Menus Subscribe Search
weird-babies

(PHOTO: LEE CANNON/FLICKR)

County Fairs Are Booming, Remain Totally Bizarre

• August 01, 2013 • 10:49 AM

(PHOTO: LEE CANNON/FLICKR)

Thousands of American fairs bring in billions of dollars every year. Yet they’re still as weird as ever.

A student exchange organization called CIEE passes out a survey once a month to all of the international students in their program. The survey asks participants to check off, from a provided list, what “American cultural activities” they have performed during their stay. The list includes a community pancake breakfast, bowling, and shopping at Walmart. It also asks whether they have attended a country fair—perhaps the most quintessentially American activity of all. Drinking a beer while looking at giant squash: the activity of choice for patriots since the 19th century.

The longevity of the country fair’s popularity makes it unique as a cultural icon within the American psyche. Elkanah Watson is credited as organizing the first agricultural fair in 1811, and the nation’s first state fair took place in 1841 in Syracuse, New York. A 1912 report states that 1,200 county fair associations existed in the U.S.; the fairs of 1909 attracted about six million people and made approximately $2.5 million.

The State Fair of Texas—often credited as the most successful in the country—brought in an estimated crowd of three million and made $37 million off food and ride sales in 2010.

Now, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions maintains that over 3,200 country fairs are held in North America each year. In California alone, fairs bring in an annual $2.55 billion to the state’s economy and create 28,000 jobs. The State Fair of Texas—often credited as the most successful in the country—brought in an estimated crowd of three million and made $37 million off food and ride sales in 2010. (They also served 21,000 deep-fried pineapple upside-down cakes.) Fairs, unlike the rest of the nation’s businesses, are booming.

A NATIONAL AFFECTION TOWARD fairs likely plays a part in this, but with the recession still swinging, the popularity of fairs is also, in part, due to the growth of “staycations.” An NBC report says that organizers of many fairs believe that business has grown because of families opting out of out-of-town summer trips.

In 1912, John Hamilton, a Farmer’s Institute specialist, wrote that public patronage is essential for a fair’s success but a fair should not “descend to the use of low or questionable methods or to cheap, vulgar, or tawdry shows no matter how great the crowd these may draw or how remunerative they may be.” The quirkiness of modern fairs is what makes them such a gem—where else can you find speed text messaging as a sport?—but the most popular attractions of today’s fairs may not be exactly what Hamilton had in mind. Here, as Pacific Standard’s midway attraction, is a list of some of the more zany fair options you can see around the country:

Princess Kay of the Milky Way
The Princess Kay of the Milky Way, a title chosen by Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture around 60 years ago, is picked from a group of competing “county dairy princess.” The winner becomes a goodwill ambassador for the 4,000 dairy farmers of Minnesota and gets a statue carved in her likeness. It’s made out of butter.

Mutton Bustin’
Boys and girls younger than six who weigh less than 60 pounds try to ride a sheep for as long as possible. It’s a rodeo, but instead of cowboys, you have four-year-old girls, and instead of bulls, you have ewes.

Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off
In Alaska, they grow some pretty big cabbage. Like the-2012-winner-of-the-Giant-Cabbage-Weigh-Off-won-the-world-record-at-138.35-pounds big. The gravest danger to giant cabbages? Moose.

Swifty Swine Racing Pigs
At the Oklahoma State Fair, amongst other things, you can watch pigs race each other for an Oreo cookie. They wear little cloaks with their numbers on them, and sometimes they swim. The event has been described as “thrilling.”

Hogs-N-Mud
Continuing with the pig theme, at the Canyon County Fair, teams chase a pig through mud, catch it, and then place it in a barrel. Participants are encouraged to dress as pigs, making the whole thing very meta.

Moo-la-palooza
This competition looks for the best human moo-er in Wisconsin. The “grand champion moo-er” wins $1,000, a year’s worth of free Cousins Subs, a “coveted” cow-print jacket, and the golden cowbell trophy. Participants are judged for realism, style, and stage presence. The competition gets fierce.

Bacon Lovers Wedding Ceremony
This year you could have gotten married during Bacon Fest at the San Diego County Fair. Because, why not?

Olivia Cvitanic contributed to this post.

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

More From Sarah Sloat

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.