County Fairs Display Creativity and Care

By Kelly Visser and photos by Joseph L. Murphy

County fairs across the state show creativity and care during an uncertain summer season.

The spotlight is on Iowa’s county fairs from June until September each year. Week-by-week, each county takes the stage to show off its hard work and unique traditions, all while beaming with pride and celebration.

“You could say that a county fair is like a community’s Super Bowl,” says Tom Barnes, executive director of the Association of Iowa Fairs (AIF). “It’s small-town Iowa at its best. There’s a charge in the air for the much-anticipated culmination of a season of hard work.”

Barnes leads the nonprofit association’s work of improving and promoting the fair industry in Iowa. It represents 106 member fairs and is dedicated to supporting the role of the state, district and county fairs in youth education and showcasing Iowa’s heritage. 

“This has been the most challenging year I’ve experienced,” says Barnes, who has held volunteer leadership roles with AIF since 1983. “Since shutdowns began in March, we’ve been working nonstop to provide support for our members as they make decisions on how to move forward into the unknown.”

Like every other slice of society, the ever-evolving pandemic turned once set-in-stone county fair plans upside down. It’s led to unanswerable questions on how to balance health, well-being, financial impact and liability in communities across the state.

But through tough conversations and difficult decisions, Iowa’s county fairs are demonstrating resilience.

“I’ve been so impressed by the patience, cooperation and ingenuity that our volunteer county fair leaders have shown,” Barnes shares.

Many fairs quickly pivoted programming to offer virtual or “show and go” youth programs. Others implemented a variety of social distancing guidelines and limited entertainment lineups. And some decided to postpone completely until 2021.

“My heart goes out to those who ultimately decided to cancel their fairs. I know it was one of the hardest decisions to make and was not for lack of faith or effort,” he says.

As the 2020 fair season winds down, Barnes is looking forward to jumping into planning for 2021. This year has been a test for fair leaders, participants, visitors and vendors but there is no doubt it will make next year’s season even sweeter.

Highlights from the Warren County Fair

The 2020 Warren County Fair was been postponed until 2021. The county held 4-H and FFA Livestock shows that were not open to the public.

Highlights from the Hancock County District Fair

The 2020 Hancock County District Fair in Britt pressed on with 4-H and FFA shows and competitions, and as well as commercial exhibitors and entertainment.