8 Hidden Gems Worth Finding at the Iowa State Fair
By Cristen Clark
Discover our top picks for hidden gems at the Iowa State Fair. From food to flowers and horses to rides, these attractions are sure to delight fairgoers of all ages.
The Iowa State Fair is a treasure trove for entertainment and excitement in August. People from near and far gather to celebrate the intersection of food, farming and family at our state’s most attended event. Loyal fair fans tend to have a plan of sights to see and bites to taste, which are off the beaten path. We want to share some of those gems with you.
Smoked Ham Sandwich and Mixed Cup, Beattie’s Watermelon Stand (located south of Bill Riley Stage)
Gary and Sherry Beattie have operated this family-owned stand for more than 40 years. You’ll see local kids working the stand alongside the Beattie family in their signature “watermelon shirts.” My standard order here is the Smoked Ham Sandwich, french fries and a Mixed Cup, which contains cut cantaloupe, watermelon and fresh green grapes. There is plenty of seating inside the stand, and always find opportunities for conversation with other patrons. You can even replicate the viral videos on social media of the staff cutting up watermelons!
Floriculture/Horticulture and Iowa Honey Association inside the Agriculture Building (located east of the Rock Island Triangle)
The Ag Building, as it's known among those who are "Fair-miliar,” receives the attention of many folks to see the famous Butter Cow and other works by sensational sculptor Sarah Pratt. Take a spin through the Floriculture and Horticulture department to see incredible flowers and Iowa-grown produce. Upstairs you can visit the Iowa Honey Producers for a glass of honey lemonade, and you can see real bees in action. I always visit the Ag Building on the last weekend of the Fair to see the Open Class Floriculture divisions. You'll see dahlias, gladiolus and roses on display that will take your breath away. And, don't forget to stop by the Iowa Egg Council's display for a popular free egg-on-a-stick.
Stock Dog Trials at the Jeff and Deb Pulver Outdoor Arena east of the Swine Barn
Witnessing working dogs in their element is a sight to behold. Plan to grab a snack and sit in the shaded outdoor arena to watch dogs work their hardest to obey their handler while moving livestock through different obstacles. This display is adored by kids and adults alike. The event takes place Wednesday, Aug. 17, 8:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m.
Pioneer Hall, located at the far northeast end of the Fairgrounds and Richard L. Easter Museum Complex
Take the original Grand Avenue Sky Glider up the hill for a scenic view of the Fairgrounds. Hop off at the top and take a stroll through Pioneer Hall, where you'll find great music and daily contests for the entire family. I hope to be a winner at the Cow Chip Throwing Contest this year. Peruse the old-fashioned exhibits and enjoy a slower pace in the historic barn at the top of the hill. When you’re done there, stop over to the Iowa State Fair Museum. The museum showcases a collection of antique furniture, historical records, Iowa State Fair treasures and memorabilia. One of my favorite pieces in the museum is a handwritten letter and fifty cents sent by an older fairgoer who snuck into the Fair in their youth. They wanted to make things right and, decades later, sent the payment in with a charming letter.
The Fresh Peach Shake, Bauder's Pharmacy (located on the Rock Island Triangle near the Ag Building)
This charming stand features delicious ice cream and my favorite shake. The Fresh Peach Shake boasts a delightful peach flavor and is smooth as silk. Make plans to have your own; I guarantee you won't want to share it. Also, try their Peppermint Bar, which is a thick layer of delectable peppermint ice cream sandwiched by a layer of fudge and chocolate cookie pieces.
Draft Horse Shows, located near the Horse Barn at the south end of the Fairgrounds
Throughout the Fair, you can enjoy evening displays of some of the most powerful livestock that enters the gates. Sit on a bench near the horse barns and the Jacobsen Exhibition Center and watch the entrants prepare for the show. Belgians, Shires, Percherons and Clydesdales make for breathtaking sights and sounds. If you prefer air conditioning, buy a ticket and head inside to the show.
Elwell Family Food Center, located on the west end of the Fairgrounds, south of the Grand Avenue entrance.
Feast your eyes on foods created by top Iowa cooks and bakers. You can see daily demonstrations and watch food contests in the air-conditioned, state-of-the-art food exhibition hall. Thousands of dollars in cash and prizes are doled out throughout the Fair for the best pies, cakes, breads and more! My kids' favorite contest is seeing the winners of the “Ugliest Cake.”
Ye Old Mill, located just south of Little Hands on the Farm and the Knapp Animal Learning Center
This old-fashioned water ride is a tradition for our family. Not many people know about it, or if they see it, they're unsure what it is. On a hot day, you’ll be relieved once you advance in the line and get up by the mill where the blue water makes a cool mist in the air. For interest, there used to be dioramas showcased in windows along the winding river path that have been replaced with vintage posters. This is a bucket list fair item for all my friends and me.