People & Places

Iowa State Fair awakens the senses

Here's a sampling of the smells, sounds, sights, tastes and touches

DES MOINES — The sight of the signature butter cow.

The smell of deep-fried Oreos.

The taste of bacon-wrapped, well ... everything.

The sounds of jockeying politicians and turkey callers.

The sensation of touching a horse’s mane.

Yes, when it comes to awakening the senses, the annual Iowa State Fair doesn’t disappoint.

This year’s fair got underway Thursday in Des Moines as a morning storm gave way to blistering heat. The fair, which set a record last year with 1.1 million visitors, runs through Aug. 21.

Ken and Joyce McNichols, of Bondurant, were there at 8:30 a.m. ready to renew an annual tradition.

“I’m 80 years old, and I don’t remember missing a year, and we’ve been married 60 years and we’ve never missed it,” Ken McNichols said.

If you’re planning to attend, here’s a sampling of just some of the smells, sounds, sights, tastes and touches to wet your appetite:


The smell of diesel wafted from Heritage Village where John Hess, 77, of Des Moines, displayed a John Deere two hole corn sheller No. 2 powered by a noisy motor he called a Cushman Cub water-cooled throttle controlled engine.

The Central Hawkeye Gas Engine and Tractor Association member wasn’t sure of the age, but the weathered sheller stripped the kernels off a corncob in about five seconds, and if the engine — one of many he works on — gets too noisy, he doesn’t mind.

“I just turn my hearing aid off,” Hess joked.


Over in the cattle barn, near the south end of the fairgrounds, hay and livestock odors permeated the air, as did the smell of a skin and hair conditioner workers sprayed on and buffed into the hair of a Holstein cow, while another worker spot-cleaned smudge off utters.

“We spray them to shine them up,” said Brian Harbaugh, of Harbaugh Farms in Postville. “It makes them more presentable for the show.”


As home to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, it’s no surprise politics is one of the cornerstones of the fair.

Iowa’s longest serving Congressman, Steve King, R-Kiron, was first to hold court on the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox stage, which often hosts presidential candidates and others for federal and state offices.

King, known for outspoken conservative views, caught some off guard with a collegial comment toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, even as he made clear he is supporting Republican nominee Donald Trump.

“If it’s Hillary Clinton, we don’t agree on very much,” he said. “You’ll probably see me become a vocal member of Congress if you should elect me to go back to Washington after November. I also know I’ve sat across the table from Hillary Clinton eye-to-eye, and when you are working outside of staff and outside the press, she is somebody I can work with.”

Nearby, corn kernels clanked into jars for Clinton and Trump at WHO-TV’s “Cast Your Kernel” contest. Up the hill on the east end of the fairgrounds at Pioneer Hall, Jessica Fryer, 38, of Prairie City, was demonstrating her first-place turkey call, which she uses to beckon turkeys during hunts.

“I was just doing a cluck with a little bit of a purr and ended with a yelp,” she said.



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On display at the University of Iowa booth in the Varied Industries building, are five trophies from Iowa football’s 2015 undefeated regular season, including Floyd of Rosedale, the Heroes Game Trophy, Heartland Trophy, Cy-Hawk Trophy and Big Ten West Division championship.

UI’s Rick Klatt said they had to retrofit the display to fit them all.

Meanwhile, an Oculus virtual reality viewer offers sneak peaks into the new $300 million UI Children’s Hospital, including the patient viewing room overlooking Kinnick Stadium. Patients are due to move in December.

The Animal Learning Center is one of the favorite fair buildings for regular fairgoer Lucy Winters, 12, of Des Moines.

Here, she gets to watch the beauty of birth. Standing over a cage full of eggshells, she watched as chicks emerged and struggled to stand up and then take their first few steps of life, all in a matter of a couple of minutes.

“This is so cute,” Winters said. “I think it’s amazing to see the chicks pecking at the eggs and come out. This is the best exhibit.”

In the back of the center, pregnant sows lay in wait in the final gestation period before giving birth, while in another pen, 11 newborn piglets suckle on their mother.


The Iowa Craft Beer tent was a popular spot during the blistering afternoon heat Thursday.

The tent features 48 different Iowa-made brews on tap for fairgoers to try, including Millstream Brewing Co. of Amana’s Lemon Drop Shandy, which was the favorite sample of Mandy Nichols, 38, of Atlanta.

“I travel a lot, and you can get beer anywhere, but you can’t find local beers everywhere,” she said.


It was Nichols first time to the Iowa State Fair, and it was unlike any state fair she’d ever seen, she said.

In the center of the fairgrounds, G’Mig’s Fifth Street Pub served up one “Pride of Iowa Wrap” after another. “Don’t forget to vote for us,” the cashier reminded.

The 1,500-calorie wrap packed with pork shoulder, corn salsa, smoked bacon bits, cheddar Jack cheese and avocado is one of three finalists for the best new food of the fair. The others are a “Not Your Mamma’s Taco” from the Iowa Turkey Federation Stand and “Ice Cream Nachos” at Benoit’s Nutty Bar and Root Beer Floats.

Voting is open through Monday.


In the horse barn, Ellie Davis, 14, of Swisher stroked the neck of her 6-year-old, 15.2-hand, red rose quarter horse.

From its stall, Roger nibbles — but doesn’t bite — the hand of visitors looking to pet his reddish brown coat. Davis has been showing Roger for 10 months and received four purple ribbons — the top ribbon at the Iowa State Fair — this week.

“I love how I can work with such a huge animal, and it’s also pretty cool to be able to say I showed my horse at the Iowa State Fair,” Davis said.

After a day of walking the deceivingly spread out fairgrounds, exhaustion is a common feeling. The Sky Glider — an air tram — offers a place to sit back, soak in the sights, sounds and smells of the fair on a relaxing ride over the grounds. The rides are $4 for one way or $7 round trip.

One last item to touch is your cellphone. If you are interested in text alerts, you can punch in “fair” and text it to 75782 for general updates. Text the word “baby” to 75782 for updates on when babies are to be born at the Animal Learning Center.


If You Go


What: 2016 Iowa State Fair

Where: 3000 E. Grand Avenue, Des Moines.

Dates: August 11-21


Hours: 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. for fairgrounds; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for buildings; 10 a.m. to midnight for the Midway.

General ticket prices at the gate: $12; $6 for children ages 6-11; free for kids 5 and younger.

Parking: Available in three designated lots for $10. Bicycle parking is available inside Gate 10 for $2. Street parking may also be available and neighbors sells spots in their driveways and lawns.

Attendance: 1,117,398 in 2015


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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.