Rides on the Mighty Midway. Animal-calling competitions. Fireworks. Funnel cake. Kettle corn. You’ll find all these things, and more, at most every fairground. But a few fairs—we picked five—broke the mold with their innovations, which turned into longstanding traditions.
1. Big Tex—State Fair of Texas Dallas, Sept. 26-Oct. 19
The 75-gallon-hat-wearing, 55-foot-tall cowboy statue and official greeter of the annual State Fair of Texas began in 1949 as a Santa Claus statue, commissioned by the local chamber of commerce to drum up Christmas shopping in Kerens, Texas. Then, in 1951, former fair president R.L. Thornton purchased the statue for $750 and hired a Dallas artist to transform Santa into a giant cowboy. Hence, Big Tex, who has stood watch over fairgoers ever since.
“The fair has softened his looks over the years,” says fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding, 60, noting the nose job, the addition of a mechanical arm that waves, and installation of the remote speaker system that gives voice to the towering Texan. At age 50, his temples were painted gray. An electrical fire destroyed much of Big Tex in 2012, but a taller, heavier and stronger version returned to anchor the fairgrounds last year.
2. Butter Cow—Iowa State Fair Des Moines, Aug. 7-17
It’s like butter. Only more so. For over a century, 600 pounds of butter were transformed into a perfectly sculpted cow by way of tools mostly found in the common kitchen and by a sculptor’s hands, and served as the proud symbol of the Iowa State Fair.
Always kept behind glass inside a refrigerated room kept at a cool 40 degrees, the fair’s first buttery bovine, commissioned to promote Iowa’s dairy industry, was sculpted by J.K. Daniels in 1911. Four other sculptors, who take an average of five days to build the animal’s frame out of wood, metal, wire and steel mesh before layering on the butter, have maintained the tradition ever since.
3. ClassicCoaster—Washington State Fair Puyallup, Sept. 5-21
Since 1935, the Classic Coaster—the only remaining wooden fairground roller coaster in the United States—has been thrilling fairgoers with its steel-railed dips and turns. Soaring 55 feet above the Washington State Fair midway, the coaster was originally built of Douglas fir beams, carried to the grounds on horse-drawn wagons and hoisted into place with a Model A Ford. Claim to fame: Dozens of couples entering a radio station’s annual wedding contest have said “I do” while taking its clickity-clackity plunge.
4. ProntoPups—MinnesotaStateFair St. Paul, Aug. 21-Sept. 1
Pronto Pups—plump hot dogs dressed in crispy cornmeal-fried batter—have been luring hungry people to the Minnesota State Fair since 1947.
“Pronto Pups were the first hot food ever presented to fairgoers on a stick,” says Pronto Pups franchise owner Gregg Karnis, 60, of Becker, Minn., whose late father, Jack, first introduced the tasty treat. Some 110 tons of batter—the original recipe remains unchanged—and nearly 22 tons of hot dogs are used to make the tens of thousands of Pronto Pups consumed at the Minnesota fairgrounds annually.
5. Giant Cabbage Contest—Alaska State Fair Palmer, Aug. 21-Sept. 1
Blame it on summertime’s 24 hours of daylight. Alaska, the nation’s largest state, boasts fertile ground and grows some seriously oversized produce. The giant cabbage contest was introduced at the Alaska State Fair in 1941, five years after 203 government-selected families settled the fertile Matanuska- Susitna Valley and celebrated the first state fair.
The manager of the Alaska Railroad sponsored the first contest and awarded Max Sherrod a $25 prize for his 23-pound winning entry. Scott Robb, 2012’s winner, won a $2,000 prize and set a Guinness World Record with his nearly 138-pound whopper.
Blue Ribbon-Winning Pies
The rides are a blast. The animal exhibits? Oh so cute. But no visit to a state fair is complete without a slice of delectable, overstuffed pie. Every state fair offers its own variety of pie baking contests, often celebrating (what else?) the best local fare.
In Georgia, peach pie is a sure bet. Michigan’s got its cherries. Idaho is known for potatoes, but when it comes to pie, wild huckleberries take the cake.
Here’s a few official state pies to be sure to sample at each corresponding fair:
Key Lime Pie (Florida)
Sugar Cream Pie (Indiana)
Boston Cream Pie (Massachusetts)*
*Actually the official state dessert, but it’s technically a cake.