Iowa State Fair–1909

We Iowans are spoiled. We really do have a great state fair, a legacy we’ve enjoyed for a very long time–since 1854.

I enjoyed attending it as a child, as a 4-H member, and introducing it to our son, Dan. I didn’t realize when he became the 1986 Iowa State Fair Spelling Champ that 100 years earlier the fair’s permanent location began there on the east side of Des Moines.

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The brick commemorating Dan’s prowess is in front of the Administration Building which was constructed in 1909, the same year Dan’s great grandmother attended. I didn’t realize that he is the fifth generation of our family to enjoy the Iowa State Fair.

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Back then Goffs lived in Audubon County, Melville Township. Not only did the Iowa State Fair get a new Administration Building that year, there was a new grandstand, a new race track, and new sidewalks.

In fact, probably because 1909 was the 55th anniversary of the State Fair, the legislature voted $100,000 for a new grandstand–for some 900 tons of steel plus plenty of cement and stone to built it. It’s still in use today.

Wireless telegraphing flashed messages across the Fairgrounds and motorcycle races were held for the first time. Iowa women rallied for the right to vote.

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Leora (Goff) Wilson wrote in her memoirs, “One summer, Pa and us four oldest–Merl, Wayne, Georgia, and I–went to the State Fair in August. We drove a team and buggy (carriage) to Grandpap Jordan’s in Monteith and put the team in the barn and went on the Liza Jane train from Monteith to Des Moines.”

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Yes, that year special train service with reduced fares “from every point in the state,” was offered by the railroads. Sherd Goff and his four oldest children, ages 17 to 14, made plans to take advantage of this new offer to get to the fair in 1909.

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I can see Leora’s father ordering sons Merl (16) and Wayne (15) to hitch up the team early in the morning. Daughters Leora (17) and Georgia (14) probably pack a basket lunch and hitch up their skirts and climb into the buggy. The five of them wave to Laura and the children left behind: Jennings (12), Ruby (8), Willis (6), Perry (5), Clarence (3), and baby Virgil (6 months). Jennings is probably left behind to take care of cows, hogs, chickens.

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Georgia, Merl, Leora, and Wayne Goff

They drive two dozen dusty miles behind clopping horses to Grandpap Davy Jordan’s at Monteith, where they unhitch the horses and lead them to water, then into the barn. At Monteith they board the Liza Jane which takes them south to Stuart to catch the “special” that takes them directly to the fairgrounds on the east side of Des Moines.

“It was a real jaunt for us four, and it sure was enjoyed. I remember there was a place where buttermilk was sold by a glass. Pa and I were the only ones who liked buttermilk and, of course, we looked at machinery and the stock barns, etc. We had to stick together and not get lost. We watched John Philip Sousa’s Band–it was so wonderful, I remember. They played ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

I couldn’t confirm that John Philip Sousa was indeed at the fair, but that year ten thousand tin cups were distributed to visitors, sprinkling carts kept the dust down on unpaved roads, and hundreds of benches added. Admission was 50 cents.

“It was a big day and then we had to get a “Special” (train) to take Fair-goers back home from the fairgrounds to the Liza Jane train. We stayed overnight at Grandpap Jordan’s and back to the Audubon County farm the next day, all happy.”

In a 1909 issue, Iowa Homestead magazine remarked, “never before were the possibilities of Iowa for the future so blended with the fulfillments of Iowa for the past.”

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Historical Highlights of the Iowa State Fair, 2015. 

Progress and Catastrophe: Public History at the Iowa State Fair, 1854-1946″ by Chris Rasmussen, The Annals of Iowa 63 (2004), 357-389. Available at: 

16 comments

  1. What an interesting peak at the Iowa State Fair, and how a family would arrive there 100+ years ago! Getting to the event back then was an actual event in itself. I love the idea of going at a slower pace, but I also like the convenience of hopping in my car at a moment’s notice too.

  2. Always appreciate the hard work you put into your posts along with the great photo’s. I am sure getting a great peek into your part of the country which I knew so little about.

  3. I’ll bet families at that time looked forward to the trip to the fair for weeks beforehand. We have some large state fairs in my area of the country, and I’ve always wondered what they do with the fair grounds the rest of the year.

    • When I was in 4-H as a kid, we went to both. The Madison County Fair is where we started out trying to win ribbons, and even watching a rodeo. You had to place well enough at the county level to be able to go onto the state fair. One year I even got to stay in the 4-H dorm at the state fair to be able to compete. Sure helped us country kids grow up.

      • As a kid, I always lived “in the village,” and I remember being envious of the 4-H kids. They had so much fun and got to take care of animals.

      • Oh, Liz. The popular junior high girls lived in town and walked to Isenberg’s Durg after school. I had to ride the bus and yearned to have a cherry Coke with them. A couple of times, Mom–a busy farmwife–got her groceries on a Wednesday afternoon so we could walk to Isenberg’s after school with the town girls. Why Wednesdays? The library was open Wed. afternoons, across the street from Isenberg’s, so we’d meet her there. Gosh, another blog story!

      • I knew I had a misplaced modifier in my comment! I meant the Wednesday you went to the library. In any event, I enjoyed your Dexter library post, and I was quite surprised to learn that it had been located above the town hall at one point. When I was growing up, the Enosburg Falls library was located on the second floor above the town clerk’s office.

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