Iowa’s State Fair is celebrating its Sesquicentennial this year. The first state fair, 150 years ago, was held in southeastern Iowa, in the town of Fairfield. Kathie Swift, the Iowa State Fair’s p-r manager, says it’s clear from early figures that the fair has grown in its century-and-a-half. The first fair was about six acres in size, though she says even then it had a track as horse racing was always “very big.” By its second year, Swift says the fair had grown to ten acres, and today it’s held on a site that covers four-hundred acres. From its start in Fairfield, the fair moved to several different cities, and finally made one last move to its final location in Des Moines in 1886. The city and the state each put up fifty-thousand dollars to buy enough land to let the fair keep on growing. But Swift says the farming roots of the fair still show in its home today on the east side of Des Moines. Swift says the land was purchased from the Calvin Thornton family, and not only had it been a farmstead but there are still buildings on the fairgrounds that date from that time. The number of people who attended that first fair is small when compared to the modern version. The Fairfield newspaper estimated 7000 people attended, a contrast with last year when one million-12-thousand visited the State Fair. Back in 1854 the fair lasted for three days, and Swift says admission was a quarter. She says that’s changed as well in the 21st century. Now, admission is eight-dollars for adults and the budget’s about $13.5 million compared to the budget for the first State Fair, which was just $323. Some of this year’s fairgoers will camp, some come only for a day or a weekend, but once upon a time, fairgoers came in covered wagons. Swift says a horse caravan has already started on its way to this year’s fair on a 112-mile trek. The wagon train will be on the road for four days with stops in Monroe, Ottumwa and Oskaloosa. They’ll arrive Wednesday in Des Moines, then Thursday morning all the riders and wagons will parade through the grounds. The fair runs August 12th through the 22nd.
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