Enjoying the Fair After 83 Years

By Joseph L. Murphy, Iowa Soybean Association

Corn dogs on a stick, the Butter Cow and the giant slide are all synonymous with the Iowa State Fair. Earl Mefford's memories are much different though. His memories stretch back 83 years.

"I showed a dairy heifer in 1934," Mefford said while relaxing at his campsite at the Iowa State Fair. "I've been here at least one day of every Fair since." 

At 93, Mefford is quick to say he isn't the oldest person at the Fair, but he knows that he is close.

"I visited with a woman yesterday at the entrance to the Fair that is 101 years-old. She was sharp as a tack," he said with a smile.

According to the Iowa State Fair, the first gathering was held in 1854, in Fairfield, with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people in attendance. In 1884, just 50 years before Mefford's first Fair, it moved to the present location in Des Moines. This year, an estimated 1,130,071 people visited the Fair.

"The Iowa State Fair is a long-standing tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. People take pride in the Fair and the high level of competition and the quality of competition. It means something significant to win a ribbon here," Gary Slater, Fair Manager and CEO of the Iowa State Fair said about the reason visitors enjoy the Fair year after year. "I also think they return to spend time with family and friends and to experience all the fun and excitement the Fair has to offer."

Mefford is proud that he was one of the million plus people that attended the Fair this year. He continues to make memories at the Fair by spending time with his wife, Joan; children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Most days during the Fair you can find him watching a livestock show in the hog barn or cattle barn. He said he likes to see how the animals have changed over the years and how the competition stacks up.

Slater says that the Livestock shows are what sets the Iowa State Fair apart from other events.

"Livestock and other competitions at fairs are what separates it from a festival or a theme park," Slater said. "The Iowa State Fair would not be what we know it to be without our livestock competitions specifically.

He went on to say that spectators like Mefford attend the Fair to see the best of the best from across the state.

FFA members show sheep

"To improve livestock and crop genetics is what started the Fair and still today it is where you can showcase the very best of the best in livestock and agricultural crops," Slater said. "Many of our non-livestock fairgoers love to see the exhibits that they might not have been exposed to or might not have been able to see elsewhere."

Mefford, a life-long farmer, raised corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa on 280 acres. He retired years ago but still enjoys his ties to Iowa agriculture through the Iowa State Fair.

"I’ll watch the Angus show, and I’ll watch the 4-H hog show," he said. "Mother (his wife) and I go our own way until we want to see something together. She likes livestock but not as much as I do. I spend a lot of time with livestock due to the fact that I raised it all of my life."

He has fond memories of the Fairs he has attended through the years. Especially memories of camping with his family during the early years.

"One trip took us four hours to get to the Fair in a 1946 Chevrolet. We had a picnic lunch and parked in front of the horse barn," He recalled. "We stayed one night, and my dad took a tarp and staked it over the car. He put down a bed of straw and blankets and we slept under the tarp."

The tarp his father used as a tent has long since been replaced with a recreational vehicle. Just one of many changes in the campground, according to Mefford.

"I remember when there weren't even gates for camping. You could rent a tent for one dollar a night and there weren't any campground fees," he said. "Now, people wait for years for a spot."

Apple Tacos, Choco Pockos and cheesy fried enchilada funnel cakes might be the rage at the State Fair this year, but Mefford prefers to keep it simple. When he's not grilling meals for his extended family at the campground, he enjoys meals at the beef and pork tents.

He also tries to end most evenings at the Fair with a scoop of ice cream from the dairy barn.

When thinking about food at the Fair, Mefford chuckles about hungry 4-H youth visiting the church food stands.

"When we were kids here at the Fair, the church tents would hate to see a bunch of 4-H kids show up due to the fact that they advertised all the hotcakes and coffee you could eat for 15 cents," He said. "It was always a challenge to see who could eat the most hot cakes. They lost money when a bunch of kids like that came in.”