Jim Kopel has been a big fan of state fairs since he was 10, when he exhibited his Chester White pigs at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Since retiring from teaching a few years ago, Kopel has visited state fairs in all 50 states, turning his ardor into something more than just happy memories.
Clipboard and pencil in hand, Kopel uses a 90-item checklist to evaluate the fairs. Key criteria include cleanliness of the grounds and creature comforts. Kopel takes note of all the details, including whether walkways are manure-free and whether there are ample benches.
Based on his findings, the former college professor has easily identified his favorite fairs. Predictably, Iowa is on the list, of course, but what of California? It didn't fare as well as some of its Midwestern counterparts, but it still rates up there. Here are his picks.
Minnesota: "They would tell you that they have the best state fair in the country, and I wouldn't argue with that," Kopel says. He says the St. Paul fair provides excellent learning opportunities.
"They have permanent buildings that do nothing but educate young people, whether it's about electricity, the planets or livestock," he says. "I was really impressed by that."
Dates, info: Aug. 26-Sept. 6, http://www.mnstatefair.org
New York: Californians may forget that New Yorkers produce their fair share of wine, and judgings and tastings are popular activities for adult visitors to the Great New York State Fair in Syracuse.
"You can actually buy a wine … and pick it up at the gate to take home," Kopel says.
Dates, info: Aug. 26-Sept. 6, http://www.nysfair.org
Texas: Everything's bigger in Texas, and that includes the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. It boasts that it's the largest in size and, at 24 days, the longest.
If visitors tire of viewing longhorns, five year-round museums operate on the grounds, including the African American Museum and the Museum of Nature & Science.
Wisconsin: Visitors to America's Dairyland can sample various cheeses and other dairy products, but one item is a huge draw to the fair in West Allis, just outside Milwaukee.
"They have a building where they make cream puffs behind glass windows all day long," Kopel says. "Everybody who goes has to buy a cream puff," he says.
Dates, info: Aug. 5–15, http://www.wistatefair.com
California: California's state fair, at the Cal Expo grounds in Sacramento, didn't make Kopel's Top 5, but it is in his Top 10. Despite the fact that agriculture is a huge engine in the state economy, it's not enshrined as it is at Midwestern fairs. This year's fair features "Get Animated," a pop culture exhibit showcasing California's history of animation, from cels to computers to 3-D.
Dates, info: July 14-Aug. 1, http://www.bigfun.org