Iowa History
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Iowa History

Crowds strolled the concourse of the Clay County
Fairgrounds in Spencer in 1935. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

Iowa’s ‘Other’ State Fair is 100 Years Old

Most Iowans know the Iowa State Fair is the largest tourist event in the state, drawing more than 1 million people each year. But many may be surprised by who claims second.

Is it RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa? Nordic Fest in Decorah or Tulip Time in Pella? Is it the 80/35 concert or arts festival in Des Moines?

Tired of guessing?

The small northwest Iowa town of Spencer says it’s the Clay County Fair, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, Sept. 9–17. The event annually draws more than 300,000 people, making it one of the largest county fairs in the United States. Its record for attendance is 334,575 set in 2013.

“We’re kind of in the right place geographically,” Clay County Fair Marketing and Sponsorship Manager Andrea Wiesenmeyer said. “We’re right in the middle of several population centers, so it makes it easy for people to get here. In fact, we had visitors from 88 counties, nine different states and from countries outside the United States last year.”

Shawna Lode, manager of the Iowa Tourism Office, says the fair’s level of tourist activity is a major economic boost for Clay County and the state.

“The Clay County Fair represents the best of Iowa,” she said. “Not only does it showcase our state and its people, but it generates a tremendous economic impact for the city, the region and the state of Iowa. There’s no doubt that this event is one of the best and most important in Iowa.”

Overall, tourism brought $104 million in spending to Clay County in 2015, supported 730 local jobs and $22 million in payroll while generating $1.34 million in local tax revenues and $2.94 million in state tax revenues, she said.

That kind of economic success is exactly what the fair’s founding fathers imagined when it rolled out the inaugural Clay County Fair to skeptical colleagues from across the state 100 years ago.

This photo of the Clay County Fairgrounds entrance was taken around 1910. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

The first Clay County Fair was held in September 1918 just six weeks ahead of the Armistice of World War I. It was the largest county fair held in the state that year, drawing more than 33,000 people and taking $16,000 in gate receipts over four days, according to the Oct. 2, 1918, edition of the Spencer Reporter. Eagle-eyed reporters also noted some 8,500 cars passed through the fairgrounds entrance while other vehicles spilled out onto side streets.

“Without a question of a doubt the 1918 Clay County Fair was the largest county fair held in Iowa this year and there are but few, if any, in the country anywhere that equaled the Clay County Fair’s record,” the paper boasted. “The fair was a success from every standpoint. The weather was ideal. The crowds were large. The fair program was carried out according to schedule and there was something doing every minute of the day and night.”

The extraordinary showing gave local officials a boost and won over many visiting impresarios from the Iowa State Fair and other county fairs.

“‘You can’t do it,’ was what many a fair secretary said,” the Spencer paper reported. “But it was done. A dozen or more fair officials from other fairs and from the Iowa State Fair were among the visitors. They could hardly believe their eyes, so great was the fair.”

Subsequently, the Clay County Fair officials ordered more buildings to be built over the following year to handle what they expected to be larger crowds in 1919.

And they were right. The second Clay County Fair drew a four-day attendance of 48,500 people, including 1,200 exhibiting pork producers — 450 more than any other county fair in the state.

The media began calling it “Iowa’s Greatest County Fair” in 1920 and bumped it up to “The World’s Greatest County Fair” in 1928 after it drew 110,105 people.

It’s a moniker the Clay County Fair still uses today, and it’s not a stretch judging by its grandstand entertainment history.

Some of the biggest names in music and show business have graced the fair’s grandstand, including Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Willie Nelson, Bob Hope, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, The Everly Brothers and many more.

A bird’s-eye view of the Clay County Fair in Spencer in 1936. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

This year, fairgoers can see stars such as Justin Moore, Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone, Frontmen of Country, For King & Country, Old Dominion and a Centennial Birthday Bash featuring re-creations of famous grandstand “spectaculars” that entertained audiences from the 1920s to the 1940s: daredevil acrobatics, a human cannonball, the Karl King Band, Comedian C. Willi Myles, Juggler Sean Emery, local performers and the largest fireworks display in the fair’s history.

“And there’s even more,” Wiesenmeyer said. “On Friday nights, we do sprint car racing and we’ll have more than 50 food vendors who will have a little bit of everything for everybody.”

Fairgoers will be able to sample traditional fare such as corn dogs along with something called Spam Curds — deep-fried cubes of breaded spam and cheese that won an inaugural “World’s Greatest County Fair Food” contest. Wiesenmeyer says they’re “surprisingly good.”

“We’ll have our beef producers and pork producers again, and the Kiwanis does cookies in a bucket, too,” she said. “We’ll have fried apple pie, fried chocolate pie and cinnamon ice cream that’s excellent. It’s almost like a hot pocket where you put the ice cream in between the breading and deep-fat fry it.”

Speaking of beef and pork producers, the fair’s 35-acre agribusiness and farm machinery display is the largest of its kind among more than 2,500 fairs operating in the United States and Canada.

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian Magazine cited the fair as one of the reasons it named Spencer one of “The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2017.”

The magazine said the centennial party “promises to be an unforgettable occasion, serving of traditional staples like blue-ribbon agriculture, livestock and baking contests, as well as more modern touches like, say, Baconade (for the uninitiated that’s Bacon Lemonade).”

Fairgoers looking to add some history to their experience can look for the State Historical Museum of Iowa’s new traveling exhibit called “Iowa History 101.” It’s housed in a bright blue 38-foot Winnebago and will open to fairgoers Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 14–17.

The mobile museum unpacks stories of Iowa’s past with nearly 50 artifacts, including the pen Gov. William Harding used to sign the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote, an Olympic Medal from sprinter Natasha Kaiser-Brown of Des Moines, and a patch from a spacesuit worn by astronaut Peggy Whitson of Beaconsfield.

As a bonus, Mike Wolfe, the creator and star of the hit television series “American Pickers,” lent his voice and video talents to the exhibition’s multimedia elements.

IF YOU GO
When:
Sept. 9–17.
Where: Clay County Fairgrounds, Spencer.
Tickets: $5-$10 per person; free for kids under 8.
More info: www.claycountryfair.com

— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov