Missouri State Fair

Scheduled for 2013 publication in Missouri Life magazine.


“Ice cream! Horses! Giant slide! Rollercoaster! HAMBURGERS!”

Hands down, the best way to see the Missouri State Fair is from the top of the Ferris wheel with an ebullient 5-year-old. My fellow passenger, Liv, was shouting out the names of everything she saw.

And there is a lot to see.

I drove to Sedalia from the northeastern part of the state for the fair. Hadn’t realized what a big deal the State Fair is (I grew up in Chicago) but I began to have some idea when I started seeing “GET STATE FAIR TIX HERE” on store marquees in Columbia, more than 60 miles from the Fairgrounds.

I parked my car and made my way into the Fair. The first thing I saw drew a Bugs Bunny-style double-take: Two girls, both about 7, walking a cow. On a leash.

The cow must have been three times the size of the two girls combined. I would have offered to help but they clearly knew what they were doing. I followed them to an arena full of kids and cows and wound up talking to Holly Meyer, whose 5-year-old daughter Hadley was bossing a cow around like a drill sergeant. I expressed to Holly my admiration for Hadley’s lack of fear, allowing that I was a little afraid of the cows. (Did I mention I grew up in Chicago?) Holly disagreed with my commendation of Hadley’s bravery, saying, “The problem is that they grow up around the cows. She,” Holly said, nodding at Hadley, “actually needs to be a little more afraid.”

I could see that. The kids were treating these cows like untrained, willful puppies. You probably do need to have a healthy respect for something that has a mind of its own and outweighs you by more than half a ton.

Leaving the arena, I heard “First Call,” the bugled tune that heralds the beginning of a horse race. I love that sound, so I went off to investigate and found Hedrick’s Hog Races. The “hogs” in question are piglets about the size of Rottweiler puppies. The track announcer introduced the four contestants in the next race: Lady Hogga, Christina Hoguilera, Hammy Faye Bacon, and Miss Piggy. Lady Hogga won by a snout. There was some bumping in the stretch turn, but not enough to warrant disqualification.

Behind the Hog Races stood the petting zoo, also run by Hedrick’s. The petting zoo was the busiest attraction I visited at the Fair. I was befriended by a nanny goat, though from her eagerness to taste my notebook paper, I suspected I was being used.

Wandering down State Fair Boulevard gives one the sense that little has changed in the past hundred years of the Fair, save for the clothes. The local car dealer and local newspaper both occupy prime space on the Fair’s main drag. The Missouri Democratic Party and the Missouri Republican Party both had booths, separated by the tent of a non-political vendor. Fairgoers evinced little interest in either, despite a presidential election less than three months off.

The food vendors are heavily concentrated along one drag.  Ice cream, hot dogs, beer, barbecue. Little is unique about fair food, from state to state; but then, what is a State Fair without funnel cake? I stopped to talk to one of the vendors, the proprietor of Good Time Charlie’s, a barbecue, beer, and bandstage joint at the Fair’s crossroads. Charlie is a focused entrepreneur; while I was sitting with him, he took a call on his cellphone: “How much is it? Is it the good kind? I’ll take 30 cases.” He was sitting in a barbecue tent in a black t-shirt and jeans, talking about corn for his roast-corn concession, but he sounded for all the world like a commodities trader shouting in the pit at the Stock Exchange. Charlie used to be a full-time farmer, but bought into the fair years ago, and now controls a good chunk of the food concessions at the Fair.

I walked through the Home Ec. building. This was more time travel; I could have been in any year since 1901, the first year the Fair was held. I admired displays of quilts, baby clothes, crafts, fudge, preserves, and pickled vegetables. The next building housed a display of “County Champion” 4-H and FFA craft projects. There seemed to be a lot of ribbons, but since 4-H and FFA are focused on kids, what’s wrong with a lot of winners?

(Public Service Note for the urban dwellers among you: FFA is “Future Farmers of America” and the 4 H’s are “Head, Heart, Hands, and Health.” I didn’t know, either.)

I left the craft exhibits and found myself outside the Rabbit & Poultry Barn. I braved the tremendous noise and entered.

I had no idea there were so many kinds of chickens.

The birds are divided by type. The varietals have excellent names: Plymouth Rock Silver Penciled, Old English Millefleur, Non-Bearded Splash Silkie, Spanish White-faced Black. Had the names been told to me instead of printed on the cages, I’d not have believed they were real names. The plumages are astonishing; colors and patterns and poofs that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

The chicken cages were arranged in long double rows, cage-to-cage. Every now and again there would be two cages with a piece of box cardboard hastily wedged in between. The cardboard presumably served the same purpose here with the chickens as did the exhibitor’s tent between the Democrats and the Republicans outside: It minimized squawking.

The west wing of the barn is given over to turkeys and waterfowl. One complete row was reminiscent of the optical illusion created by facing two mirrors at one another; just a perfect forever-row of perfect white ducks. I also saw the Grand Champion turkey, a Narragansett. I attempted to alert him to the ephemerality of fame, particularly vis-à-vis the proximity of Thanksgiving, but he ignored me, simply preferring to pace and examine his “Grand Champion” banner. Success changes turkeys too, it seems.

I asked Tony Perryman, the Fair’s “Poultry Superintendent,” what made a bird a champion. “There is a standard of perfection for each breed and variety,” he told me, “set by the American Poultry Association.” Entrants are judged against that standard.  The champion of each variety competes to be best of breed. This means the best Plymouth Rock Silver Penciled chicken competes against other award-winning chickens to be named “Best Chicken” overall. The Best Chicken is the best of his breed and will compete against the Best Duck and the Best Turkey for “Best of Class.” The “Best of Class” is eligible to be named “Best in Show,” presumably if he defeats the “Best Sheep” and the “Best Pig” and so on.  (As I understand it. But again: City kid.) Competition is fierce, and not without cause: The “Best Lamb” of 2011 sold for $14,000.

If you look at the Fair properly, you can see that it is really two fairs, one built atop the other: The upper layer is the carnival, the one with the neon t-shirts, the Ferris wheel, the livestock pageants, and the funnel cake. The lower layer, the foundation, is the important longstanding statewide agricultural trade show. That lower layer firmly in mind, I went off to the Farm Bureau building. I slipped into the back of a talk on farm safety just as the speaker, a man missing his right arm just below the elbow, said, “Yes it was an accident, but yes it was avoidable. If I’d just shut off the power to the corn picker I’d still have my hand.”


Brian Fleischmann is a Jefferson City farmer who lost his arm to a corn picker in 1996, and who now works with Missouri’s AgrAbility project, speaking to groups on farm safety. The stump tucked against his right side give his words an authority no amount of shrill hectoring can ever match.

I was beginning to realize that the Fair is as much a trade show as a carnival, especially the equipment exhibition. There is a lot filled with tractors, on which children climb and play and pretend while their fathers examine the new tractors and discuss specs and costs with salesmen.  It’s like the Detroit Auto Show, but with more green and yellow, and stranger vehicles. (Well, to me, at least. I boggled for 10 minutes at a display of commercial-grade riding lawnmowers so complexly futuristic that I had to ask a passerby what they were.) There was also a display of fencing, which made navigating the area between the carnival and some of the livestock complicated. I wondered aloud to the Missouri Life photographer accompanying me if the display fence was electrified, and a passing cowboy jocularly told me, “The only way to know for sure is to touch it and find out!” I think he was kidding.

I was passing through this display-lot DMZ on my way out to the swine barn, which is quite some distance west of the main fairground, which makes a lot of sense. I was walking out there, and debating between ice cream and a piece of cheesecake on a stick, when I was startled by a horrific screaming.  I prepared to run to the screamer’s aid, but no one else seemed concerned. I nervously tracked down the source of the screeching, and that is when I learned that an angry pig sounds awfully human. Several members of the Vernon City 4-H club were washing pigs in advance of their turn in the show ring, and the water was cold. The pig was vocally unhappy with the temperature.

I asked one a woman standing watching the pig prep if this was a business or a hobby.  She told me it was, “A hobby, but a very expensive hobby.”

I heard this repeated when I stopped to talk to a family in the sheep pavilion. Nicki Herndon’s daughters brought 11 sheep to the Fair this year, entering 10 of them. (10 is the limit for entry, but they brought a spare.) I asked if this was a vacation or work. “This is our fourth year. School starts next week, so it’s kind of the end-of-summer trip,” Nicki told me.

It seems that for attendees, the Fair is most often part-vacation, part-hobby, and part-work. This fits nicely with the nature of the Fair itself; the trade-show/carnival duality on display means that you will as surely come away with new knowledge in your head as you will with funnel cake crumbs on your shirt.