Head-on train crashes, buying an elephant and other crazy stunts the Iowa State Fair once pulled
Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2019.
If you think the newest food on a stick is the craziest attention-grabbing stunt the Iowa State Fair has ever pulled — think again.
Back in the 1930s, deep in the Depression Era and way before safety regulations, fair employees had to stage bigger and bigger attractions to get people with less and less money in the gates.
Thus, the great grandstand spectacle was born.
Below are the stories behind five of our favorite spectacles, clipped from 1930s video shot by Frank Burns, Sr., the then-superintendent of the Varied Industries Building. The video has been archived and provided to the Des Moines Register by the State Historical Society of Iowa of Des Moines.
1. 'Baby Mine'
The most famous fair-time spectacle ever was the Iowa State Fair elephant.
Baby Mine — who, just for the record, was actually named simply Mine — was purchased by the State Fair and the Des Moines Register after crowd-sourcing nickels and dimes from Iowa’s schoolchildren.
Mine learned tricks and performed across the country as “Iowa’s pride and Joy” from 1929 to about 1942, always making a point to come back home in August for the Iowa State Fair.
In her off-time, she lived in a climate-controlled stall on the fairgrounds.
Mine’s life had a tragic end, though, and she died in obscurity.
Learn more about her rise to fame and fall to anonymity in this special Subscriber-exclusive story.
2. Locomotive crashes
Crashing various vehicles together was a big draw for the fair during the '30s, but the most infamous of these sorts of staged events was the collision of two steam-powered locomotives in 1932.
Despite having also wrecked locomotives in 1896 and 1922, the 1932 crash took on an election theme by pitting a Herbert Hoover train against a Franklin Delano Roosevelt train. (Register reporting from the time is not clear on which train won, though in the actual election that fall, Iowan Hoover was defeated in a landslide by Roosevelt.)
Traveling at about 50 miles per hour, the four engineers bailed just before the two trains hit each other head-on, hurling metal and wood into the crowd. More than 45,000 people had to be held back from getting too close to the crash site as fire spread from Roosevelt's engine to Hoover's, the Register reported.
All of this was orchestrated by an Iowan (of course). Joseph S. Connolly became known as “Head-On Joe” for his famous train-crashing performances, according to a biography titled “The Man Who Wrecked 146 Locomotives.”
“Somewhere in the makeup of every normal person,” Connelly is quoted as saying in the book, “there lurks the suppressed desire to smash things up.”
“As a historian, it kind of breaks my heart,” State Curator Leo Landis told me, “because here you've got two steam-powered locomotives that, if they were around today, would just be priceless and there'd be museums that would love to have them, that, as a demonstration, get set up and crash into each other.”
3. Plane dive-bombs house
The smashing theme continued throughout the 1930s, but in 1937 the Iowa State Fair upped the ante by having Captain F.F. Frakes crash a speeding airplane into a house.
About 60,000 people watched this climax to this fair's "Thrill Day," according to the Iowa State Fair archives, but the feat apparently made Frakes a wanted man.
The house in tatters on the grandstand, Frakes barely escaped arrest for the stunt, State Fair lore says.
In general, planes and air tricks of all sorts were draws for the fair. Even an appearance from the grand olde Register and Tribune autogiro (an airplane with windmill-like blades on the front), brought people out to the fairgrounds.
4. Shrapnel explosion
With the Great War still in the memory of many older fairgoers, military-themed displays proved popular in the late 20s and 30s.
In 1929, the fair staged an airplane dog fight of sorts. The culmination of the show was puncturing and capsizing a WWI anti-shrapnel balloon.
5. The Human Cannonball
And then there’s the good old fun of a human cannonball. Wheeeeee!
COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Her fair spectacle is seeing just how much food she can really eat. You can reach her at 515-284-8360 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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