Saturday, August 21, 2010

BBQ Gyros, Dancing Tots and Big Pigs: the Musical?

The 2010 Iowa State Fair concludes Sunday, and our family will have missed attending for yet another year.  As the kids have grown, it's become more difficult to find time in the summer schedule to make the trip from Northfield to Des Moines. 

We used to meet college friends there, and we'd follow a routine for touring the fairgrounds, which included seeing the livestock (big doesn't adequately describe the prize-winning Big Boar; this year's winner, Freight Train, weighs 1,259 pounds), eating fair food (BBQ gyro, anyone?), and admiring the big tractors (big, again, being an understatement).  We also would try to catch a performance by the Iowa State Fair Singers in honor of alumni member Steve (see my previous post for more on Steve's show choir background).  The group exists in slightly different form now and is known as Celebration Iowa.

Steve and Louisa, age 3 1/2 months, meet a puppet pig at the 1996 Iowa State Fair.
Although I'm a Minnesota native, and my maternal grandmother worked at the Minnesota State Fair for years, I have to admit that I find visiting the Iowa State Fair to be a more enjoyable experience.  It's easier to navigate than the Minnesota State Fair, which attracts such a mass of humanity that it can overwhelm a person, depending on the time and day.  The Iowa State Fair can be busy, too, but it's easier to breathe there.  It's more like a big county fair (remember, big = understatement).

I don't want to start a fight, though; they both can be great fun.  A bucket of Sweet Martha's Cookies and a bucket of rigs (rigatoni) from Vescio's are two reasons alone to brave the Minnesota State Fair crowds, although I'd much prefer to do it on a cool, calm evening.

And, if I wanted to look at it from a historical perspective, I can report that my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, performed at both state fairs.

All I know about G. Oliver's Iowa State Fair experience is that he played there in 1891 as a cornet soloist with a band directed by Major George Landers (most likely Landers' Third Regiment Band, a National Guard band based in Centerville, Iowa).  I would love to find a picture of this.  I don't know if the fair has photos going back that far. 

I also know a little bit about the 1891 Fair thanks to information in the book Iowa State Fair in Vintage Postcards by Ron Playle.  That year 600 electric lights were placed around the grounds, and 50 lights were placed at the race track, where G. W. Moore and his dog made parachute leaps. 

"They went up several hundred feet sitting in a large ring suspended below a balloon, then man and dog dropped using separate parachutes," according to the book.

Boy, I'd like to see a photo of that, too.  I wonder if G. Oliver stuck around for the parachute stunt?  Or maybe he went and heard Carrie Chapman Catt give a speech on women's suffrage; that was another event at the 1891 Iowa State Fair.

Before 1900, the Iowa State Fair was held in September, and the temperatures were slightly cooler.  According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the evening of Sept. 3, 1891, was the third coolest night ever at the state fair, with a temperature of 42 degrees; and that year's fair also placed third for overall coolest fair, with an average of 61.6 degrees.  If G. Oliver and his fellow band members wore heavy uniforms during their concerts, they undoubtedly appreciated the cooler temperatures.

It appears that the only building still in use that was around for the 1891 fair is Pioneer Hall, built in 1886.  It now is used for "Rural Americana Old Tyme" competitions like beard growing, husband calling and cow chip throwing.

Music continues to be an important part of the fair, and the Iowa State Fair has been an inspiration for music composers: think of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, a 1945 movie and Broadway musical based on Phil Strong's novel about the Iowa State Fair, or Iowa composer Karl King's "Hawkeye Fair," which he wrote for the Iowa State Fair. 

Not to leave out Minnesota, I should mention that Minnesota Public Radio created a program of fair-inspired music for the 2000 Minnesota State Fair.

I'll talk more about G. Oliver's Minnesota State Fair experiences in a future post, once the 2010 Minnesota Fair gets underway next week.

In lieu of photos from the 1891 Iowa State Fair, I'll leave you with a series of photos from the 2000 fair that demonstrate Sebastian's and Louisa's early interest in singing and dancing on the stage. 

I love that they chose to do this at the "Kid Find Headquarters."  Maybe they were hoping to be discovered by an agent.

1 comment:

  1. I love Ann Reed's MN State Fair songs - I have recordings of them on my MPR Keepers CDs.

    Love the pictures of Louisa and Sebastian. Seb is so blond! And since I've only known you since you've had three kids, I look at the pictures and wonder, "Where is Elias?"