For the first quarter century of the Iowa State Fair’s history, it graced nine Eastern Iowa cities before it found its permanent home in Des Moines.
The Iowa State Agricultural Society Executive Committee’s first and second state fairs were set up on 6 acres in Fairfield in 1854 and 10 acres in 1855. (Fairfield also was home to Iowa’s first library, established in 1853.)
The fair moved on in two-year increments to Muscatine (1856-57), Oskaloosa (1858-59), Iowa City (1860-61), Dubuque (1862-63), Burlington (1864-66), Clinton (1867-68) and Keokuk (1869-70).
The thinking in those early years — when travel was difficult — was that the fair should move around the state so more people would have a chance to attend.
As planning for the 18th Iowa State Fair got underway, the Sioux City Journal opined that Iowa hadn’t had a state fair for the two years it had been in Keokuk because the southeast Iowa city’s proximity to Illinois was a liability.
“It must be admitted that while the fair has been held at Keokuk, it has been quite as much an exhibition of the products of Illinois as an exhibition of the products of Iowa,” the paper editorialized.
The Journal advocated for Council Bluffs.
But Cedar Rapids would win the fair sweepstakes, hosting the state fair for six of the next eight years.
Cedar Rapids run
The ag society’s executive committee met with Cedar Rapids city leaders on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 1871, at City Hall.
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Ag Society President E.R. Shankland said a city, if it were to host the fair, had to provide a fairground with buildings and fencing. The cost to Cedar Rapids would be $15,000 to $20,000, but if Cedar Rapids couldn’t manage it, Dubuque or Keokuk was ready to take over.
Iowa Lt. Gov. Scott told the group the city would gain substantially from hosting the fair, pointing to the prosperity of Burlington and Keokuk that followed their fairs.
With Cedar Rapids Alderman J.J. Snouffer as chairman, the Cedar Rapids executive committee closed the contract to host the fair.
The city chose to build the fairgrounds 2 miles outside the 1871 city limits along the well-shaded Iowa Avenue (today’s First Avenue), with two streams running through its 55 acres.
By April, work crews were clearing the fairground and creating a level area for a racetrack.
The 18th Iowa State Fair opened on a cool, pleasant Sept. 11, 1871, in Cedar Rapids. It had fine arts, floral, mechanical and vegetable halls and an amphitheater to seat 5,000.
Entries numbered 2,800, with 20 states represented, along with entries from Canada, England, Belgium and France. The total topped the previous record by 220.
More than 35,000 people went to the fair, which attracted reporters from Des Moines, Chicago and Keokuk, the Cedar Rapids Times reported.
Back to Keokuk
Cedar Rapids had hosted the fair for three years when the State Agricultural Society met in Des Moines on Jan. 14, 1874, again with the location of the next state fair on the agenda.
Cedar Rapids had invested a lot in improvements, repairs and salaries, but the Agricultural Association asked the city for a commitment that the people of Cedar Rapids would support the fair financially. It wasn’t forthcoming, and the fair moved back to Keokuk for the next two years.
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The fair returned to Cedar Rapids in 1876, the nation’s centennial year. It was also a year the fair was plagued by thieves and pickpockets. Between Sept. 11 and 17, 112 people were arrested. On top of that, it rained for most of the fair’s run.
Nevertheless, the fair did well financially, as did the people of Cedar Rapids. Of the $9,000 paid in premiums, three-fourths went to people who lived in the city.
In 1877, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union came to the state fair in Cedar Rapids on Sept. 17, inviting other auxiliaries to participate.
One novel display that year, by Dr. J.F. Wilson & Co. of Center Point, promised visitors a peek at lifelike specimens of exotic wild animals, rare shells and the remains of a mastodon. The only admission was purchase of a bottle of the company’s “Lung Syrup,” “Iowa Liniment,” “Pain Remedy,” “Cholera Remedy” or “Hawkeye Condition Powders.”
1878 Was last year
While the 1878 fair was well-attended and the newspaper coverage extensive, the papers also called the 1878 fair a “financial failure.”
“It is humiliating enough to know that, for the most part, with such favorable weather, the people of Iowa should suffer their state fair to fall behind financially,’ the Cedar Rapids Times wrote. “Concerning its financial condition, the Hon. James Wilson, one of the directors, made a concise statement on Friday. He represented that there is a deficiency, including the old debt, of $7,000, and that after expenses were paid, there would be little or nothing left for payment of premiums.”
There was some dispute whether the debt was accumulated at Keokuk or Cedar Rapids, but the conclusion was the same in either case. The fair would move to Des Moines.
Cedar Rapids, however, was not deterred. It organized a Central Iowa Agricultural Assn. and held a district fair on the fairground the following September.
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