Time Machine: All-Iowa Fair attracted thousands to Hawkeye Downs in 1950s


The All-Iowa Fair — in all its iterations — was a staple of Gazette news pages for more than 70 years before the fair was discontinued after 2006.

The fair — which eventually would draw thousands of people and result in the building of Hawkeye Downs — began with the All-Iowa Jersey Cattle Show, showing the best of the breed in the state. Its first two shows were at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines in 1933 and 1934.

After the 1934 show, the state fair board said it did not want the Jersey show any more, so the breeders asked Cedar Rapids to become the sponsor.


In August 1935, the Jersey show that opened at Cedar Rapids’ Frontier Park was hailed as the first step toward an annual agricultural expo worthy of one of Iowa’s premiere food processing and producing centers.

As plans took shape, the show promised to be impressive. Prizewinners from seven district Jersey cattle shows would attend. If the event was successful, organizers eyed larger shows with more breeds in the future.

After the Aug. 22-24 dates were established and Floyd Johnston, head of the Ames dairy extension department, was chosen as fair superintendent, repairs and improvements began on Frontier Park.

A 75-by-100-foot show ring tent was raised, along with dining and office tents. A hillbilly quartet and the Springville High School band provided music.

The show was a resounding success.

Shorter name

Almost immediately, organizers began formulating plans for 1936 with a name change: the All-Iowa Dairy Show and Junior Livestock Exposition. The title was shortened to “All-Iowa Fair” in a Sept. 9 front-page Gazette story.

The expo was the only show in the Midwest in which animals could be entered into competition only after winning “parish” contests. The system allowed small breeders to compete on an equal basis with professional and institutional herd owners.

Representatives of the leading dairy associations across the state were in on the planning for the Sept. 15-18 expo that expanded to include Holstein, Brown Swiss, Guernsey and Milking Shorthorn breeds.

In addition to the expo, bands from 22 area high schools performed. There were horse races every afternoon, and a society horse show and jumping events every night.


Hawkeye Downs’ name

After another successful event, a massive building program was initiated at Frontier Park before the 1937 fair. At the same time, the Chamber of Commerce’s agricultural bureau deeded the park — site of horse races, rodeos and motorcycle and car races since the 1920s — to the city of Cedar Rapids, and Charles Moore was named expo manager.

While plans were underway, a coalition led by Ernest Wright of Waterloo, field secretary for the Iowa State Dairy Assn., made an effort to move the All-Iowa Dairy Show back to Des Moines. It failed. The dairy breeders were happy with Cedar Rapids.


With the 1937 show came a new name for Frontier Park via a six-day, statewide contest sponsored by the Inter-Service Club.

After looking over the entries, the judges felt none had the appeal or significance they were looking for, so they decided to combine two of the suggestions.

John Ely had suggested “Cedar Downs” and Mrs. William Doherty offered “Hawkeye Park.” The judges settled on “Hawkeye Downs” and divided the $25 prize between the two.

New hall built

The All-Iowa livestock show, Sept. 6-10 at Hawkeye Downs, opened with more than 500 prize winners from parish shows all over Iowa.

By 1939, the All-Iowa Fair decided to replace tents with an exhibition hall. Construction of a $30,000 hall was announced in April, with The Gazette calling the idea “a wise and necessary civic investment.”


The fair opened that August to a record attendance of 27,000.

The new Exhibition Hall, opened in 1940, was filled with home and farm exhibits, including a display that showed “the multitude of byproducts extracted from the sheep, hog and cow. Even the hog’s hair is used for insulation material.”

Streamlined poultry houses were on display along with a mannequins showing the fall fashions. A popular booth was the coffee stand handing out steaming samples.

World War II and its ensuing travel restrictions canceled the fair from 1942 through 1945.

Peaked in ’50s

The All-Iowa Fair was back in 1946 with a State Centennial Exposition. Among the expanded attractions were a trampoline artist named George Nissen, a Gazette news wire display bringing fairgoers a flood of bulletins, and the Wilson & Co. six-horse team of Clydesdales.

“In the dozen years of its history, the All-Iowa Fair has become one of the really significant agricultural expositions in the country,” wrote Gazette ag columnist Rex Conn as the fair opened in 1948 with a new Farm Youth Center and a boys dormitory.


The fair hit its peak in the 1950s. It added a new grandstand in 1963 but often struggled with finances.

In the 1980s, the All-Iowa Dairy Show moved to Des Moines, and the expo barns were no longer full.

The end: 2006

By 1998, the fair was failing to draw large crowds. It dropped major music acts and lowered the admission fee to attract attendees.

As Hawkeye Downs’ 75th anniversary rolled around in 2000, the fair changed its name to the Hawkeye Downs Fair. One fair official explained the change was because of confusion with the Iowa State Fair but after the fair’s 65 years, that didn’t seem likely.

The fair continued until 2006, the last year for what had once been a premier ag expo.

A fair romance

My husband, Rich, and I are among the thousands of fairgoers who hold memories of the expo decades later. While others have ribbons, photos of prized livestock or souvenirs, we have a marriage license.


The fair was 35 years old, but Rich and I were just about to turn 19 in July 1970. We had attended the same high school but were just friends. On July 4, I was working in the Exhibition Hall demonstrating an Amana Radarange for Montgomery Ward. Rich’s mom told him that she had seen me, and he stopped by to say hi.

He sat on a washer-dryer pair and didn’t appear to be about to leave, so my supervisor gave me the rest of the night off. We wandered the midway until we found ourselves in the top wheel of the double Ferris wheel. The operator stopped the ride with our wheel on top just as the fireworks were being set off at the fair and in the surrounding countryside. As the wheel spun slowly, we had the best seats in Iowa.

That led to an August engagement and a January wedding.

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