Iowa State University at the Iowa State Fair

During the next two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people will converge on Des Moines for the annual spectacle that is the Iowa State Fair. As usual, there will be all kinds of activities and exhibits at the fair, but the main attraction continues to be Iowa’s agricultural enterprises. Considering the prominence of agriculture at the fair, it probably comes as no surprise that Iowa State University has been participating in the State Fair for well over a century–back when the school was known as the Iowa Agricultural College.

State fair display, 1924

This image shows part of the Iowa State College exhibit at the state fair from 1924. (Iowa State Fair scrapbook, RS 0/10/4, Box 1)

In a written account of the 38th annual state fair held in 1891, the exhibit presented by the Iowa Agricultural College highlighted the three departments of entomology, botany, and civil engineering. The purpose of the exhibit was to:

“…acquaint the public with their friends and foes of field and garden, the best methods of preserving and destroying them, the noxious weeds and various diseases of plants, with methods of treatment, and to illustrate some of the work pursued in the college curriculum.” Annual Report of the Board of Directors, Iowa State Agricultural Society, 1891.

Even though members of the college saw the state fair as an opportunity to educate the citizenry about important research going on at the school, it was also clear that they recognized the benefits of advertising at the fair.

Annual Report of the Iowa State Agricutural Society, 1891

Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Iowa State Agriculture Society, 1891. Starting at the bottom of page 140 is the description of the Iowa Agricultural College exhibit.

By the 1920s, Iowa State’s presence at the fair had expanded greatly. Many departments, even those outside of the field of agriculture, were highlighted in the exhibits. Photographs from that era show exhibits sponsored by engineering, home economics, as well as the traditional agriculture programs. One portion of the 1924 exhibit featured a chemical engineering exhibit next to a promotion for a young college radio service called WOI. In 1930, Iowa State’s exhibit included a display from the women’s physical education program featuring two young women demonstrating ping pong on a rather undersized table–at least by today’s standards. You never know what you will see at the fair!

Iowa Stae College exhibit at the 1930 Iowa State Fair

Iowa State College exhibit at the 1930 Iowa State Fair featuring the Women’s Physical Education program. (Iowa State Fair scrapbook, RS 0/10/4, Box 1)

Over the years, the University’s state fair exhibits became more professional-looking and more elaborate. By the 1990s, the Office of University Marketing took charge of planning Iowa State’s exhibit at the fair. University Marketing staff determine a theme for each year’s exhibit emphasizing different aspects of the University. Sadly, visitors are not likely to see college students giving demonstrations as happened in the past, but they are sure to run into the friendly faces of ISU employees, faculty, alumni, and friends that staff the exhibit.

2005 Iowa State University state fair exhibit featuring Reiman Gardens

This image shows part of the Iowa State University state fair exhibit in 2005. This exhibit featured Reiman Gardens. (University Relations images, digital files for the State Fair)

Just as it was in 1891, the Iowa State Fair is still a great opportunity for the University to advertise itself and to share at least part of the story of Iowa State with the tens of thousands of people from around the country that stop by the exhibit. So when you visit the Varied Industries Building to pick up ISU athletics posters and temporary tattoos at this year’s ISU exhibit, take some time to read and learn about some of the great things currently going on at the University. And, of course, if you are more interested in seeing images of the ISU state fair exhibit from years past, stop by Special Collections and University Archives. We would love to see you!

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