Across the nation from New York to Alaska it seems like every state is showcasing the best it has to offer at a state fair. Well, that is every state but Pennsylvania. Why doesn’t the Keystone State have a state fair? Post-Gazette associate editor and columnist Jennifer Graham has been looking into the issue and shares her findings with 90.5 WESA's Paul Guggenheimer.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PAUL GUGGENHEIMER : You’re from a state- South Carolina- that has a state fair. So having grown up with one, is it hard to imagine being in a state that doesn’t have one?
JENNIFER GRAHAM: Well, yeah. I was unaware that any state didn’t have a state fair. I moved here in January, and was here for a couple of months until I said to my kids, ‘Well, we should see when the Pennsylvania state fair is so we can put it on the calendar.’ Lo and behold, there is not one.
GUGGENHEIMER : And so, as you began to look in to this, what were you hearing as far as explanations as for why there isn’t one?
GRAHAM: Well everybody said ‘Well we do have a fair. We have the farm show,’ which is in January, I believe, in Harrisburg.
GUGGENHEIMER : That’s not a state fair.
GRAHAM: Well, no and I will say I have not been to the farm show since I just arrived here in January and I did not know it was the thing I needed to go to. But from what I’ve read about it- I’ve looked online, I’ve looked at the pictures- it is a farm show. It’s not a state fair.
GUGGENHEIMER : Iowa and a lot of agricultural states will have those farm shows in January because that’s the non-growing season and the farmers are getting ready for that. So then later in the year, Iowa’s a prime example because their state fair’s going on now and we’re seeing all the presidential candidates come through. So clearly it’s not the same thing. So why doesn’t Pennsylvania have one?
GRAHAM: Nobody can really give me a good answer for that. I suspect that what’s going on is that the county fairs don’t want to relinquish their little niche. There are 109 county or municipality fair, and there have been suggestions that some of the larger ones take on the connotation of state fair and assume that mantle. But I get the sense that none of the county fairs want to give that away to anybody else. For example, if Altoona, or wherever decided they wanted to have a state fair, the other state fair’s going to have a problem with that. Everybody would want that designation.
GUGGENHEIMER : What constitutes a state fair?
GRAHAM: There isn’t any kind of overwhelming definition of one. But for me personally, I think a state fair has an agricultural component, basically the farm show, plus a carnival, plus food that will kill you. And if you don’t have those three things together, you don’t have a state fair. You have a farm show.
GUGGENHEIMER : Well yeah, clearly the food, the meat on a stick, that is probably not the healthiest thing you can eat. So what it sounds like you’re describing is a county fair except that it’s state wide. You know, you’re showing off the livestock, you’ve got the rides, the different entertainment, and, of course, the food.
GRAHAM: Right. A county fair but massive in scale. And then you have the farm component, you have the contests that draw people statewide. So it’s sheer size, sheer number, and that’s what state fairs are about, is kind of excess in terms of you know, the food offerings, in terms of the rides, which are crazy and probably assembled in most places by minimum wage workers; the kind of things that you would not normally put your kids on and stand by smiling.
GUGGENHEIMER : In Iowa you have the caucuses there, first in the nation, all the presidential candidates descend on that one. But is Pennsylvania missing an opportunity to become, if not a place where you put up a soapbox and the candidates for president talk, some other iconic cultural aspect that could become our own?
GRAHAM: Well we’re losing something in that we’re sending people to other states. Again I’m new to the state but I’m told that people here go across state lines to the Ohio State Fair, which I believe is the third largest in the nation. They go off across the state lines to the West Virginia state fair which is just four, four and a half hours from here. So we’re losing people and we’re losing dollars. And then we are losing an opportunity to take something and run with it, like the soapbox aspect, which is getting a lot of national press right now for Iowa.
GUGGENHEIMER : Yeah, I mean people are all over what’s going on in Des Moines and maybe that could happen here. And certainly state fairs draw big name entertainers, so that clearly is something else we’re missing out on as well.
GRAHAM: Sure, and some of those shows are free and some of them are paid, but they’re drawing people in.
GUGGENHEIMER : And so it’s an opportunity for citizens to see big name entertainers that they might not be able to afford to see otherwise. So average folks are losing out as well.
GRAHAM: And there is a state fair culture. I mean, I’m not saying that if Pennsylvania started a state fair that we would all of a sudden have people coming from Arizona to go to our state fair. There are a handful of state fair kooks, and I would consider myself one of those, who have made it a goal to visit every state fair in the country. So there are a few people who travel around from state to state and spend their dollars on crazy burgers. Have you heard of a crazy burger? It’s a hamburger within a donut, it’s one of the typical offerings at a state fair now, like sticks of fried butter.
GUGGENHEIMER : Or the butter sculptures like they have in Iowa. Are there any other states that are like Pennsylvania that do not have a state fair?
GRAHAM: There are a few that have dropped off the radar screen within the past couple of years because of financial problems, some of those have come back, though. Indiana is one that was having financial problems and they solved it by, instead of doing away with the fair, actually expanded their fair. It went from 12 to 17 days and they have seen their attendance increase, believe it or not. They’ve done better by going bigger. The Michigan State Fair actually went off the radar screen for two or three years and that’s because the governor ended the funding for it. The private entities stepped in and provided funding for it and came back to life. There’s one other state, I cannot tell you off the top of my head, I think it’s Arizona that does not have a state fair currently. But to my knowledge there are only two that don’t have one right now. I will say the New England states do not individually have state fairs, but they have one giant one called ‘The Big E,’ that all the states in New England participate in. So there’s not a Massachusetts state fair or a Vermont state fair, but there’s one huge one in Springfield, Massachusetts.
GUGGENHEIMER : Did Pennsylvania ever have a state fair?
GRAHAM: Not to my knowledge. In fact, I came across something on Google from a diary group in 1920, which had written an article advocating for a state fair. So 100 years ago, people were saying ‘Why doesn’t Pennsylvania have a state fair?’ But nobody’s ever done anything about it.
GUGGENHEIMER : And of course, we are a big agricultural state. Livestock, fruit and crops of all kinds, and yet nobody for people to show off their wears except for the county fairs.
GRAHAM: You would think somebody would’ve thought this would’ve been a very good thing for this state.
GUGGENHEIMER : Do state fairs bring in a lot of revenue for states?
GRAHAM: Not a ton. Some of the states that I’ve looked at are making anywhere from $300,000 to $1,000,000 in revenue. It’s different in every state, how they’re financed. Some of them receive state funding, some of them are totally private, some receive a combination of money. I saw one that got 20 percent of its revenue from casino gambling in the state. So there’s kind of a patchwork of how these things are put together, and the goal seems to be be self- sustaining, to break even. If they do make a couple of hundred thousand dollars, that’s a good deal. They tend to cost around $10 million to put one on, so there are obviously substantial expenses involved in getting one together, which might be one of the reasons why nobody has gotten one together in Pennsylvania.
GUGGENHEIMER : So what do you think will happen in the future? Will Pennsylvania ever get one? Is there some kind of a big push here to have a state fair?
GRAHAM: No, only me.
GUGGENHEIMER : Just you? Well I hope, Jennifer, that you can make it happen, I’m guessing there are others that support it. Are there any people in high places that are getting behind this?
GRAHAM: No, I haven’t heard from anyone who said that that’s a goal, and I’m afraid that part of the problem is just that this is the way things have always been done here, and people seem happy with the farm show. I plan on going to the farm show, it sounds like a great event, I just wish it had some rides.
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