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County Fairs Are Booming, Remain Totally Bizarre

Thousands of American fairs bring in billions of dollars every year. Yet they're still as weird as ever.
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A student exchange organization called CIEE passes out a survey once a month to all of the international students in their program. The survey asks participants to check off, from a provided list, what “American cultural activities” they have performed during their stay. The list includes a community pancake breakfast, bowling, and shopping at Walmart. It also asks whether they have attended a country fair—perhaps the most quintessentially American activity of all. Drinking a beer while looking at giant squash: the activity of choice for patriots since the 19th century.

The longevity of the country fair’s popularity makes it unique as a cultural icon within the American psyche. Elkanah Watson is credited as organizing the first agricultural fair in 1811, and the nation’s first state fair took place in 1841 in Syracuse, New York. A 1912 report states that 1,200 county fair associations existed in the U.S.; the fairs of 1909 attracted about six million people and made approximately $2.5 million.

The State Fair of Texas—often credited as the most successful in the country—brought in an estimated crowd of three million and made $37 million off food and ride sales in 2010.

Now, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions maintains that over 3,200 country fairs are held in North America each year. In California alone, fairs bring in an annual $2.55 billion to the state's economy and create 28,000 jobs. The State Fair of Texas—often credited as the most successful in the country—brought in an estimated crowd of three million and made $37 million off food and ride sales in 2010. (They also served 21,000 deep-fried pineapple upside-down cakes.) Fairs, unlike the rest of the nation’s businesses, are booming.

A NATIONAL AFFECTION TOWARD fairs likely plays a part in this, but with the recession still swinging, the popularity of fairs is also, in part, due to the growth of “staycations.” An NBC report says that organizers of many fairs believe that business has grown because of families opting out of out-of-town summer trips.

In 1912, John Hamilton, a Farmer’s Institute specialist, wrote that public patronage is essential for a fair’s success but a fair should not “descend to the use of low or questionable methods or to cheap, vulgar, or tawdry shows no matter how great the crowd these may draw or how remunerative they may be.” The quirkiness of modern fairs is what makes them such a gem—where else can you find speed text messaging as a sport?—but the most popular attractions of today’s fairs may not be exactly what Hamilton had in mind. Here, as Pacific Standard’s midway attraction, is a list of some of the more zany fair options you can see around the country:

Princess Kay of the Milky Way
The Princess Kay of the Milky Way, a title chosen by Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture around 60 years ago, is picked from a group of competing “county dairy princess.” The winner becomes a goodwill ambassador for the 4,000 dairy farmers of Minnesota and gets a statue carved in her likeness. It’s made out of butter.

Mutton Bustin’
Boys and girls younger than six who weigh less than 60 pounds try to ride a sheep for as long as possible. It’s a rodeo, but instead of cowboys, you have four-year-old girls, and instead of bulls, you have ewes.

Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off
In Alaska, they grow some pretty big cabbage. Like the-2012-winner-of-the-Giant-Cabbage-Weigh-Off-won-the-world-record-at-138.35-pounds big. The gravest danger to giant cabbages? Moose.

Swifty Swine Racing Pigs
At the Oklahoma State Fair, amongst other things, you can watch pigs race each other for an Oreo cookie. They wear little cloaks with their numbers on them, and sometimes they swim. The event has been described as “thrilling.”

Continuing with the pig theme, at the Canyon County Fair, teams chase a pig through mud, catch it, and then place it in a barrel. Participants are encouraged to dress as pigs, making the whole thing very meta.

This competition looks for the best human moo-er in Wisconsin. The “grand champion moo-er” wins $1,000, a year’s worth of free Cousins Subs, a “coveted” cow-print jacket, and the golden cowbell trophy. Participants are judged for realism, style, and stage presence. The competition gets fierce.

Bacon Lovers Wedding Ceremony
This year you could have gotten married during Bacon Fest at the San Diego County Fair. Because, why not?

Olivia Cvitanic contributed to this post.