Author profile: History professor's new book focuses on the success of the Iowa State Fair, its future

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While Simpson College history professor William Friedricks may have grown up in California, he’s fully embraced his adopted state — he currently serves as director of the Iowa History Center and has written numerous books on Iowa history. His latest book, “A Great State Fair: The Blue Ribbon Foundation and the Revival of the Iowa State Fair,” details how the foundation spearheaded efforts to restore the fairgrounds to its former glory.

But it wasn’t history or academics that originally got Friedricks interested in the State Fair. It was his wife.

“Right after we got married she said we have to go to the state fair,” Friedricks said in a recent phone interview. “I’d been out to the Los Angeles county fair once in Pomona, but besides that I’d had no experience with agricultural fairs.”

“I was overwhelmed by the Iowa State Fair. I think we’ve been every year since 1988 except maybe the year I broke my leg. I don’t think I went out in crutches.”

Though Friedricks attended regularly, he initially didn’t notice that the grounds were become deteriorated. “When the grounds are filled with people you don’t see the details of the building that are cracking, or problems with roofs or floors. But by the early ’90s I began to think, gosh, the fair is looking pretty shabby.”

Friedricks then started reading editorials by Rox Laird, editorial writer for the Des Moines Register, who wrote that the fair was in real trouble. “In hindsight, maybe that’s what got me thinking about the real problems with the fair.”

The fair surfaced again and again in Friedricks’ projects. While conducting research for a biography of Des Moines real estate developer and philanthropist Bill Knapp, who made several large donations to the Blue Ribbon Foundation, Friedricks interviewed John Putney, the foundation’s first director. The men later asked Friedricks to send them a proposal for writing a book on the history of the foundation.

“I said sure.”

Friedricks’ proposal stood out because his included historical context.

“I thought I had to tell the history of the fair, briefly, to get up to how and why the foundation was needed. I spent a couple of chapters on the early years and the ups and downs of the fair before the board of directors realized they had a real problem and they had to do something extraordinary to save the fair.”

And while “A Great State Fair” is a historical record, Friedricks is quick to say it is also for the general reader who is simply interested in learning about how Iowans came together, under the leadership of the Blue Ribbon Foundation, to save the fair.

“I think the book does several things. It gives a broad introduction to state fairs in general, specifically the Iowa State Fair, and more specifically the grandeur of the fair and then the real problems” they encountered post World War II.

“But I think this book could also serve as an introduction to other fairs about how you do go about saving a fairgrounds.”

“One thing Putney kept telling me over the course of interviews: many people from other fairs have asked, ‘What’s your secret?’ And as Putney kept telling there wasn’t a secret: it was hard work, putting together the right people and the right packages to get people interested in the fair.”

Friedricks thinks the future looks bright for the Iowa State Fair. “I hope that the foundation makes good on its pledge. They are talking about preserving the fair for future generations and I hope they are able to do that.”

“I also hope the fair doesn’t lose its flavor as an agricultural fair. That’s a fine line that the fair walks. They want to provide entertainment, they want to reach urban audiences, which continue to grow, but I think it’s important they keep in touch with their agricultural roots.”

He also hopes the fair doesn’t lose its vast selection of food. “My favorites change every year,” he said. But I’m looking forward to an Italian Grinder at Aunt Mary’s and an ice cream from Bauder’s Ice Cream booth. And the Craft Beer Tent.”

Friedricks will sign copies of his book at the Iowa State Fair. Look for him at the Blue Ribbon Foundation’s merchandise booth in the Service Center on the Grand Concourse from 3 to 4:30 p.m. today, Wednesday and Friday to Aug. 20.

“A Great State Fair” is available at central Iowa bookstores, on Amazon, and will be sold at the fair, at the foundation’s merchandise stands throughout the grounds.

Book signings

l What: William Friedricks will sign copies of “A Great State Fair”

l When: 3 to 4:30 p.m. today (Aug. 13), Wednesday and Friday to Aug. 20

l Where: Iowa State Fair, Grand Concourse, Service Center, Blue Ribbon Foundation’s merchandise booth, East 30th Street and East University Avenue, Des Moines

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