Aug 212016

This morning a text notification scrolled across the top of my iPhone, letting me know that today is Extreme Sunday, the last day of the Iowa State Fair. Despite the fact that admission is half-price, John and I stayed home. We did, however, visit the Fair this past Tuesday, taking advantage of free tickets provided by my employer as an annual expression of employee appreciation. Employees typically work until noon and then take off for the Fair, most of us wearing T-shirts emblazoned with our company name on the front and a slogan on the back.


We began our tour of the 450-acre fairgrounds by entering the Agriculture Building to view the annual Butter Cow and Star Trek exhibition, both carved by Sarah Pratt. The Butter Cow celebrates its 105th anniversary this year, but butter sculptures have been featured at the Fair since 1911. It takes about 600 pounds of butter and 16 hours to craft the Butter Cow alone.

Butter Sculptures

Of course, we also enjoyed the ice sculptures by Bill Gordish that stand beside the butter sculptures. We have never arrived at the State Fair early enough to watch them being carved, but thanks to Iowa Public Television, you can see Bill at work below. He has been designing ice sculptures for 30 years, with 26 of those years at the Fair. A sculpture typically begins as a 300-pound block of ice.

When we exited the Agriculture Building, we made our way up the hill to the Cultural Center. We passed the Fun Forest, where children played who had more energy than their parents who sat on benches, watching them.

Fun Forest Playground

As we threaded our way past groups of people, we realized we were part of this year’s visitor statistics. Typically, more than one million people visit the Fair over the course of the 11-day, 162-year-old event. Many of them take advantage of the free entertainment that is around every corner. We did, too, catching our breath as we stopped to enjoy part of a Vocal Trash concert at the MidAmerican Energy Stage. The State Fair program describes this group as “Glee Meets Stomp,” and features—among other things—industrial-style drumming.

When we arrived at the Cultural Center, we were eager to view our friends’ blown glass pieces that had been accepted for display. Keith and Brenda Kutz are members of a glass-blowing club at Iowa State University called the Gaffer’s Guild.

Left: Strawberry Sorbet, by Brenda Kutz. Top: Concentric, by Keith Kutz. Bottom: Helix, by Brenda Kutz.

Left: Strawberry Sorbet, by Brenda Kutz. Top: Concentric, by Keith Kutz. Bottom: Helix, by Brenda Kutz.

The Cultural Center features many types of fine arts and crafts, some of which include photography, wood carving, pottery, miniature dollhouse design, painting, jewelry design, glass blowing and much more. In several locations you can watch artists at work.


Some of the finished works of art that we admired are shown below. You never know what to expect.

Top, 1st Place Dollhouses & Miniature Rooms - Dena Heeren. Bottom left, 1st Place Adult Sculpture: Hurry, Sally, You're Late for School - William Close. Bottom right, 1st Place Creative Arts - Walter Gardner, Jr.

Top, 1st Place Dollhouses & Miniature Rooms – Dena Heeren. Bottom left, 1st Place Adult Sculpture: Hurry, Sally, You’re Late for School – William Close. Bottom right, 1st Place Creative Arts – Walter Gardner, Jr.

Our top-of-the-hill destination, of course, was Farm Bureau Pioneer Hall, an old building that is representative of many other State Fair buildings that pre-date World War I. Part of its charm is the high-raftered ceiling and large doorways left open to the air. The building is home to working exhibits and displays. There is a stage where talented fiddlers play, the Des Moines Senior Singers entertain, and The Final Act Ensemble Old Time Radio Show from the Des Moines Community Playhouse puts on a special show. There are piano, harmonica and accordion contests for both adults and young people, as well as yodeling. You’ll find a country-style antique market, an old-fashioned print shop, a blacksmith shop, a pottery shop, chair caning demonstrations, and much more. On Pioneer Hall’s lawn are working tractors from last century and hand mills where children can experience firsthand the effort it takes to grind grain.


Many people come to the Iowa State Fair for Midway rides and games; they want to taste every type of food-on-a-stick that you can imagine and sample craft beers, and of course enjoy big-name musical entertainment such as KISS, Steven Tyler, and Lady Antebellum at the Grandstand. However, it is a fact that agricultural and industrial education is an important mission of the Iowa State Fair, providing a strong backdrop to everything you will experience on the fairgrounds. The Iowa State Fair is also “America’s classic state fair,” the biggest event in Iowa, and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. In 1987, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places. The Iowa State Fair is also the largest art show in the state, featuring fine art, handmade crafts, visual arts, and performing arts. Art is one of the main reasons that John and I visit the Iowa State Fair. Our son, David, and I have both entered our crafts into competition at past fairs, earning a few ribbons, and my success at the Fair is what propelled me to begin selling handmade goods.

This chainmail coif was entered into competition eight years ago by David, who now is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The links were made entirely by hand and the pattern was designed by David.

This chainmail coif, designed by David, was entered into competition eight years ago. The woven links were made entirely by hand. David is now a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. This group is dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe. Visit for more information.

But I’m straying from our story. It was a hot and humid day outdoors—typical Iowa State Fair weather—with a sweltering 100 degrees inside Pioneer Hall. We rewarded ourselves for braving the hill with an icy hand-squeezed lemonade.

Cold lemonade always puts a smile on hot, shiny faces.

Cold lemonade always puts a smile on hot, shiny faces.

Then we visited one of our favorite spots, where artisans Jeff and Marlys Sowers of Pinicon Farm Crafts demonstrate the art of hand-coopered Shaker-style boxes and woven baskets. Jeff does the woodwork, while Marlys does the weaving.

Jeff and Marlys Sowers

Last year I purchased a two-section Shaker-style carrier, perfect for carrying spools of thread, buttons and my needle book from one location to another inside our home.


This year I bought the jewelry basket shown below that was made by Marlys over two molds, woven with cane. The staves are made of reed, the knob is bone ivory, and the cherry wood was turned by Jeff. When I asked Marlys how long it takes to weave such a basket, she told me it takes about 16 hours, plus another few hours for her husband to turn the wood and the entire basket to be dipped in a polyurethane glaze to preserve it.


Always a highlight of our visit to the Pioneer Building is the 1920s-style newspaper and print shop that is set up against one wall. For a fee, you can have a flier printed for you.

Printing Press

After we toured Pioneer Hall, we walked down the hill to the Varied Industries Building, where the Iowa Farm and Food Sandscape was still being built.

Farm & Food Sandscape

Upstairs, you’ll always find the Fabric and Threads exhibition. When we first moved to Des Moines, the exhibition was held beneath the Grandstand, but it eventually outgrew that space and relocated. The new space easily accommodates competitive quilts and other items such as needle arts, crochet, knitting, weaving and sewing. There is even a room dedicated to a sew-in every day from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., where quilts are sewn for children with special needs. The Fabric and Threads items I especially enjoyed are shown below.

Isn't it amazing what different projects can be produced from yarn? Top left, 1st Place Crocheted Doily - Jessica Weinrich. Top right, Second Place Knitted Sweater - Gay Holstine. Bottom left: 3rd Place Hooked Rug - Eden Schmitt. Bottom right: Crocheted Chessboard & Chesspieces - Judith Conti.

Isn’t it amazing what different projects can be produced from yarn? Top left, 1st Place Crocheted Doily – Jessica Weinrich. Top right, 2nd Place Knitted Sweater – Gay Holstine. Bottom left: 3rd Place Hooked Rug – Eden Schmitt. Bottom right: Crocheted Chessboard & Chess Pieces – Judith Conti.

These garments caught my eye. Left: 1st Place Gray Hooded Coat - Beth Wehrman. Right: 2nd Place Traditional Costume - Melissa Hawk.

These garments caught my eye. Left: 1st Place Gray Hooded Coat – Beth Wehrman. Right: 2nd Place Traditional Costume – Melissa Hawk.

Pat Devine appears to be the Queen of Soft Sculpture, earning 2nd Place and 1st Place, respectively, for the Old Fashioned Santa and Teddy Bear.

Pat Devine appears to be the Queen of Soft Sculpture, earning 2nd Place and 1st Place, respectively, for the Old Fashioned Santa and Teddy Bear.

I wish this photo had better resolution, but it was taken quite a distance away with my iPhone. Still, it represents the kind of cross stitch I enjoy doing myself--counted cross stitch on linen. 1st Place - Denise M. Baustian.

I wish this photo had better resolution, but it was taken quite a distance away with my iPhone. Still, it represents the kind of cross stitch I enjoy doing myself–counted cross stitch on linen. 1st Place – Denise M. Baustian.

Every year that John and I visit the Iowa State Fair, we are never able to see everything that it offers. To do so, I suspect, would take more than the 11 days the Fair is held. Not even the families who camp on the edge of the fairgrounds, making the State Fair their annual family vacation, experience all there is to see and do. At the end of the day, our feet are sore, but our hearts and heads are filled with the sights, sounds, and scents of the Fair. And next year, of course, you know that we’ll be back.


Chainsaw carvers A.J. Lutter and Gary Keenan come to the fair each year, sculpting figures from trees.

© 2016 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Aug 282014

This is the fourth and final post about the 2014 Iowa State Fair, but this one wouldn’t have been written at all if John and I had followed our original intentions, which were to take in the sights, sounds and tastes at the fair, but not to go shopping. Well, you know that old phrase about the “best laid plans of mice and men?” Our plans evaporated when we entered the Walnut Center Crafts building because that’s where you’ll find many of the handmade products that are for sale. And we handcrafters have to stick together, you know. We support each other not only with words of admiration, but also with our wallets. So, here we go with a show-and-tell!

What captured our eyes immediately was a display of hand-hammered plates made from recycled aluminum by American Forging, a company owned by Dan and Nick Davenport, with locations in Des Moines, Iowa and Millington, Michigan. Their process involves hand engraving a design in reverse into a block of steel with a hammer and chisel, then placing the recycled aluminum onto the block and forcing the metal into the engraving. This creates a “forward image.” The piece is then cut to size, edged and colored, and polished. This process is actually based on an art form called repoussé, a French word related to the Latin verb pulsare, which means to push up, and describes exactly what happens when you hammer a design from the back into a piece of metal. The process takes advantage of the elasticity of metal. Because we have a nautical theme in our guest bathroom, we thought the plate below would fit in nicely.

DSCN8348John fell in love with a carved wooden hedgehog made by Jan Dwyer of Bridgewater, Iowa. Jan and her husband, Dean, have been carving from catalpa wood for more than 30 years. The wood itself comes from catalpa trees that need to be cut down for one reason or another.  Catalpa wood is apparently very soft, and when it is dried, the bark shrinks with the wood and doesn’t come off. The Dwyers work with the bark side of the wood, with Jan drawing the designs and Dean cutting them out with a band saw. Jan then does final shaping with a palm sander, spindle sander and Dremel tools. The wood is stained to bring out its beautiful grain, and then finish coats are applied. Melissa of Mulberry Creek blogs in more detail about the Dwyers in her post, Jan Dwyer Collectibles, so please visit her post to learn more about this crafting couple. The Dwyers do not have a Web site, but you can e-mail Jan at, or call her at 641-369-2791.


We have been buying pottery pieces for a number of years from Connie Braunschweig of Alta, Iowa, who has been running Braunschweig Pottery since the 1980s. Her work is distinctive in that her inspiration from nature is always evident. You’ll often see, for example, leaf-shaped dishes, or leaf-inscribed trays. And her work is just as clean on the back as it is on the front; you don’t have to worry about the bottoms of her pieces scratching the surface on which they rest. Connie’s decorative-but-functional pottery is hand-built from rolled-out clay slabs, and she uses leaves and grasses for texturing. The photos below show not only the wall vase and leaf tray (which I am using as a spoon rest) that we purchased this year, but also a cracker tray we bought previously. You can wash Connie’s lead-free pottery by hand or in the dishwasher, and you can heat it up in the oven. You can bet we will be purchasing future pieces!

Connie Braunschweig

Our final purchase at the Iowa State Fair was found not at the Walnut Center, but instead in the Varied Industries Building at the Kalona tourism booth. If you’re unfamiliar with Kalona, it is a charming rural community located in eastern Iowa. Known for its rich quilting history, the Amish, cheese curds, and the Kalona Historical Village, the town offers visitors numerous ways to take a trip back in time and learn about life in the mid 1800s. This is one of those places John and I have been wishing to visit during the entire time we’ve lived in Iowa, and this fall may prove to be the time when we finally do so. At the state fair booth, however, we supported Kalona’s tourist industry by purchasing some caramel corn for John, some beverage coasters we can use when we do our annual cabin retreat at Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa, and a wooden bookmark for me. The bookmark is handcrafted from an assortment of laminated hardwoods by JK Creative Wood in Kalona, and reminds me of a quilted border pattern. “JK” stands for Joel Brokaw and his wife, Karma, master craftsman and design artist, respectively, who own the six-generation family business. The kiln-dried wood that goes into their products uses woods I have never heard of, plus others that are familiar: cherry, maple, walnut, elm, mahogany, cedar, purpleheart (South America), padauk (Africa), jatoba (South America), ziricote (Central America), chakte coc (Central America), and wenge (Africa). The wood is never stained, so what you see is what you are truly getting. If you want to see what these woods look like, a great visual resource is the World Timber Corporation Web site. Or, you can visit the JK Creative Wood page on Facebook to see some of their products.


One of the wonderful things about any state fair you attend is that you grow your appreciation for all that your state has to offer. Wherever you live, I hope you take advantage of your local, county or state fair’s offerings.

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Aug 272014

This is the third post in three days about the Iowa State Fair. We only spent part of the day there, but took in as much as we could. Among the sights was the Agriculture Building, a bustling forum for—as the title of this post reveals—honey, eggs, butter—and so much more. As those of you who have been following these state fair posts might surmise, Iowa is mostly rural, with just a few large cities sprinkled in between, mostly along the Interstate 80 corridor. The Iowa State Fair takes place in the state’s capital of Des Moines, where it showcases all things agricultural in the state. The fair is one of the oldest, largest and best known state fairs in the country—large enough, certainly, that many families camp adjacent to the fairgrounds, the parking lot always fills up, and residences surrounding the fairgrounds charge $5 or $6 a spot on their front lawns for the privilege of parking your vehicle there all day. After the fair, ticket sales are counted to gauge attendance. Last year, for example, there were 1,047,246 fairgoers who braved the heat, humidity and occasional rainy weather that is typical of August. Attendance for 2014 also tops the million mark. In 1987, the Iowa State Fair was named to the National Register of Historic Places.


But I’ve strayed a bit from the Agriculture Building, which is where Iowa’s farm producers share some of their produce and seek to educate the public about the importance of what grows on the land. As Iowa agronomist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug said, “Civilization as it is known today couldn’t have evolved nor can it survive without an adequate food supply.” So, downstairs in the two-floor Agriculture Building you’ll see ample evidence of Iowa’s food supply: award-winning pumpkins, squash, potatoes and more; displays of native Iowan flowers and plants; seed art produced by youth, and much more. Often you’ll also be able to taste samplings of beef and egg recipes from the the Iowa Beef Industry Council, and the Iowa Egg Council. You can pick up these recipes as well, or visit their Web sites.


In 2011, the Iowa Soybean Association—along with 35 partners from the soybean, corn, pork, beef, egg, turkey and dairy industries—created the Iowa Food & Family Project to acquaint Iowans with the farmers around them, and to develop a better understanding of how food is grown. In keeping with that goal, here are a few rural statistics about Iowa that you may not have known:

  • There are almost 93,000 farms in Iowa, and 10% of the world’s best farmground can be found in Iowa.
  • Iowa ranks first in the nation for soybean production, or 15% of all soybean crops grown in the U.S.
  • Iowa produces more pigs than any other state, about a third nationally, creating almost 40,000 jobs at the same time.
  • Iowa is especially known for its corn production, growing more corn than most countries; if Iowa were a country, it would rank 4th on an international scale.
  • The number one supplier for turkey meat to Subway and Jimmy John’s is Iowa, whose farmers raise 11 million turkeys annually.
  • Iowa produces 15 billion eggs annually, or more eggs than any other state, the equivalent of an egg for everyone in the world for two days.

The Agriculture Building bustles with activity, which is apparent from the photo below. The second floor is not a full floor, but instead a railed walkway that rings the perimeter of the building with educational booths about soybeans, butterflies, beekeeping, and other topics, and vendor booths that sell Iowa-made jams and jellies, nuts, cooking tools and cleaning products.


One of the booths was staffed by a gentleman who sold ostrich eggs and offered ostrich egg recipes. If you have never seen the shell of an ostrich egg, it’s sturdy, thick and shiny.


Another educational booth was about the migration patterns of monarch butterflies and their role in pollination.


We always stop at the booth of the Iowa Honey Producers Association, where we purchase Iowa-grown honey. Honestly, I don’t think our palate is sensitive enough to note the difference between this honey and store-bought honey, but we love it nonetheless. If you click on this photo, you’ll be able to zoom in on the recipes.


The Iowa Honey Producers Association encourages everyone to help honey bees pollinate by limiting the use of pesticides, and by using liquid instead of granular versions if you must, because bees sometimes mistake the solid form of pesticides for pollen and take it back to the hive. Additionally, people are asked to plant bee-friendly flowers and plants, especially perennials, such as buttercups, crocus, echinacea, geraniums, floxglove, hollyhocks, roses, sedum, snowdrop, pansy and other plants. You can download a bee care brochure from the Web site if you’d like to learn more.

Iowa Honey Producers

The highlight of our visit to the Agriculture Building, every time we come to the Iowa State Fair, is the Butter Cow and other sculptures. The first Butter Cow was sculpted in 1911 by J.K. Daniels as a way for the dairy industry to promote itself. The sculpting knife was passed several times to different people, with each person creating memorable sculptures. By the time John and I moved to Iowa late in 1991, Norma “Duffy” Lyons had been sculpting for 31 years. One of Duffy’s largest butter sculptures was a re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” sculpted from 2,000 pounds of butter. She was succeeded in 2006 by Sarah Pratt, and in 2011 the Butter Cow celebrated the century mark. The theme this year was “Field of Dreams,” based on the 1989 baseball/corn film by the same name, produced in Iowa.

Butter Sculptures

Sarah Pratt carved her ninth Butter Cow at the fair this year, and taught her daughters a little bit about the basics of butter sculpture. She describes her process, which involves praying, in the video profile below from Iowa Public Television (IPTV).

Ice carver Bill Gordish, who as a hotel chef for 18 years did ice carvings for weddings and banquets, creates fantastical sculptures at the fair. They last the entire eleven days in a refrigerated case. The photos are impossible to shoot without reflections, as are the butter sculptures, because lights are shining directly on them. In the upper right photo, you can see a working clock with a swinging pendulum.

Ice Sculputures

In this 2011 Iowa Public Television video, which profiles Bill Gordish during the fair’s 100th anniversary, he uses a chainsaw to carve his beautiful sculptures. It takes Bill about 15 to 20 minutes to make each carving.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share with you our fair finds, the items we didn’t think we’d purchase but got “sucked in.” It’s all part of the fun!

© 2o14 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.