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

July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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