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The Elbert Files: Iowa’s early fairs


Craig and Diane Leaming have an unusual connection to the Iowa State Fair. Their 1880s west-side home was once a ticket station for trains carrying passengers between downtown and the fairgrounds.

The Leamings live on Tonawanda Drive, 6 miles from the east-side site the fair has occupied since 1886.  

But that wasn’t always the situation.  

Iowa’s first State Fair was held in Fairfield on Oct. 25-27, 1854.

That first Iowa State Fair was tiny by modern standards. Only five counties sent representatives to the organizational meeting, historian William Friedricks wrote in his 2017 book “A Great State Fair: The Blue Ribbon Foundation and the Revival of the Iowa State Fair.”

The Fairfield site was a mere “six acres surrounded by a ten-foot high fence,” Friedricks wrote. Opening day attendance, he said, “ranged from seven to ten thousand, roughly seven to ten time the population of the hosting town.” 

Another historian claimed it was “the largest gathering in the history of the frontier state,” although one needs to remember that Iowa back then had been a state for just eight years.

The first fair lost money, Friedricks wrote, “partly because a number of counterfeit bills were accepted at the gate.” (In those days, counterfeiting was a major problem. Greenbacks were not invented until a decade later during the Civil War; paper money in the 1850s consisted of bank notes that were easily duplicated.)

The second fair a year later in Fairfield exceeded expectations, but organizers realized it would be a good idea to move the event every couple of years. Before railroads, Friedricks explained, traveling more than a few miles was uncommon. The people most likely to attend a fair lived nearby. By moving regularly, the fair created new audiences.

For the next quarter century, the fair moved to a new city every two or three years. It was held in  Muscatine in 1856-57; Oskaloosa, 1858-59; Iowa City, 1860-61; Dubuque, 1862-63; Burlington, 1864-66; Clinton, 1867-68; Keokuk, 1869-1870; Cedar Rapids, 1871-73; back to Keokuk, 1874-75; and then to Cedar Rapids again for three more years.

By the time it came here in 1879, Des Moines had already been designated the state capital. Construction of a capitol building, begun in 1871, was well underway and completed in 1886.  

Des Moines could not have hosted the fair without the railroad, Friedricks wrote.

A railroad linking Des Moines with eastern Iowa and Chicago was completed in 1867 and the growing business community soon began lobbying to hold a State Fair here.

An editorial in the Des Moines Register in 1874 noted “six railroads center here,” and argued that placing the fair in Des Moines would make it “equally accessible” to all parts of the state.

When it was decided in 1878 to hold the next fair in Des Moines, business leaders acquired 60 acres of a west-side property known as Brown’s Park.

Street names were different back then, but today we would recognize the boundaries of Des Moines’ original fairgrounds as Grand Avenue on the south, 42nd Street on the west, Pleasant Street on the north and 38th Street on the east.

By September, there were “five hastily erected large halls for offices and exhibitions, a dining hall, an amphitheater with seating for six thousand, livestock pens and stalls, and a race track” with a pond located within the oval rack.  

“The Rock Island Railroad built a special spur to the site,” Friedricks worte.

That spur angled northwest from a mainline that still runs to West Des Moines and beyond. The spur began about where 28th Street dead-ends on the south today, and it ran on a diagonal toward the fairgrounds on Grand Avenue.

About where the Leamings’ home is today, the rail began a final half mile run to the fairgrounds through tree-shaded topography that follows today’s Tonawanda Drive.

The fair quickly outgrew the 60-acre site and in 1885 businessmen, led by F.M. Hubbell and Isaac Brandt, purchased the first 266 acres of today’s 445-acre site on East 30th Street and University Avenue.

In 1886, rail traffic disappeared from the once popular spur in front of the Leamings’ home.

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