canada africa partner reservation The Iowa State Fair predates Des Moines’ tenure as a state capital.

The Iowa State Fair predates Des Moines’ tenure as a state capital.

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Just curious: This occasional column in the Des Moines Register is intended to answer your questions about Iowa. Is there a place, event, lore, history or cultural oddity that you’re just curious about? Email your question to Bill Steiden of the Des Moines Register at (email protected).

The Iowa State Fair marks the 170th year since its inception and opens on August 8. That’s longer than Des Moines has been the capital of Iowa. Where did it start and when did it settle in its current location?

What was the first home of the Iowa State Fair?

There really wasn’t one. It started in 1854 in Fairfield and then shifted to Muscatine, Oskaloosa, Iowa City, Dubuque, Burlington, Clinton, Keokuk and Cedar Rapids. It finally moved to Des Moines in 1878, “derelict at the heel,” according to a local newspaper, and $8,000 in debt.

How deep do the fair’s roots go on the east side?

Iowa State Fair memorabilia is on display at the Ralph H. Deets Historical Museum on the fairgrounds in Des Moines on Friday, April 28, 2023.Iowa State Fair memorabilia is on display at the Ralph H. Deets Historical Museum on the fairgrounds in Des Moines on Friday, April 28, 2023.

Iowa State Fair memorabilia is on display at the Ralph H. Deets Historical Museum on the fairgrounds in Des Moines on Friday, April 28, 2023.

The Iowa State Fairgrounds between East University and Dean Avenue along East 30th Street has been welcoming fairgoers for a long time – 138 years. But that’s not the fair’s original Des Moines site.

Today the fair is an east side institution, and East Side Night, the first Friday, is always one of the best attended of the eleven-day fair. But when it first arrived in Des Moines, the fair set up shop on the west side.

Where was the first location of the fair in Des Moines?

The 60-acre site is today bordered by Grand Avenue to the south, Pleasant Avenue to the north, 38th Street to the east and 42nd Street to the west. It was then known as Brown’s Park and today is mainly residential in the North of Grand district, with St. Augustin’s Catholic Church and Plymouth Church anchoring the southwest corner. It also includes a four-block stretch of Ingersoll Avenue.

What were the features of the original Des Moines fairgrounds?

The current fairgrounds cover 445 acres, so the original site in Des Moines was significantly smaller – less than one-seventh the size. But according to accounts in the Des Moines Register, no expense was spared in preparing it to house what would become one of the state’s most esteemed institutions.

Grand Avenue had to be extended about a mile to reach the new location, and a water line had to be connected to fire hydrants along the way, allowing the dirt road to be watered to keep the dust down. A railroad reached from the main line along the Raccoon River through a ravine and roughly followed the route of what is now Tonawanda Drive, with hourly trips from Winterset and Indianola.

Five main buildings were built on the site: the Flowers and Fruit, Fine Arts, Vegetables, Mechanical and Energy halls. A 4,000-seat stadium was the centerpiece, and a race track circled a pond known as White’s Lake.

What was Des Moines’ first fair like?

Livestock grazed on the property and horses, pigs and sheep were on display, along with other examples of Iowa’s bounty, including “big beets, monster gourds, mastodon gourds, elephant gourds and rhinoceros corn on the cob.”

But the fair, just like today, had much more to offer. There was a dizzying swing ride, vendors selling peanuts and ice cream, a 25 cent sideshow, horse racing, displays of quilts, clothing, jams and jellies and demonstrations of the latest farm equipment and even a chemical firefighting device that roared a blaze fueled by tar and gasoline. .

The Iowa Craft Beer Tent, margarita bars and Busch Light didn’t yet exist, but there were Iowa wines on display and it was probably possible to find purveyors of a quick, albeit illegal, bite.

And although the first butter cow had yet to be sculpted, there was an exhibition of freshly made butter.

How did the fair go in Des Moines?

About 30,000 people showed up for the six-day first edition of the fair. The fair’s board reported receipts of nearly $30,000 at the end of the fair – enough to pay off the fair’s debt and put $1,000 in the bank after expenses.

Why did it move to the east side?

A bird's eye view of the Iowa State Fair midway, circa 1940.A bird's eye view of the Iowa State Fair midway, circa 1940.

A bird’s eye view of the Iowa State Fair midway, circa 1940.

If the stock market had a problem, it was that it was too successful. The fair quickly burst at the seams, remaining at Brown’s Park, then a mile west of the city limits, for only eight seasons before the Iowa Legislature and city built their now permanent location.

This article originally appeared on the Des Moines Register: Where and when did the Iowa State Fair start?

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