The lead story on the Associate Press wire for September 20, 2009 described the daring escape of “an insane killer” from the Spokane County Fair in the state of Washington. On the following morning, tucked away inconspicuously among the obituaries and movie listings, came word that the killer in question had been captured without incident when he tried to hitch a ride in what proved to be a sheriff’s car.1 Although the short-lived escape gave television anchorpersons something to talk about on a slow news day, the fleeting interest in a county-fair outing for mental patients gone awry seems to have come as much from the setting as from the event itself.
Aren’t fairs supposed to be the last bastions of All-American, Disneyesque wholesomeness and innocence? Cows, chickens, rickety Ferris wheels, all manner of fried foods on sticks, apple-cheeked 4-Hers, and amazing products for sale by old-fashioned pitchmen with a slick patter and an endless supply of discount vegetable-sculpting kits? And more than just entertainment, state and county fairs held across the nation are markers in time, too. School is starting up again. The growing season is wrapping up. Winter won’t be far behind. Prize pigs and now-elderly lambs are off to the slaughterhouse. It’s time to indulge in deep-fried candy bars, greasy hot dogs and a little whipped cream in preparation for epic bouts of sanctioned gluttony during the holidays.
The fair is history in a paper napkin. It tastes of ancient rituals, rites of passage for kids and fat steers with ribbons braided into their tails. It’s a cosmic talent show in which grandma’s quilt, mom’s best strawberry jam, sister’s homemade dress and junior’s dwarf bunnies are all eligible for accolades. More often than not in the 21st century, the competitors also include garage bands, gourmet cooks and Elvis impersonators. Fairs do change with the passage of time, but not too much.
Phil Stong’s 1932 regionalist novel, State Fair, captured the eternal elements well. The novel follows the adventures of the rural Frake family at the Iowa Fair in Des Moines in the early 1930s. Everybody is on a private crusade to excel (except daughter Margy, who just wants to have fun). Father Abel brings his biggest boar. Mother Melissa, her pickles. And son Wayne, the hero of the book, comes determined to best the ring toss game on the Midway. Things are pretty much the way they were in 1854, when the Iowa Fair was founded. Farmers trade tips on crops and animal husbandry and learn about the latest advances in scientific agriculture. Their wives see modern products that haven’t reached the country store yet. Wayne starts to grow up, observing for the first time that...