Two weeks ago on Friday, John and I returned to the Iowa State Fair after an absence of four years. Why so long? Up until 2010, we had attended every state fair since we moved to Iowa late in 1991. But in 2010, my father’s health took a turn for the worse, I was recovering from an appendectomy, and John had lost his job. So, we didn’t attend that year, nor the three years that followed. There was always a reason, and for the last two years the reason was the hot, humid weather that is typical of August in Iowa. Two weeks ago, however, the skies were overcast and it had been raining, in our minds perfect weather for the Iowa State Fair because it meant smaller crowds and cooler temperatures. But we limited ourselves to a late afternoon and early evening, as John was working earlier in the day.


After walking the equivalent of six city blocks to the fairgrounds on the east side of Des Moines because the parking lot was full, we made a beeline for the hand-squeezed lemonade stand. Then we strolled down Grand Avenue until we reached the Varied Industries Building. The Varied Industries Building is where, I swear, every home improvement vendor in the metro area and beyond has a booth, and every college and university recruiter in Iowa passes out pens, pennants and key rings in an attempt to get you to talk with them. Outside the building, if you work in the agriculture industry, you’ll find every variety of John Deere equipment, plus every other major farm equipment manufacturer. My brother-in-law and our son prefer to split logs by hand with an axe, but even so, I suspect this log-splitting monstrosity would capture their attention.


John and I wound our way up and down the aisles inside the Varied Industries Building to end up in front of Barksdale’s, where you can buy a bucket of fresh-out-of-the-oven mini-chocolate chip cookies whose taste can’t be beat. The line for these popular cookies blocks an entire aisle, so if you’re not going to buy any cookies, you may as well skip that side of the building. An entire baking sheet of cookies is scooped up and piled in the plastic bucket.


Thankfully, they give you a lid. John and I ate just enough cookies so we could snap on the lid, and then he tucked the bucket inside his backpack to take home.


At one of the entrances to the Varied Industries Building is a marvelous sand sculpture made just for the fair. Every year there is a new sculpture. In earlier years, the sculpture was located in the center of the bottom floor of the Cultural Arts Building. For all I know, there may still be one there, but we didn’t make it up the hill to that building during our visit. The sculpture this year was created from 50 tons of sand by sand sculptor Greg Glenn. When you walk around it, each side of the sculpture celebrates a different aspect of Iowa farming and teaches the lesson that no matter where you get your food, it all begins at the farm. I enjoyed the kids’ perspective about the sand sculpture in this video from Iowa Public Television (IPTV).

You can see all the different sides of the sculpture in the collage below.

Sand Sculpture Collage

Upstairs in the Varied Industries Building is the Fabric and Threads Department, where sewists and needleworkers of every age and skill level display their competitive entries. It has been quite a few years since I entered one of my own items; success here and encouragement from my husband prompted me to eventually open multiple shops on Etsy to sell my handmade products. I still enjoy seeing the fruits of everyone else’s labors, though, so upstairs we marched to take in the colors and textures. Every year there seem to be more quilts than any other category, so I tend to focus on the “underdogs,” paying special attention to crocheted, sewn and needleworked goods. A selection of a few interesting items can be found below.

Fabric and Threads Collage 1

Fabric and Threads Collage 2

Fabric and Threads Collage 3

At the foot of the stairs leading to the Fabric and Threads Department is a room devoted to a charitable endeavor, the sewing of quilts for needy children. The State Fair Sew-In, coordinated by the Des Moines Area Quilters Guild, makes quilts that are then distributed to Iowa organizations that help kids. Anyone can enter the room, sit down to cut strips of fabric, iron it,  and assemble it into a quilt—and you can stay there as long or as briefly as you wish. While we were there, a bell was struck to announce that 216 quilts had been completed at the 10-day Iowa State Fair as of that moment. The State Fair Sew-In has been operating at the Iowa State Fair since 2009, and during the last five years completed 1,294 colorful quilts. What a great project!

State Fair Sew-In Collage

We did of course visit other areas of the fair, but I am breaking up our visit into separate posts. Return tomorrow, when I’ll share some of the outdoor sights and sounds at the Iowa State Fair.

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “Revisiting the Iowa State Fair”

  1. Those cookies are seriously some of the best! And I always have to get a corn dog 🙂
    I’ve never seen the Sew-In…what a cool project! And the sand sculpture is amazing!

  2. What a fun tour of the Fair! Those cookies look delicious!! And I love that colorful flower-clad sheep!
    I always attended the SD State Fair as a kid (highlight of any farm kid 4-Her’s summer), and Jerry and I attended the NE State Fair for many years, but since it moved from Lincoln to Grand Island, we haven’t been. We really need to resolve to go — maybe next year. It’s always the week before Labor Day + Labor Day weekend. Many of my quilting buddies won ribbons this year.

  3. Wow! The Iowa fair looks way better than the fair here (that occurred back in July, btw). It was literally held in a parking lot! Those sand sculptures look amazing. I can’t even begin to imagine how much work they must be!

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