteful. Today, fairgoers can enjoy a calmer spectacle: the state fair is home to the oldest wine competition in North America, with over 2800 entries each year. Yes, fairgoers get to taste.

6. COLORADO — Colorado State Fair

SaffireEvent

Location: Pueblo, CO
In operation since: 1872
Standout events: Lots of states have pageants, but only Colorado crowns a silver queen. It’s your typical pageant with one catch: all competitors must be nursing home residents. At the other end of the spectrum is the Little Britches Rodeo National Championships – these kids can ride. But there’s a competition for everyone in Colorado, even the less athletically oriented: it’s the only state fair offering a Pet Rock Olympics. 

7. DELAWARE — Delaware State Fair

Location: Harrington, DE
In operation since: 1920
Standout events: Delaware’s fair features a no less than five-day horseshoe pitching contest, and crowns a whole family: the Sheep and Wool Queen, Sheep and Wool Lass, Little Boy Blue and Little Bo Peep. Perhaps they get a leg up in the wool contest displaying the best-quality wool outfit and coordinating wool sheep?

8. FLORIDA — Florida State Fair

Location of fair: Tampa, FL
In operation since: 1904
Standout events: Florida is one of a surprising number of fairs that have added llamas to their livestock competitions. Some of last year’s winners had racehorse-worthy names—Oakrest’s First Snow, “Moose” Aladdin’s Sneak Preview, Peruvian Edison—but there’s also the less-exotic “Yeti.”

Young llama farmers are still second to the more traditional main attraction: Only kids showing steers get a portrait with their champion.

9. GEORGIA — Georgia State Fair

Location: Macon, GA
In operation since: 1851
Standout events: One fair wasn’t enough for Georgia. The official state-sponsored fair is the Georgia National Fair, but the longest-running is the Georgia State Fair. Perhaps it’s because only the State Fair offers the Banana Derby. The race features “America’s favorite monkey jockeys”—elaborately costumed capuchins that race on canine steeds. 

10. HAWAII — 50th State Fair

Location: Honolulu, HI
In operation since: 1937
Standout events: At Hawaii’s 50th State Fair, it’s all about the rides, some of which are shipped in from the mainland just for the event. According to an interview with fair organizers in Honolulu Pulse, the Zipper is the fair’s best-loved ride. The ride, in which fairgoers ride in spinning cages that dangle from chains flung around by a rotating arm, was so beloved that when the company organizing the fair sold the ride, the outcry was so strong they went out and bought a new one. The fair had a bit of an identity crisis in its early years, when for over a decade it was known as the 49th State Fair. Apparently, no one expected they’d get beat out by Alaska. 

11. IDAHO — Eastern Idaho State Fair

Location: Blackfoot, ID
In operation since: 1902
Standout events: For a truly one-of-a-kind sport, check out Idaho’s Indian Relays. Tribal teams from throughout the Rockies and High Plains regions come to compete in a dangerous bareback race requiring teams of three horses and four people. A rider must make three laps around the track, leaping to a new horse after each lap. Two teammates calm the waiting horse, while the fourth catches the arriving horse as the rider dismounts. Broken bones are not uncommon, but the $25,000 prizes—and particularly the bragging rights—make it a big draw.

12. ILLINOIS — Illinois State Fair

Location: Springfield, IL
In operation since: 1853
Standout events: Need for speed? The fair’s one-mile dirt track is considered one of the fastest in the world. Numerous horse racing records have been set there, including the fastest mile ever paced, but it’s now home to stock car racing as well—raising the speed limit considerably.

There’s also a celebrity harness race, a lesser-known form of horse racing in which the celebrity is jammed into a small, lightweight cart rolling on bicycle wheels and must guide his team of two horses to victory. “Celebrity” is a relative term—it’s decidedly local, generally drawing state politicians and officials.

13. INDIANA — Indiana State Fair

Location: Indianapolis, IN
In operation since: 1852
Standout events: It’s the year of popcorn in Indiana, the second-largest popcorn-producing state in the nation (we can barely imagine what they’d have done were they the biggest). Each year, fairgoers consume 4350 pounds of popcorn, but this year they decided to celebrate with a world record-setting 5200 pound popcorn ball, along with a popcorn maze. No word yet whether fairgoers will get to sneak a bite.

14. IOWA — Iowa State Fair

Location: Des Moines, IA
In operation since: 1854
Standout events: If you want the classic fair experience, Iowa’s the place to do it. It's also the only fair with an unabashed love of butter, thanks to the state's dairy industry. Check out the butter cow, a 100-plus year tradition in which a life-size cow is sculpted from 600 pounds of butter—enough to top 19,200 slices of toast, while snacking on a pork chop on a stick, one of which is sold about every 10 seconds throughout the fair.

15. KANSAS — Kansas State Fair

Location: Hutchinson, KS
In operation since: 1913
Standout events: If you really can do anything with duct tape, the Kansas State Fair is for you. In addition to the auction bid calling contest, spelling bee, and more traditional fair competitions—including an astonishing variety of pigeon judging events—fairgoers can compete on their ability to make things out of duct tape, with a separate competition for wearable creations.

16. KENTUCKY — Kentucky State Fair

Location: Louisville, KY
In operation since: 1902
Standout events: It’s no surprise the state home to the Kentucky Derby also hosts the World’s Championship Horse Show. More than 2000 horses compete for world champion titles and over $1 million in prize money.

17. LOUISIANA — Louisiana State Fair

Location: Shreveport, LA
In operation since: 1906
Standout events: Louisiana is home to a few competitions you won’t see anywhere else—leaf collecting and BB-gun sharpshooting, for starters. If you’re looking for a little more action, the cheerleading championships promise high-flying stunts. 

18. MAINE — Bangor State Fair

Location: Bangor, ME
In operation since: 1849
Standout events: The Bangor State Fair is home to one of the few eating contests you might want to join in on: the annual lobster roll contest. Last year’s winner devoured a whopping 37 rolls in 8 minutes, so taking home the title might be tough, but it’s one way to get your fill of an East Coast delicacy. Maine also offers a grizzly bear show – just don’t let the bears smell your sandwiches. 

19. MARYLAND — Maryland State Fair

Location: Timonium, MD
In operation since: 1878
Standout events: Most fairs have human pageants; Maryland has one for the livestock. On the fair’s opening day, kids competing in the livestock contests can parade their animals through the “Cow Palace” in homemade costumes, while announcers describe the stories behind their get-ups. 

20. MASSACHUSETTS — Eastern States Exposition

Location: Springfield, MA
In operation since: 1917
Standout events: In terms of state fair bang for your buck, it’s hard to beat the Eastern States Exposition, also known as “the Big E.” Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont join forces for a single New England mega-fair. Highlights include Mardi Gras-in-September, world-famous cream puffs, and the Big E Craz-E Burger—a bacon cheeseburger with two halves of a grilled glazed donut instead of a bun. 

21. MICHIGAN — Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair

Location: Novi, MI
In operation since: 1849
Standout events: Michigan’s state fair is something of an endangered species. The state cut all funding in 2009 and the fair disappeared for the next two years—despite some claims that state law actually required the Michigan Exposition and Fairgrounds Authority to conduct an annual fair. It’s now back as the “Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair.” One of its more bizarre features: a family exhibit known as the “fallen giant,” entered through a bloody hole in the giant’s head. 

22. MINNESOTA — Minnesota State Fair

Location: St. Paul, MN
In operation since: 1859
Standout events: “County Dairy Princesses” vie for the title Princess Kay of the Milky Way. The winner—chosen for her knowledge of the dairy industry, personality and enthusiasm for promoting dairy—becomes a goodwill ambassador for Minnesota’s 4000 dairy farmers and is immortalized with a statue of her face carved in butter.

23. MISSISSIPPI — Mississippi State Fair

Location: Jackson, MS
In operation since: 1859
Standout events: The carnival is center stage at the Mississippi State Fair: Its midway is crammed with roller coasters, games and spin-til-you-can’t-stand-it rides, and stretches a full mile long. They also boast a “Mr. Legs” contest, with a category for everyone: longest, shortest, skinniest and hairiest.

24. MISSOURI — Missouri State Fair

Location: Sedalia, MO
In operation since: 1901
Standout events: It’s only fitting that in the Show-Me State, fairgoers can get how-to lessons from the expert exhibitors, not just look. Whether you want to learn to bowfish, cook and clean your catch, raise livestock or pair fine wines, there’s a class to help you do it. 

25. MONTANA — Montana State Fair

Location: Great Falls, MT
In operation since: 1931
Standout events: Plenty of fairs have craft contests, but only Montana has speed-crafting. Each year, competitors can vie for the title of “Fastest Crochet Hook in Montana” and “Fastest Needle in Montana,” along with the Veggie 500—think Pinewood derby cars topped with onions, broccoli and rhubarb—and Ole Cow Lick Contest, featuring carved salt blocks in two categories: hand-sculpted and “Nature Carved” (i.e., sculpted by cow tongue). 

26. NEBRASKA — Nebraska State Fair

Location: Grand Island, NE
In operation since: 1868
Standout events: If rodeos make you think of cattle roping and bull riding, you’ve missed out on Nebraska’s Lineworkers Rodeo. Electric lineworkers take to the arena to showcase the high wire stunts they do to keep the power running, day-to-day and in emergencies. Why, you ask? Nebraska’s the only state served entirely by community-owned electric utilities.  

27. NEW HAMPSHIRE — Hopkinton State Fair

Location: Contoocook, NH
In operation since: 1915
Standout events: New Hampshire’s Hopkinton State Fair has long offered demolition derby and car racing events. New this year is the “Divorce Course”—a timed passenger car obstacle course, open to the public. The name speaks for itself. 

28. NEW JERSEY — New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm and Horse Show

Location: Augusta, NJ
In operation since: 1924
Standout events: Despite its reputation as the land of interstates and industry, the Garden State’s agricultural fair has a long history. There are livestock shows and livestock obstacle courses, while humans can compete for the title of Lumberjack/Lumberjill in the annual wood chopping contest. 

29. NEW MEXICO — New Mexico State Fair

Location: Albuquerque, NM
In operation since: 1939
Standout events: Food is a main attraction at any fair, but New Mexico takes it a step further with the Unique Food Contest. Last year’s winners: Mini Donuts with Green Chile Icing, Fried Beer, and a Donut Burger. 

30. NEW YORK — The Great New York State Fair

Location: Syracuse, NY
In operation since: 1841
Standout events: As the site of the country’s first state fair, New York pays more attention to history than most. Between the fully-furnished log cabin with demonstrations of 18th century farm life, recreated Iroquois village, blacksmithing, and collection of horsedrawn vehicles, antique tractors and trains, and modern-day agricultural exhibits, it’s like zooming through the New York’s history in a time machine bouncing pinball-style through the decades.

31. NORTH CAROLINA — North Carolina State Fair

Location: Raleigh, NC
In operation since: 1853
Standout events: North Carolina puts curious fairgoers to work at a fully-functioning old-fashioned tobacco barn. It kicks off with a leaf-stringing contest, and after the state champion is crowned, the leaves strung on sticks are hung in the barn and cured by a wood fire for seven days. Fairgoers get to see the fruits of their labor at the end, though they probably don't get to smoke them.

32. NORTH DAKOTA — North Dakota State Fair

Location: Minot, ND
In operation since: 1922
Standout events: North Dakota held its first-ever Redneck Relay in 2012. Teams panned for gold (fishing through a mountain of whipped cream, no hands allowed, to find three gold coins), had to toss four corn ears in a bucket, run with an egg balanced on a spoon, shave a balloon (a version of sheep shearing designed to spare unfortunate ungulates) and carry a “greased pig”—or Crisco-coated watermelon.

33. OHIO — Ohio State Fair

Location: Columbus, OH
In operation since: 1853
Standout events: Like to play with your food? Ohio’s state fair has a food sculpting contest, and while amateur carvers may have trouble competing with pro chefs’ four-foot high masterpieces, novices will be given specific fruits and three hours to transform them into art, Master Chef-style.

34. OKLAHOMA — Oklahoma State Fair

Location: Oklahoma City, OK
In operation since: 1907
Standout events: The Oklahoma State Fair is a stop on the “Swifty Swine” racing pigs’ tour. These piglets—“America’s fastest swine,” according to the fair schedule—zip around the Pork Chop International Speedway Arena to win an Oreo cookie prize. According to the pigs’ website, the Yorkshires are quickest but meanest. Potbellies are friendlier, but you wouldn’t want to bet on them being first across the line.

35. OREGON — Oregon State Fair

Location: Salem, OR
In operation since: 1861
Standout events: One of the Oregon state fair’s most popular contests is the Milk Mustache contest. The State Dairy Princess Ambassador picks the most impressive mustaches; for an easy win, head straight there from the milk carton chugging contest.

36. SOUTH CAROLINA — South Carolina State Fair

Location: Columbia, SC
In operation since: 1869
Standout events: In addition to showing off the state’s domestic products, there’s also a decidedly non-local competition: Ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging. The South Carolina Mule and Donkey Association also hosts a fun day with wacky rodeo antics, wild cow milking, and a porcine costume competition interrupting the typical swine show events. 

37. SOUTH DAKOTA — South Dakota State Fair

Location: Huron, SD
In operation since: 1885
Standout events: Unlike the cow-calling and cherry pit spitting contests you see at most fairs, the South Dakota state fair Strong Man Competition isn’t for the faint of heart. Contestants complete five challenges, including carrying a rock as far as possible without dropping it, and flipping a tractor tire as many times as possible in two minutes. The less athletically inclined can watch the “Legislative Beef Show”—this time, it’s state politicians leading cows around the arena, and they’re the ones being graded on their showmanship. 

38. TENNESSEE — Tennessee State Fair

Location: Nashville, TN
In operation since: 1906
Standout events: Read through the list of equine demonstrations at the Tennessee state fair and one likely jumps out: horse bomb proofing. It’s not what you’d think—bomb-proof horses are safe, calm horses that won’t bolt even if a bomb goes off (in theory). Since the point is that they don’t get rattled, the trick riding and roping might make more entertaining viewing, or head for the state cornhole championships, with cash prizes for the best-aiming team. 

39. TEXAS — State Fair of Texas

Location: Dallas, TX
In operation since: 1886
Standout events: Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the state fair is no exception. Their fair runs longer and brings in more visitors than any other—at 3 million, comfortably doubling the next largest states' attendance. So what’s everyone there to see? Quite a bit, judging by the fact that the fairgrounds are large enough to merit gondola tours. The fact that college football games are held on the fairgrounds certainly boosts attendance, but there’s also the Texas Auto Show, featuring new and classic cars, the “Picasso of pumpkin carvers,” and all the usual attractions. 

40. UTAH — Utah State Fair

Location: Salt Lake City, UT
In operation since: 1856
Standout events: Utah kids save their foulest-smelling footwear all year long for the state fair’s Rotten Sneaker Contest, sponsored by Odor Eaters. The winner gets a cash prize, Golden Sneaker award, and entry in the national smelly shoe championships.   

41. VERMONT — Vermont State Fair

Location: Rutland, VT
In operation since: 1846
Standout events: California used to draw state fair crowds by slamming two locomotives together for fairgoers' viewing pleasure. They stopped the train-crash-as-entertainment during WWI, but the tradition lives on in Vermont as the Demolition Derby. Vermont bookends its state fair with grandstand stage demo derbys, with box seats available if you're worried about flying car parts. 

42. VIRGINIA — State Fair of Virginia

Location: Doswell, VA
In operation since: 1854
Standout events: You know them from horror movies, but as art? Each year at Virginia's state fair, there's a chain saw show where an artist uses the whirring blades to turn three-foot logs into sculptures in a matter of minutes.

43. WASHINGTON — Washington State Fair

Meryl Schenker

Location: Puyallup, WA
In operation since: 1900
Standout events: Want to experience cute baby animals in the real world, not just as Internet memes on Buzzfeed? Washington State Fair's Piglet Palace lets you get a look at a litter of tiny pink piglets born during the fair. Just try not to think about the 24,868 pounds of barbecue pork spareribs fairgoers ate during last year's fair.  

44. WEST VIRGINIA — The State Fair of West Virginia

Location: Lewisburg, WV
In operation since: 1924
Standout events: West Virginia's Strongest Mountaineer Competition isn't for the faint of heart. Competitors are judged on events including a truck pull, dead lift, clean and press with a log and stone carry. Note: This isn't a strongman competition—women can compete to be West Virginia's Strongest Mountaineer, too.

45. WISCONSIN — Wisconsin State Fair

Location: West Allis, WI
In operation since: 1851
Standout events: Leading up to the fair, judges tour the state seeking the best of the best for the annual Moo-la-palooza competition to find Wisconsin’s most authentically mooing human. Winners—chosen for realism, style, stage presence and originality—get $1000, a cowprint jacket and golden cowbell trophy. Costumes encouraged. 

New this year is the “Sporkies,” a state fair food contest that encourages exotic creations (above). Several finalists for the Golden Spork award seem to be aiming for the “most creative”—separate from “best tasting”—title, and fairgoers can sample thanksgiving waffles, deep fried PB&J nuggets, and gelato-on-a-stick.

46. WYOMING — Wyoming State Fair and Rodeo

Location: Douglas, WY
In operation since: 1886
Standout events: When Wyoming held its first in 1886, it wasn’t even a state yet. Today’s fair is a bit different than the Territorial Fair. The rodeo, Wyoming Ropefest and Mustang Days—celebrating America’s wild horses—are always highlights, but so is pig wrestling. Teams of four enter a mud-slicked wrestling ring and have just one minute to catch a pig and wrestle it into a barrel. This is an elite event—all teams must first qualify by winning their county fair pig wrestling championship. 

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September 5, 2013 - 2:00pm
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