'Like someone canceled Christmas': The 5 stages of No Iowa State Fair grief
After more than 25 years selling cookies at the Iowa State Fair, Joe and Virginia Barksdale are getting out of the business. The Barksdales and state fair officials announced on Nov. 21, 2019, that the Iowa State Fair will take over the couple's four cookie stands. Wochit
Gary Slater writes a lot of contingency plans.
As Iowa State Fair CEO, “having a plan for that” is a key part of the gig. So the fair has plans for rain, plans for tornadoes, plans for extreme heat, plans for fires, plans for medical emergencies and even plans should terrorists try to target our butter cow, Sky Gliders, Grandstand or any other beloved fair institution.
But in his almost two decades of helming the fair to which Nothing Compares, Slater didn’t write a contingency plan for a pandemic.
No one did.
In a much publicized live meeting last week, the Iowa State Fair Board voted to cancel this year’s event, meaning for the first time since 1945, Iowans won’t spend 11 days in August gorging themselves on fried munchies and various meats on a stick.
Even though 2020 was out of the running for a Blue Ribbon months ago, the news that we wouldn’t gather on the East Side in our annual end-cap to summer felt like the final domino to fall in a season that ended before it even began.
“I know it'll be a long 14 months until the next Iowa State Fair,” Slater said after the vote, and he’s sure to be right.
To be clear: Most who looked at the expert medical advice, the financial projections and the suggested set-up for a coronavirus-safe, State Fair-like event have said that canceling was the right — if not the only — move. And even the most hardened of State Fair lovers can capitulate to the notion that skipping this year is the safest route.
But most are still sad. Heck, I’m still sad. Because with this bow — the biggest of the Iowa calendar — it sort of feels like there’s nothing to look forward to … you know?
As I talked with State Fair supporters in the wake of the vote, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were all getting over a very specific kind of heartbreak — a sort of 5 Stages of No Iowa State Fair grief.
Back in March, board member Jerry Parkin was “100% sure we were going to have a State Fair.”
In April, he was down to 85%. By May, he was a solid 50-50.
And in June he voted to “postpone” the 2020 State Fair.
“There were just so many hurdles, and the hurdles kept getting higher and higher and higher,” said Parkin, a board member since 2000. “It just got to the point where it finally broke. It finally came to me that it's not going to happen.”
Like many board members, Parkin spent months gnashing his teeth over the decision. He talked with fair staff, reviewed epidemiological advice, evaluated surveys sent to potential fairgoers — the most recent of which showed that nearly 60% of queried Iowans said they would not attend the event this year — and spent a lot of time on his tractor, thinking in equal measure to mowing.
For Parkin, the decision came down to whether a COVID-era experience could still include the events, performances, quirks and oddities that make the Iowa State Fair so special.
“If we went forward and had a third of the people show up, what could we have?” he said. “Could we have the Grandstand? Could we have the free stages? Could we have the fun entertainment, the Mr. Legs competition and all those different types of things?”
“It just became more and more apparent that it really couldn't be done,” he said.
After the votes were counted — 11 to “postpone” and 2 to move forward — Parkin somberly drove back to his “farmlet” in Madison County, along the way contemplating that after nearly 40 years of fairs, one scribbled “yea” had cleared his entire summer schedule.
At home, he called his son and asked him to apologize to his granddaughters, 8, 3 and 7 months; this summer they would not get to see a State Fair Queen crowned or ride the Big Slide.
Then Parkin sat in his tractor with a glass of Tito’s in one hand, a cigar in the other, and had a good cry.
For longtime vendors like Stan Kranovich, the past three months have been a careful game of hurry up and wait. He’d head out to the fairgrounds to add a new layer of paint to the Steer N Stein, his family’s Grand Avenue eatery since 1964, but he wouldn’t place supply orders. He’d change light bulbs and fix up equipment, but
wouldn’t start scheduling staff. “One day I’d convince myself there’s no way they could do it,” he said. “The next day I’d say, 'Well, that’s silly, Of course they could do it. They could do this or that.'”
Even though he’d readied himself for both possibilities, when Kranovich finally heard the word “postponed,” it felt like “getting hit in the head with a hammer,” he said.
The news had the same “surreal” quality to Connie Boesen, who literally grew up on the fairgrounds while her father served as fair manager. A vendor since age 14 — when she and her sister sold pop, candy and cigars out of what is now an information booth — Boesen currently runs six successful spots, four under the Applishus brand and two Salad Bowl stands.
Though Boesen always had a full-time job in addition to her State Fair ventures, some concessionaires generate a significant portion of their annual livelihood from these 11 days in Iowa. Surviving through a fair-less summer could be “make or break” for them, she said.
The Steer N Stein employs 100 people, many who’ve been slinging beer and fair food with Kranovich for more than a decade.
“They rely on us, we rely on them and we’re not going to have work for them this year,” he said. “That will definitely be hard on some of them and their families financially.”
Monetary impact aside, Kranovich said he's disappointed he won’t get to catch up with his repeat customers, many of whom he sees only this one time in a year.
“All day at the fair, you get to watch people have fun,” Kranovich said, “and that’s the part that we’ll miss the most.”
But, remember, readers, the fair was not always THE FAIR.
After the 1980s farm crisis, public investment in the State Fair dried up, and many facilities went into disrepair, said Don Greiman, who spent 44 years on the Fair Board. At 93 years young, he still tries to make it to the fair a couple of days each year.
With at least one structure condemned by the late '80s and a few others dilapidated or without needed creature comforts like air conditioning, some began to wonder if the State Fair wasn’t too old-timey for our modern world, if it wasn’t a relic destined for the scrap heap.
What saved the fair was enlisting select business and community leaders to lead the charge in raising funds for capital improvements, Greiman said. That group would eventually fold into the Blue Ribbon Foundation, which has raised more than $165 million in under three decades.
Simultaneous to taking an increased financial interest, those leaders started hanging out at the State Fair, which led to a slow but significant increase in the quality of the events and entertainment, said Chuck Offenburger, a longtime Register columnist.
Better buildings and cooler programming led to more public interest, and the fair was reborn. Like the hard times the fair has already endured, this, too, shall pass.
Iowans don’t lose anything permanently by not having a fair in 2020, Offenburger said, but we could lose a lot of Iowans if coronavirus starts spreading among the crowded concourses.
“There comes a point when it gets down to a choice between life and death,” he said, “and that’s an easy choice to make.”
“I feel like someone canceled Christmas,” Karen McKilligan tells me as she tries to hold in the emotions so obviously ready to burst.
Don’t get her wrong. As the superintendent of the State Fair food contests, she wholeheartedly agrees with the board’s decision. Figuring out how to hold food contests with live judges according to CDC guidelines was going to be a nightmare, and it would have been nearly impossible to ensure the complete safety of her volunteers, 95% of whom are in the high-risk 65+ crowd.
Intellectually, this decision makes sense.
Emotionally, though, it’s been tough.
“It’s sort of like being in mourning,” she said.
After taking command from longtime superintendent Arlette Hollister, who handed over the whisk in 2017 and passed away in 2019, McKilligan felt like the department was just hitting its stride this year. And given the average age of entrants, there’s her very real worry that this missed fair could be a few of the longtime contestants’ last.
But some of her beloved volunteers have already started making lemon bars out of this No Fair lemon. One longtime exhibitor known for canning, pies and breads has decided to use August to master pickling. A different group of ladies is scheduling a fair food potluck — socially distanced, of course.
And when McKilligan can get herself to look on the bright side, she remembers that now she’ll get more time with her new grandbaby, due just a few days before muffins were set to start arriving at the Elwell Family Food Center.
“The 2021 fair will be bigger and better than every fair before,” she said, “because next year we’ll know what a summer without one feels like.”
After the State Fair vote was announced and I made deadline, I picked up a book of Mike Royko columns. A longtime Chicago journalist, one of Royko’s most famous pieces compared his final day at the closing Chicago Daily News to the last day of his youth’s summer vacations. He writes about staying out late, wishing the sun would never set and they could keep playing softball on that neighborhood diamond forever.
But night always comes, and school always starts the next day.
No one wished for a fair-less summer, but the whole goal of the Iowa State Fair is to bring people together. That's just not feasible — no matter how hard we hope — when the key to survival is staying apart.
Taking a pause to collect his emotions last week, Slater wanted Iowans bereft at losing one more 2020 tradition to know he’s “with them.”
“The Iowa State Fair means a lot to Iowans because it's what we have,” he said. “It's what we do. It's where we meet. It's where we gather. It's where we celebrate. It is all of those things.”
Indeed, it is, and it will be once again.
Just with a bit more hand sanitizer.