Growing up in Sioux Falls, SD, during the 1950s I was led to believe the Sioux Empire Fair was the largest celebration of that kind in the four-state area.
Local fair supporters said it was bigger and better than the South Dakota State Fair for sure.
As a child I always looked forward to spending at least one day at the fair.
Once, when I was in the fifth grade, my mother’s brother, Uncle Ernie Castle, was home on leave from the Navy during fair week. I don’t know how she did it, but somehow Mother talked Ernie into taking me for to the fair for the day.
But Ernie, an active-duty Navy captain, married but with no children of his own, was not comfortable being with a grade-schooler.
Our day trip lasted less than three hours. The two of us made a quick run through the commercial exhibits and an even shorter visit to the animal barns before heading to the carnival midway.
I was the only one to go on the rides. Uncle Ernie limited himself to buying the ride tickets, but watching me wait in line and then go around and around must have not set well with him. After only three or four rides he simply said, “Well, that’s enough,” and we headed home. Mother was surprised and disappointed with our quick return and gave her younger brother an explosive earful.
Years later, when Connie and I moved to Sibley I learned of the Clay County Fair. It was 1962 and Jerry Doyle and his family also had just moved to Sibley. Jerry was working for Mauch Tire and I was employed as the Sibley KIWA remote station announcer. There were few businessmen our age in Sibley at the time and the two of us became friends.
Jerry had grown up in Spencer and knew his way around the massive Clay County Fairgrounds. He and his wife, Margaret, took Connie and I under their wings and introduced us to all the color, glitter, smells, sights and sounds of the fair. Most of all, they also introduced us to the fantastic food. For the next 10 years the Clay County Fair was our favorite place to be every week after Labor Day.
Then I became involved with the Lundstrom organization. Our annual Lundstrom Homecoming ran the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend in Sisseton, SD. From there it was a quick run to Minneapolis on Monday morning to take in the Minnesota State Fair.
Talk about big. There were so many farm implements on machinery hill there wasn’t enough time to climb up on the seat of every one. And there were dozens of commercial buildings and endless French fry stands as well as every other kind of food-on-a-stick stand you could think of. There were even stands that sold deep-fried ice cream, corn on the cob and hot dish on a stick.
But life moves on and 10 or so years later our son Jay, grown up, took a job with The Des Moines Register.
Even while employed at The REVIEW, Jay loved to spend a weekend at the Iowa State Fair. He loved Iowa and being an Iowan. Once he lived in Iowa’s largest city, he encouraged Connie and me to join him every August for a day at the fair.
Jay loved everything about the Iowa State Fair. He toured the animal barns, attended the grandstand shows, spent hours in the commercial halls and the building filled with fresh produce exhibits and displays of home baked pies, cakes and cookies.
But most of all, like me, Jay loved the food stands. All food stands. He could easily fill up at one of the many church stands or just as simply by taking a quick stroll past the many independent trailers and booths selling coney dogs, his favorite pork tenderloin sandwiches or pork chops on a stick. Following him around I’d always make sure to buy an order of deep-fat fried potatoes that could be strung out like an accordion.
But then Jay became ill with cancer and left us. Connie and I continued our Iowa State Fair runs with the grandchildren a couple of years, mostly as a tribute to Jay, but eventually our desire to make the quick, long, weekend drive faded.
And that took us back to the Clay County Fair, which seems to have everything I once found unique and special at Sioux Falls, Minneapolis and Des Moines.
You’ll find Connie and me in Spencer at least one day this week. We love the bright lights, excitement, crowds and shows.
Connie and I are quick to fall for the hottest homemaker deal in the commercial buildings, enjoy walking through the mobile home, farm equipment and agricultural building exhibits and are regulars at the many food stands.
And yes, my favorite treat is still the deep-fat fried potatoes that can be strung out like an accordion.
See you there.
Peter W. Wagner lives in Sibley. He is the founder/publisher of The N’West Iowa REVIEW and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.