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.

Aug 262014

Even if you only spend five hours at the Iowa State Fair, as we did a couple of weeks ago, there is so much to see, hear, experience and taste that you can’t possibly write about it in one post. This is my second blog post about our visit, and today’s focus is about a slice of the outdoor life at the fair. Everywhere you go, when you look up you see the Sky Gliders.


The fairgrounds are filled with all kinds of ground sculptures, including botanical ones. The flower cow below is called “Gert,” in memory of businessman Earl May’s wife, Gertude. His business, Early May Seed & Nursery, celebrates its 95th anniversary this year. The cow’s frame is wire, filled with sphagnum moss and 700 plugs, or plants. The plants are polka dot plant and silver falls. The plants at the base of the cow are Bolivean (also known as wandering jew). The belly of the cow is hollow.


Food is one of the major reasons that many people come to the fair. On the first day of the fair, a seven-year-old girl won a bacon-eating contest at the Knapp Learning Center, claiming the secret to her success was “shoving it all in.” She announced that this was only the first of several eating contests she planned to enter, with the pie-eating contest being next. Food-on-a-stick is also a huge attraction, with 69 varieties available this year, among them such strange foods as Hot Lips (breaded chicken breast smothered with hot sauce, served with blue cheese dressing), Griddle Stick (turkey sausage wrapped in a pancake), and Pineapple on a Stick (fresh pineapple dipped in funnel cake batter and deep fried). Many of the fair foods are fried, as a walk down Grand Avenue will prove. Make sure you click on the photo below to see a close-up of the food combinations—truly a guaranteed recipe for WeightWatchers’ membership.

Fair Food Collage

John and I didn’t eat any of the fried treats, but I confess we did eat a nut roll not too long after the Barksdale’s cookies we inhaled at the Varied Industries Building. I suspect we ingested more sugar that Friday than in an entire month!

Too Much Sugar and Salt

Unless you choose to take in a show at the Grandstand, all musical entertainment at the Iowa State Fair is included with the price of admission. And there is a lot of it, too: eleven free shows at the Fairview Stage, five at the Anne & Bill Riley Stage, nine at the Bud Light Stage, and eleven more at the Susan Knapp Ampitheater. At the Grandstand this year, where you pay for individual events, there were eight different musical events including—among others—the Newsboys, the Jake Owen & Eli Young Band, Lady Antebellum, and Foreigner and Styx. The stars of A&E’s Duck Dynasty shared insights into their family life and the filming of the show. And finally, for vehicle enthusiasts, there was a tractor and truck pull, a demolition derby and figure eight event, and hot laps for winged sprint cars, late models, sports models, stock cars and dirt trucks. Honestly, we weren’t at the fair long enough to take in any of this entertainment, but while we enjoyed our nut rolls, we sat on a bench in front of the Anne & Bill Riley Stage, where the Jeff Arrandale Band was tuning its instruments. The video quality of the clip below is terrible, but it’s the sound I was trying to capture.

When our son was younger, we always took in a few rides at the Iowa State Fair, but these days walking past these entertainments suffices. You see the flashing lights, hear the screams of the roller coaster enthusiasts, can almost feel the air being churned as you pass swiftly rotating swings and wheels, and can watch the carnival sellers pulling in risk-takers to toss rings, balls and coins to win large stuffed animals in neon colors.


As the sun sets, especially on a Friday night, more fairgoers pass through the fair gates, making their way to the grandstand with its flags waving overhead, or to the beer tents on Grand Avenue.

After the Sun Sets

When the evening crowds arrive, we discover we have eaten and seen just about everything we planned, so it’s time to head home. Return tomorrow for a post about honey, eggs and butter sculptures at the Iowa State Fair!

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.