Editor’s note: The Indiana State Fair is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Descendant of Mayflower pilgrims, courier for George Washington, banker, businessman, canal promoter, agriculturist—Elkanah Watson did a bit of everything, and did it well.
When he retired to his small farm in Pittsfield, Mass., in the early 1800s, he noted that local agricultural practices were “antiquated & defective, unscientific and non-progressive.”
Surely, we can do better, one can imagine this early American Renaissance man thinking. He brought in new types of cattle and swine and imported two merino sheep, a Spanish breed known for its high-quality wool.
His neighbors were so intrigued by the sheep that Watson put them on display one day in the public square in Pittsfield. Crowds of curious farmers—“and even females,” Watson noticed—turned out to see what the fuss was about.
The exhibition was a hit, and it gave the resourceful Watson an idea. He suggested his neighbors join him in forming an agricultural society and making the fair a permanent fixture.
The first Berkshire County Agricultural Fair was held on Oct. 1, 1810. The Legislature chartered the county agricultural society the following year, and Watson secured his place in history as the father of a beloved American institution—the state fair.
Indiana State Fair
The Indiana State Fair, which began in 1852, runs through Aug. 20 this year, overlapping with the NCSL Legislative Summit. Besides the livestock competitions and the “Largest Midway in the Midwest,” you can see harness racing on the 16th and rodeo action on 17th. And if you stick around till the 18th, you can catch Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy for free with paid fair admission. (Details at indianastatefair.com.)
While you’re there, save room for a home-state favorite: the Hot Beef Sundae, an “illusion food” treat devised by Indiana’s Beef Cattle Association. The “sundae” is marinated beef layered with mashed potatoes and gravy, instead of vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. It’s decorated with cheese and corn “sprinkles” and topped with a cherry tomato.
Curious about other state fair novelties? Read on.
- The oldest: The nation’s first official state fair was held in Syracuse, N.Y., over two days in September 1841. An estimated 15,000 people heard speeches and saw animal exhibits, a plowing contest and samples of manufactured goods for the farm and home.
- The biggest: Depending on how you prefer to count it, this one goes to the State Fair of Texas, which boasts some 2.25 million visitors annually, or the Minnesota State Fair, which draws 2 million. Although the Texas fair is the largest by total attendance, it runs for 24 days, twice as long as the Minnesota fair, making “The Great Minnesota Get-Together” the largest by average daily attendance.
- First Ferris wheel: The original “Ferris” wheel was built by the American engineer George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. But a similar attraction known as the “big wheel-type ride” was featured at the New York State Fair in 1849. The New York version was built by two Erie Canal workers, stood 50 feet tall and could take four people at a time; Ferris’ version was 264 feet tall and had 36 cars that could accommodate 60 riders each.
- Extra effort: Many states have multiple fairs, generally county or regional events. But at least two states—Alaska and Texas—have four events with “state fair” in the name.
- States with no “state” fair: Connecticut and Rhode Island—though both have multiple smaller county or agricultural fairs.
- Best fair food rebranding: Created by a dentist and a confectioner, what we know as cotton candy made its debut at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 as “fairy floss.” It was an immediate hit, and the inventors formed the Electric Candy Co. to market the treat. When their patent protection ran out in the early 1920s, another dentist refined the process and marketed his product as “cotton candy.” That name stuck, and the spun-sugar sweet has remained a state fair staple ever since.
Sources: Adirondack History Museum; Atlas Obscura; Chicago Architecture Center; Indiana State Fair; International Fairs and Expos; krcgtv.com; Spun Paradise; Syracuse.com.
Kevin Frazzini is a senior editor at NCSL.