Since his freshman year of high school in 1969, Gary Stump has not missed an Iowa State Fair.
“I had a girlfriend whose father worked at the fair and he got free tickets for everything,” Stump recalls. “And then when I was in college, a friend of mine worked there and he was able to get me into some of the stuff. And of course, they had musical acts back then that I liked. I mean, they had Elton John, Chicago, The Beach Boys, The Jackson Five. They had some really big acts. They still do.”
Stump estimates that he has been to 54 Iowa State Fairs. In addition to being members of the 1854 society, a fundraising group for the fair, Gary and his wife, Lisa, have made their mark on the grounds in other ways. Across the fairgrounds, the Stumps have plaques, benches, bricks, trees and wall-hangings dedicated to them. Because now, Gary’s family and friends come along for the ride, and may even be bigger fair lovers than he is.
“Caroline comes back for it every year. We tell her she doesn’t have to, but she keeps coming back,” Stump said of his daughter who is currently living in Nashville. “In fact, there’s a family reunion in August that we just don’t go to because it’s during the fair.”
Caroline Stump has been one of my best friends since childhood because we grew up right next door to each other. Through our childhood years, we became intimately familiar with each others’ families, and I got to experience the fair the Stump way: which included a lot more than just grabbing a corndog, watching the one-man band, and paying respects to the Butter Cow.
This year, I followed the Stumps back to the fair to get their experienced opinions on the best sights to see, foods to eat and places to hangout. Here’s what I learned.
Surprises await at Pioneer Hall
On the hill at the east end of the fairgrounds sits a white wooden building, the oldest on the grounds: Pioneer Hall.
Inside, you’ll find a concessions stand serving pulpy lemonade and root beer floats, a stage facing rows of wooden benches, and a collection of vendors selling vintage odds and ends.
I’ve been into Pioneer Hall before with my own family to take advantage of the wall-mounted fans and listen to whatever banjo player or dueling fiddles act was onstage. But on the day I went with the Stumps, there was no music. Rather, the Turkey Calling Contest for ages 4-16 was playing out onstage, and we were just in time.
We quickly ushered ourselves past the vendors — one of which was proudly displaying Confederate flag shot glasses — to the wooden benches to catch the action. One by one, the timid contestants shuffled onstage, took the microphone and did each call as the announcer asked them to.
“First, let’s hear a gobble.” “Alright, now a yelp.” “Please repeat the yelp.” “Alright, could you give us a purr?” “Now, do a call of your choice.” “Again?” “Thank you very much. That was Madison from Huxley, Iowa!”
You could tell which kids had practiced and which ones were just phoning it in. We began weighing in on the benches as if any of us had a clue what the kids were supposed to sound like. But apparently the guy next to us did.
Ron, a turkey hunter visiting the fair with his family, clued us in on the different tools being used onstage, if the contestants didn’t solely rely on vocal calling. Some kids used rubber gobblers, others mouth calls. One girl performed a slate call, which, Ron informed us, channeled the friction of a pen being scratched across the slate’s surface to mimic the sounds of the bird. I thought she was pretty good.
Stump Bonus Tip! Lisa Stump recommends planning your fair activities ahead of time so you don’t have to walk up the hill more than once — unless you’re going to utilize the Sky Glider, in which case, going up more than once is fine. Other attractions at the top of the hill include Grandfather’s Barn, the horseshoe courts and the museum complex.
Fair merch and history collide
Also stowed away at the top of the hill is the Ronald and Margaret Kenyon Gallery. In this humble building located in the museum complex, you can purchase old Iowa State Fair merchandise at a discount and learn about one of the most explosive events in fair history: the staged locomotive collisions.
After asking if I knew about this phenomenon, Gary led me to a large display featuring two locomotives and a screen. Here, we watched a four-minute video about the collisions, which happened only thrice. The last collision was held in 1932 and, inspired by that year’s coming election, the locomotives were named after candidates Herbert Hoover and Franklin D Roosevelt. At the end of the video, you get to see the fiery payoff between the two patriotic locomotives.
Stump Bonus Tip! On the porch of the Ralph H. Deets Historical Museum, which can also be found in the museum complex, wobbles a collection of rocking chairs. The Stumps swear that this is the most comfortable place to sit in the whole fairgrounds. Perfect for resting your legs before venturing back down the hill and enjoying the view of downtown Des Moines.
Iowa wine is an alright time
Our last stop on the hill was Grandfather’s Barn, a go-to for wine tasting, wine industry presentations and in previous years, grape-stomping. While Iowa isn’t exactly known for its wine, it’s a good place to cool down regardless.
Initially, we beelined for the white tent outside of Grandfather’s Barn. According to the Stumps, this is where wine tastings had been held in previous years. But this year, the tasting site is located inside the barn, and the long trough-style tables under the white tent have been replaced by round ones large enough for eight to 10 people.
Inside the barn, we purchased our tastings: $5 for six Iowa wines, delivered to us on cardboard cutouts of the state, along with a plastic bead so we could cast a vote for our favorite wine afterwards. At a picnic table outside, we sipped our wines and listened to an Iowa wine industry speaker.
As far as drink deals go, the wine tasting is a steal. Rather than paying $8 for a beer, I was pleased by the value we found in this quiet corner of the fair. Tipsy and satisfied after our tasting, we headed to one more place away from the crowds.
Stump Bonus Tip! Tired of fried food? Try Parlo Pizza. Located outside of Grandfather’s Barn, the mobile Des Moines business serves up wood-fired pizzas that are the perfect break for your palate.
A little livestock trivia never hurt nobody
As we descended the hill, we stopped at one more spot on the east side of the fairgrounds which the Stumps had only discovered the year before.
The Gammon Barn Museum is the official birthplace of Polled Herefords, naturally hornless cows. The barn was originally located in Warren County, but after it was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1984, the barn was disassembled and moved to the fairgrounds in the early 1990’s.
Inside the small museum, we were the only ones apart from the docent. We walked around quietly, looking at the gold-casted cowboy hats hanging on the walls of the Polled Hereford Hall of Fame. We didn’t stay long, but I took in as much as I could.
Despite its nationally recognized historical significance, you won’t find the Gammon Barn Museum on the map you’re handed at the gate. It is truly something to stumble upon. Outside of the lettering on the barn itself, the only signage are small yard signs poking out of the grass advertising the “Polled Herefords Museum.” And maybe that’s part of the magic of it — unlike the other high-traffic destinations, this museum is perfectly content waiting for folks to find it.
“There’s always someplace — even if you come out here every year forever, there’s always some surprise,” Lisa said.
Stump Bonus Tip! The Gammon Barn is free, but not everything is. If you’re attending the fair with a big family, look into value packs. This bundle of tickets can be purchased on the fair’s website prior to the fair. It’s valued at $34 but can be purchased for $20 and includes tickets for food, rides and attractions. Admission is not included.
Of course, when the Stumps and I attended the fair, we couldn’t hit everything. But, like most of what the Stumps do at the fair, that was by design.
“You need to go more days, but less time,” Caroline proclaimed.
“If you want to enjoy the fair, go early and leave early,” Lisa added. “Because if you stay the whole day, you’re gonna wear yourself out.”
True to their claim, the Stumps and I parted ways around 2 p.m. They, of course, had been at the fair since 9 a.m. and they would be returning in just a few days with the rest of their family.
Brimming with a head full of new knowledge, a belly full of pizza and a baby sunburn, I walked around the fairgrounds a little bit longer by myself. I took in all of its complicated contradictions: the Google pop-up outside of the horse barn, people chowing down on veggie corndogs right in front of turkey leg trucks, the loadable game cards now required to earn prizes at the dated midway games.
“It’s just the most Iowan thing,” Caroline had said. “And I don’t love Iowa most of the time. But this is just the epitome of Iowa to me. The people you meet, literally listening to bird calls, learning the history of the whole fair. It’s the top thing I love about Iowa.”