Clay County Fair

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So here’s a weird, out-of-character thing I did this week: I attended a county fair. I’m not exactly sure why I did this; it was way up in Spencer, Iowa, so it was quite a long drive, and I really do not like fairs all that much.

But for some reason, THIS county fair has always intrigued me. Is it because it’s held in the fall instead of the sticky, drippy summer? Is it because of the location up near the Iowa Great Lakes? Is it because I heard someone say that this county fair was once called the “World’s Greatest County Fair” and deemed the largest county fair in the whole country?

Well, it turns out that these claims to fame were made in 1932. But I have to admit, it’s a pretty good fair, as county fairs go. I had a fun time, and I’m glad I went.

Here were some of the highlights on the day I was there:

  • Bingo. Like, bingo all day. Never-ending bingo.
  • A tribute to veterans.

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  • Plenty of musical entertainment on the Ag Partners Discovery Stage, Dish Plaza Stage (above), Farmers Bank Stage, KICD Courtyard, Northwest Bank Stage, and Sea Lion Splash, plus strolling entertainment such as Hillbilly Bob (and his famous car, Old Ruthie, below) and Rock-it the Robot. I mean, you have to admit that’s a LOT of entertainment for a county fair for ONE DAY.

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  • Farm animals! Everything from baby animals (adorable piglets, baby cows, baby alpacas, and more) at Grandpa’s Barn to cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and horses each in their respective barns, pavilions, and show rings. These facilities are excellent.

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  • Speaking of facilities, these fairgrounds have an unusually large number of very nice, permanent buildings. The grandstand is huge. There’s an events center, ag building, creative living center, industrial building, and more.

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  • A large carnival midway with gobs of rides. More on this later.

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  • A strong presence by Iowa State University’s county extension service and 4-H.

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  • Waterless cookware and hot tubs. What’s a fair without guys wearing headsets, hawking stuff we absolutely do NOT need to buy?

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  • An extensive model train display in The Depot – really awesome!

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  • Vegetable competition winners on display. I loved seeing the pumpkins and corn and tomatoes and other bright, pretty veggies in the ag building.

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  • Photography competition winners on display in the photography building.
  • A horse show at the outdoor arena.
  • Farm implements on display. Some of the animal implements look like torture devices (and they probably are).

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  • A wide, walkable grand concourse that I walked up and down no fewer than 12 times.

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  • People sleeping in the animal barns with their prize cows and such.

This county fair seems to be just one step removed from the state fair held every August in Des Moines. They have many of the same kinds of activities, and definitely many of the same food vendors. Here are some differences I noticed:

  • No beer tent
  • No politics (although maybe there is, and I just picked the right day to attend)
  • No goofy contests (cow-chip throwing, husband calling, pie eating and the like)

Other than that, it seemed very much like the state fair, just on a smaller scale.

The food stands, of course, are a big focus of both fairs. On the day I visited the Clay County Fair, I saw tater ribbons, blooming onions, fried mac and cheese, roasted sweet corn, pork chops, corndogs, Chinese food, tacos, funnel cakes, homemade rootbeer, and more.

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There was a pineapple ice cream stand (above) selling a product similar to the Dole Whip they serve at the Magic Kingdom, so I had to try it. (Yum!) I ate lunch at the Kiwanis building, where they were still serving breakfast at 1:30 p.m. I ordered a veggie omelet, and it was pretty good (below). The servers were very friendly and accommodating, and everyone eating there seemed to know each other.

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Given the northern location of this county fair, I spotted a few food vendors I haven’t noticed at the state fair. There was one booth offering Alaskan salmon, one serving “Minneapple” fried pies, one selling deep-fried Spam, and a “Quebec style” gourmet treat called poutine (cheese curds and French fries covered with gravy). Oh, I forgot to mention cheese curds! So many flavors of cheese curds.

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And Spudnuts! I have heard of these donuts made with potato flour, but I’ve never seen them actually being served. Spudnuts used to be really popular with Iowa State students and other folks who lived in Ames back in the day. The Spudnuts vendor seemed to be busy frying up these hot, sugary treats all day long; there was always a line of people patiently waiting.

I visited the Clay County Fair on a Monday, and the midway attractions didn’t open up until 4 p.m. I was headed home by then, so I didn’t get to experience any of the rides. But I was endlessly amused by the signs for the “Strangest Show on Earth” and “Freaks of Nature” exhibits. I mean, is there really a two-headed monkey and an ape woman in there? A wild woman and a lobster-claw man? How about a two-headed baby and a headless girl? One very large sign promised many different “strange girls” inside. I cringed a little but was nonetheless intrigued. (How strange do you have to be to get included in this show? Can I apply?)

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Hats off to this delightful county fair for entertaining me for a day!

 

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