State fairs feel like such uniquely AMERICAN things. The initial idea of gathering agricultural and livestock displays isn’t unique to the US, but what it has become in the years since it started seems unlike anything that happens elsewhere in the world. My main experience with state fairs has been with the New York State Fair (since my Grandma lives up near where it is held), and in doing some preliminary research for this post, it turns out that the New York State Fair was the first. I am sort of flabbergasted to learn this. I mean, I knew it was a big one (largest single-state fair on the east coast), and that it had been around for a long time, but dang. You go, Great New York State Fair – keep on rocking!
The point of all that is to say that I have some experience with State Fairs (having also attended the North Carolina State Fair when I was in graduate school), and knew what to expect. On a recent trip down to Richmond to visit Ben and Nicole, the Boy and I met them at the Virginia State Fair, which takes place in the town of Doswell, best known for being home to the amusement park Kings Dominion. Neither Nicole nor the Boy had been to a state fair before, so they had no idea what to expect.
We started out by meeting them at a blacksmithing competition, where teams consisting of a professional and a novice constructed a horseshoe in a limited amount of time. I grabbed a bottle of water and a bag of freshly-made mini donuts (!!!) from a nearby vendor. [Side note: I love fair food. It’s basically an excuse or a challenge to eat the greasiest food you’ve ever seen.] We stayed the full time they were hammering on the horse shoes, and then once each had been given their final dunk in water as the time ran out, we made our way over to the barns.
Seeing farm animals up close is one of the best parts of the fair, and part of the reason why state fairs are so popular with families. Children (and adults who make cooing noises at animals like I do) will relish the chance to be mere inches from cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and everything else. Warning: it’s probably smart to wear closed-toe shoes if you will be visiting the barns. I wore sandals, and while I didn’t get anything on my feet, they were certainly dusty and more likely to have hay stuck between the toes than everyone else.
The best part of the livestock portion is watching the farm kids show off their hard work. These young adults usually help out significantly on their family farm, and are given an animal or two to raise as their own and then show at the fair. The winning animals can raise a large price in auction, and are a good way to teach kids about the importance of caring for something beyond themselves, but also the value of putting in time and effort. We loved watching the fluffy young cows (see video above), but there were also pigs being herded into the ring for a show in a different area, and the way that you herd a pig is HILARIOUS. It involves following closely behind the pig with a long flexible stick, and whacking it on the side or rear depending on which direction you want it to go. We had the amusing privilege of watching a group of people try to corral a runaway pig with these sticks, and amazingly it did eventually work!
Our next stop was the heritage and history area. With all the discussion of lately concerning the Confederate monuments and use of the word “heritage”, I think the Boy was rightly afraid that in Virginia, this could mean something ugly. Fortunately, it was quite the opposite – we had a great time peaking around at vintage tractors and historic appliances and machines from decades ago. I spent entirely too much time watching a scale-model hay-baling machine press together mini bales of hay.
Nearby were the produce displays where we got to see the largest pumpkin and watermelon brought to the fair that year. The largest pumpkin weighed in at 972 pounds, and the watermelon weighed in at 225 pounds. I think the watermelon shocked me more just because while it was big, it wasn’t so much larger than normal watermelons, it was just big and dense. And yet weighed more than I did. Amazing!
In another nearby animal exhibition area we got to see one of the things Nicole was most excited for – the fancy pigeons. We don’t think a lot about the varieties of pigeon that exist in the world, mostly because we just see the dirty street pigeons and don’t think about the fact that this species was actually once a favorite of victorians for it’s ability to differentiate into a wide variety. In fact, Charles Darwin used the pigeon’s ability to differentiate as part of his support for the theory of evolution. So cool!
Around this time we took a break to eat lunch. The Boy had a crab cake (which he said was very good), I tried a plate of lo mein noodles and vegetables (because…I should be vaguely healthy, right?), and had the opportunity to munch on some of the blooming onion that Ben and Nicole acquired along with their meal. By insisting on eating and visiting other exhibits, it seems we missed out on something I would have loved by mere hours – a calf was born 3 hours before we made our way over to the small dairy pavilion. The little guy in question and his mama were on display, and he was so little and cute I just wished I could go in and give him a hug. What a sweetie!
After lunch, we wandered over to the place where the pig races would take place. Even 20 minutes ahead of time the event was standing room only, which was not fun. And oh my goodness, this is the event to be at if you love pig puns, because they are running hog wild there (sorry. I think). The whole thing is vaguely scammy and geared towards selling racing pig balloons and gambling on which pig will win. How are we supposed to know which pig looks good if they’re kept behind closed doors up until the race? It’s still fun to watch, but as you can see in the video above, the actual race is mere seconds long, and despite the fact that they run three or four races, it is a patience-trying endeavor to decide if you will stand and crane your neck to get a glimpse at those pigs run.
When we’d seen a couple races and got the gist, we made our way over to the midway. There were actually two – one geared towards kids with mostly rides, and a limited number of games, and the full size midway with spooky or more dangerous rides (upside down – oh my!), and a wide variety of games to try out (which – watch this video if you’re ever tempted to play and try to win a giant stuffed bear). The line to acquire tickets was SOOOOO LOOOOONG (should have bought them at the entrance, or in advance!), so the only game/ride that we ended up doing was when Nicole rode the mechanical bull and managed to stay on for more than 35 seconds. Nicely done!
After I acquired a deep fried snickers bar (yum!) and Ben got some red velvet deep fried oreos (…eh?), we made our way over to the Farm Bureau Building which housed many vendors and exhibitors, but also the arts and crafts competition. This is one of my favorites to see because it’s simultaneously impressive and achievable. If you do some of the crafts that are on display (like me and yarn crafts), it was the kind of thing you felt like, “Oh – if I actually entered, I might be able to win, or at least look really good!” But many were more impressive. The quilts were AMAZING. I’m sharing just one here, but there were so many good ones. I also loved this origami peacock – how cool is it? So cool is the answer. I also used the opportunity of creepy doll displays to show my companions my creepy talent for staring vacantly into the middle distance like a doll. (this photo is actually from the next day, but it’s all I’ve got) I promise, it’s more disturbing in person. 😉
We were about to head out when we realized we’d missed a part of the animal display – the small animals! Chickens, rabbits, ducks and the like. There were even naked guinea pigs (skinny pigs?) a breed I’ve never heard of! All state fairs seem to have a mandated box of baby chicks on display with a heat lamp, so I was glad that Virginia did not disappoint.
Also required for every state fair? A duck slide. Ducklings climb to the top, and then make their way towards the edge of the slide where a container of food stands waiting. When enough baby ducks are at the top of the slide, their pushing and shoving to get to the food causes at least one duckling to fall gently down the slide and splash into the water. It’s always a winning exhibit. And by the time we’d finished with the ducks it was getting to be late afternoon. We weren’t staying for whoever would play the concert that night. Our feet were tired from walking, and Virginia (unlike New York) seems not to have discovered the joy of the Footsie Wootsie machines which give foot massages to tired fair-goers with a quarter to spare. Oh well. Missed opportunity! Both Nicole and the Boy had a great time, and were impressed with the variety of exhibits and things to learn. Ben and I had a great time too, but were perhaps spoiled by our visits to another bigger fair.
So that’s it from the Virginia State Fair. I’ll have more from our visit to Richmond later, including both a restaurant and shopping round-up. But in the mean time – who here has been to another state fair? Or the Virginia State Fair? What exhibits or rides do you love, and what would you recommend as things not to miss for first timers? Or do you know of other local fairs that are just as fun?