A 'dream come true': How a 92-year-old built an Iowa State Fair cookie empire, and why he gave it away
The colossal plastic cookie, one bite already taken by a lucky giant, hangs over Grand Avenue like a beacon, alerting all those who pass to the delicious delicacies inside.
Stop, it tempts, here lie ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies.
As he stands outside the brand-new Iowa State Fair building, which sits in the shadow of the Grandstand on the east side fairgrounds, Joe Barksdale can hardly believe it’s real. For almost two decades, Barksdale lobbied the fair to find a permanent home for one of its most iconic fair foods, an item he first brought to the grounds in 1993.
And, at 92, he prayed he'd live to see it built in his lifetime.
“It’s absolutely stupendous,” he says, gesturing upward and rattling off everything he loves about the new Barksdale's State Fair Cookies building, almost as if he’s cataloging it, afraid it could disappear like a biscuit Brigadoon.
For Barksdale, the official Don of Cookies at the Iowa State Fair, this building is his “dream come true.” And its grand opening — which will be celebrated Tuesday with discounted cookies — marks the culmination of decades of hard work, of slowly but surely “doing things the right way,” Barksdale says.
Not only is the 5,000-square-foot building "beautiful," Barksdale, a lifelong salesman, tells me, but the new equipment will quadruple cookie output, and the 12 seller windows will shorten customer wait times. And coming in at $1.35 million, the facility is built to last, fair CEO Gary Slater added.
But more than peddling buckets of cookies, the building is a physical representation of how far Barksdale has come from the early 1990s, when the stand was on the verge of failure, to the most recent fair in 2019, when his four stands moved nearly 2 million cookies — or about two for every person who visited.
The new structure is the final chapter that Barksdale will write in his cookie story. Last year, after 50 years as a concessionaire — and lots of hand-wringing and many conversations with his wife, Virginia — Barksdale gave his business to the “people of Iowa,” he said.
He sold his trailers and handed over the recipe, the name, the menu and the future profits to the fair gratis, in hopes that the money made from his dream building could go to keeping up the grounds for generations to come.
He had only one request: that his name live on as a testament to his deep belief that cookies could be a State Fair food, a belief he held onto even as others were ready to pack in the chocolate chips.
“For seven years, we probably gave away about as many as we sold,” Barksdale said, his face reflecting in the cookie building's shiny new mixer.
“But I kept giving then away hoping — knowing — that people would learn to like them.”
‘The Cookie Lady’
Cookies run in Barksdale’s blood.
Growing up in Alabama — a childhood that still hangs on his long vowels — Barksdale’s paternal grandmother, Maggie, baked cookies habitually, often passing out leftovers to neighborhood kids.
“The kids all called her the cookie lady,” Barksdale said.
As it does in Southern families, the recipe passed to his mother, and then onto his wife, who baked for fundraisers and family gatherings. The desserts were always popular, Barksdale said, but he just thought of them as "Grandma's cookies."
After a few motley years as an ambulance driver and a mortician — a combination he assures me wasn't weird in the 1940s — Barksdale and his wife moved to the Hawkeye State in 1958 so he could take a job with Alsco of Iowa, a window company.
Working his way up to general manager, Barksdale restructured the company like a dog with a bone. He tested new sales strategies, regionalized the business and wrestled the company from the red to the black. Eventually, upon his retirement 33 years later, the company was netting annual sales eclipsing $100 million, he said.
Virginia, a nurse, would take summers off to stay home with their children. And, like so many other Iowa mothers, when August came around, they’d pack up and head to the fair.
In 1976, Barksdale’s daughter Kathy decided to start a stand on the grounds. Her parents helped, and the family became hot roast beef and barbecue concessionaires.
When Barksdale retired from the window business in 1985, he took over the stand and attacked it with the same tenacity he had at Alsco. He'd read an article about a new type of meat, a flaked meat that would hold a mold while cooking. Wanting to infuse some of his Southern roots into the menu by adding a rib sandwich, he launched a nationwide search to find "the right flaked meat," eventually tracking down an acceptable version in St. Louis.
“That tripled our gross the first year,” he said.
Over the years, the Barksdales tried new items and bought and sold stands. They owned a lamb burger joint before giving that to the Lamb Association and put an ice cream operation in the Varied Industries building.
His food was always popular, and the fair knew they could count on him to be successful, but Barksdale wanted something that was his. He wanted a legacy.
A legacy like that of "the cookie lady."
Barksdale’s stars align
Approaching nearly two decades in the concession business, Barksdale spoke with the former fair manager in the early 1990s and floated the idea of hot cookies on the grounds. A guy in Minnesota was selling cookies, the manager said, and he was doing well, too, making nearly $200,000 a year.
“There's nobody on the grounds here that sold $200,000 worth of something other than beer,” Barksdale said. “So that just turned on the light in my head.”
After a visit to Minnesota, Barksdale made the leap, adding cookies to his 1993 fair menu.
Grandma’s recipe? Proven success, right? Nothing could stop those cookies.
Except no one was buying.
Barksdale would tempt people with samples, but they’d often opt for more traditional fair food.
“For seven years, it was really a failure,” he said. They dipped into their other stands to keep Barksdale's cookie dreams afloat.
Throughout the '90s, his wife would ask if they were going to "do the cookies again," he said. And every year, he’d answer yes, starting his day at the crack of dawn by breaking cartons of eggs into a five-gallon bucket — hoping this would be the year they would sell more than they gave away.
Then, in 2000, the Varied Industries building was renovated, adding, most importantly, air conditioning. Barksdale was asked to build new permanent food stands in the building, and he attacked that task, sketching kitchens with architects and designing logos and menus with artists.
When the fair came around that year, he got another idea: Pile the cookies high into a pyramid, so passersby could see what other fair diners were enjoying in those buckets and cups.
The cookies took off.
“To this day, I wish I could tell you why,” he said. Maybe it was the A/C. Or the people packed into the building, finally noticing the overflowing cookies. Or maybe it was the recipe — the same one that brought all the neighborhood kids to his grandma's kitchen.
Or maybe the stars just aligned.
As the cookies’ popularity grew, so did the need for more baking space. Barksdale first lobbied the fair for a permanent space in 2003. They declined, so Barksdale designed a special trailer for the sole purpose of baking cookies.
“You can’t make hot dogs or anything like that," he tells me. "It’s strictly for baking."
A few years later, he asked the fair again for a permanent spot. Again, they said no. He bought another trailer.
After a decade of more success, he lobbied again. Another no, and another trailer.
“I couldn't get them to see it my way,” he said. “I took numbers from my friend in Minneapolis and year-by-year showed them how he had increased each year and how we increased each year.
"And as a salesperson, it was frustrating.”
Barksdale he’d all but given up on his dream of seeing a permanent location. Instead, he was slowly moving toward retirement.
But in 2018, he got the call he’d long wanted.
The board approved his building.
A new chapter
At first, Barksdale attacked the building like he’d done with every other concession stand. He met with builders, priced out equipment and started looking at plans.
But he knew he wasn’t going to be able to work the fair, and he understood that he might not see the construction through. He started thinking of ways to walk away from the business, but still have his long-held dream realized.
In the early years of Barksdale's food business, the fair and its grounds were in disrepair. After a few days of the fair in the '80s, the garbage would stink to high heaven, he said, and the buildings were all but falling down.
He’d been there when the Blue Ribbon Foundation turned the grounds around. He watched the fair become a "showplace." He'd think about those days, about all the change he'd seen, and wonder if there was a way he could give back.
If he donated his cookie recipe to the citizens of Iowa and the business to the fair, maybe the profits could be reinvested. Last year, the four trailers netted $725,000, he said. With a building, he projects those profits are sure to rise to over a million.
When he approached Slater with the idea, the longtime fair CEO was "blown away," he said. Having this source of income means the fair won’t have to pass some upkeep and renovation costs onto consumers.
“For us, that’s better than a dream come true, because it is a reality," Slater said.
Another reality is that Barksdale could have sold his business for millions. When I ask him why he didn’t, he pauses.
Richness in life doesn’t always mean money, he tells me. A rich life is one that is full of love, full of smiles, full of family and friends.
A man lives a rich life when he leaves something better than he found it, and when he can give back to the people and places that have given to him. A man who has lived like that will leave a legacy.
For Barksdale, his life's richness is measured in cookies.
And now, those are Iowa’s cookies.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Save a bucket of cookies for her tomorrow! Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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