First Iowa State Fair: Fairfield, 1854

September 3, 2011

Sign at the Iowa State Fair about Fairfield's first fair.

Iowa state fair 2011.

Iowa state fair 2011.
Sign at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines commemorating the first State Fair, held in Fairfield, Iowa. (photo, right)

Fairfield hosted the first two State Fairs in 1854 and 1855. The State Fair then moved to Muscatine (1856-1857), Oskaloosa (1858-1859), Iowa City (1860-1861), Dubuque (1862-1863), Burlington (1864-1866), Clinton (1867-1868), Keokuk (1869-1870), Cedar Rapids (1871-1873), Keokuk again (1874–1875) and Cedar Rapids again (1876-1878) before moving permanently to Des Moines.

Iowa’s first State Fair was held in Fairfield on October 25-27, 1854, some 15 years after Fairfield was founded and four years before the first railroad came through town. The fair opened with the presentation of a 360-pound “great Denmark Cheese” to Iowa’s Free-Soil Governor-elect James W. Grimes by his friends from Lee County.

The final day of the Fairfield fair featured the main attraction, female equestrianism: young ladies exhibiting their riding skills. Hannah and Cynthia Ball of Jefferson county contested with eight other girls for the prize. Belle Turner of Lee County won, but popular sentiment raised $165 in cash and six month’s school tuition on the spot for the impoverished 14-year-old Eliza Jane Hodges of Iowa City. The contestants were spirited enough to elicit a new rule the next year disqualifying any equestrienne from performing stunts.

Benjamin C. Perkins won awards for his sheep at the first Iowa State Fair in Fairfield. Perkins is notable because his cousin Simon Perkins was the wool-partner of the famous abolitionist John Brown. In 1855 John Brown first traveled through Iowa, perhaps even through Fairfield, on his way to Kansas.

John Andrews of Pleasant Plain, a Virginian Quaker, won the premium for the best farm in the County Fair of 1854; where he also exhibited the largest and best six-month-old pig as well as the best long-wooled sheep. Andrews was a member of the second Iowa State Fair’s judging Committee on Sheep in 1855.

Anyone in the vicinity interested in agriculture or technology would have been irresistibly pulled to Fairfield’s second Iowa State Fair, which enclosed seven acres of exhibits, cost twenty-five cents for admission, and drew as many as 13,000 to 15,000 visitors at a time. Though primarily showing Iowan goods – including cattle, oxen, horses, mules, sheep, poultry, farm implements, produce, cloth, prepared foods, artwork and inventions – the Fair also attracted first-rate contestants from across the country.

Taking diplomas for both first and second prize for best cultivator was one John Deere from Illinois, and the Committee recommended a diploma to “Sharp’s American Breech Loading Rifle, manufactured at Hartford Connecticut by Sharp’s Rifle Manufacturing Co.,” calling it a ‘neat and curious gun.’ The highly-accurate, long-range Sharps rifle was the famous “Beecher’s Bible” weapon of choice for John Brown and New England emigrants to Bleeding Kansas of 1855-56, and was favored by U. S. Army sharpshooters and by the cavalry of both sides in the Civil War.

The above sign reads:

“First Iowa State Fair: Fairfield, 1854

Admission: 25 cents

First place ribbons red, second place
ribbons white, third place ribbons blue

Principal attraction: equestrianism by
10 young ladies with a gold watch as
the prize

Total budget: $323

Attendance: 7000 – 10,000”

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