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The Daily Need

Fairs in 50 states

The Minnesota State Fair. Photo: Tom McNamara

Over Labor Day weekend, I had the chance to attend the Minnesota State Fair for the first time and let me just say — that’s one awesome fair, don’t-chya-know. There was a giant slide, an all-you-can-drink milk bar (be still, my dairy-loving heart), and I happened to be there the night Garrison Keillor brought his hometown Anoka High School Marching Band to the annual Prairie Home Companion show, live from the Grandstand. While I didn’t win a giant stuffed Scooby Doo on the midway, I can now reproduce a pretty serviceable Minnesota accent. (And by that, I mean that I add “ohh, yeah,” or “yah, fer sure” after anything I say, thus annoying the heck out of actual Minnesotans.)

That celebration of all things Minnesota inspired me to find out more about other state fairs across the country and who better to ask than a man who’s been to all 50. That’s right — Moline, Ill. resident Jim Kopel has been to a state fair in every single state. In 2008, he checked off his last two by attending the State Fair in Maine, flying home for a day — “to do some laundry” — and then flying cross-country to make the fair in Washington.

What inspired this grand mission? It’s all an incredible tribute to his wife, Harlene. Kopel’s journey began when he and Harlene decided to take in a few state fairs in the central part of the country. “She loved animals and the idea of cutting up carrots and apples and feeding the pigs when the owners weren’t looking was appealing to her,” says Kopel. They started with Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota and managed to make about a dozen before she became ill with cancer and could no longer travel. When Harlene passed away in May of 2004, Kopel wanted to find a way to honor her. “I knew had she lived and I’d said, ‘Let’s make this a project, to go to every state and every state fair,’ she’d have been very keen.”

So, from Alabama to Wyoming, from Alaska to Hawaii, from Maine to Washington, Kopel’s done them all. His second wife, Betty, goes along with him these days and he’s now working on a guide to the country’s state fairs. He says it could be used as a reference, but may just be for people that can’t go to fairs anymore and miss the atmosphere. After all, Kopel doubts there are others eager to repeat his fair-trotting feat. “I don’t think there are too many people with my mindset,” he says.

And now, you, dear Daily Need reader, are lucky enough to have the benefit of Jim Kopel’s experience. He shared some state fair highlights with us and I’ve added in a few more since he’s not really a fan of midway rides or traditional fair foods. Quoth Kopel, “My goal is to go through life without ever eating a corn dog.”

1) Iowa (Full disclosure: Kopel is a native Iowan)
2) Minnesota
3) Texas
4) New York
5) “Florida, Kentucky, or any of those”

-BBQ’ed ribs with sweet corn at the Wyoming State Fair
-Boiled hamburger at the fair in Connecticut (Kopel says, “There was no fat. It was moist and delicious.”)

(Caveat: Erin is a vegetarian and has not eaten any of these herself, but simply read about them on the internet and found them to be the most fascinating/appalling.)
-Hot beef sundae at the Nebraska State Fair
-Donut bacon cheeseburger at the Kentucky State Fair
-Deep fried scorpion plain or dipped in chocolate at the Arizona State Fair
-Cream puffs at the Wisconsin State Fair (admittedly no meat here, but intimidating nonetheless)
-Flyin’ Hawaiian Cowpie (Burger with flavored with pizza sauce, Canadian Bacon, pineapple and mozzarella) at the Montana State Fair

“I stay away from rides.”

(Caveat: Erin is highly susceptible to motion sickness and easily startled and therefore would probably not go on any of these.)
-The Texas Star Ferris wheel at the Texas State Fair (biggest in the U.S.!)
-Tomb of Doom at Indiana, Wisconsin and Florida State Fairs
-Ye Olde Mill at the Minnesota State Fair (I actually did go on this one and the video link pretty much captures the experience.)
-Starship 3000 at the California State Fair
-Hamster Dance Ball at the Georgia State Fair

Sadly, one of the oldest state fairs in the country — the Michigan State Fair in Detroit — has closed its grounds due to flagging attendance and the poor economy. So, before your state’s Pork Chop Downs pig race emits its final oink, do yourself a favor and grab some food on a stick, check out the 4-H exhibits and support your local fair!

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  • Annie

    Enjoyed this article! I’ve always loved the fair in my home state of Minnesota. I remember going with my parents and brothers when I was a little girl. Then the heady experience of going to the fair with a date when I got to be a teenager. Later, I had the wonderful adventure of taking my own children to the fair and sharing all my favorites with them: pronto pups, honey ice cream, salt water taffy and the magical old merry-go-round. The MN State Fair seems to be going strong (1,776,211 paid attendance this year) and I hope it will continue to be around for many more years to come!

  • Mkyle72

    lived in CT my whole life. and well we dont actually have a “state” fair we do have some big ones “The Durham” and “The Woodstock” fairs are the two biggest in my book. an though ive never heard of a “boiled” cheeseburger we are known for one hell of a “STEAMED” cheeseburger. if your ever driving through meriden ct do make a point to stop at TED’s on broad st for the best in the country.

  • jpw

    I know longer live in Iowa, but still get back to the fair when I can. Better than any in my book.