The Indiana State Fair is underway, it is the Year of the Farmer. It is also the 31st consecutive year I have covered the fair. Can it really be that long? Unfortunately, math doesn’t lie; it was 1985 when I attended my first Indiana State Fair as the newest farm broadcaster in the state. This realization has stirred up a few memories and observations.
My first radio broadcast from the Fair was in a trailer parked outside the Swine Barn. What is memorable about that is there was a piece of copper wire that snaked from that trailer and ran to almost every radio station in the state. Yes, this was before the days of satellites and smartphones. The old telephone was my lifeline to the world. I used that same line to call up a friend on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade to get the latest market prices. Today I am using wireless technology and sending digital files to radio stations via the internet.
I have seen the transformation of the Fair over the past 3 decades. I used to come home covered in dust because most of the roads on the fairgrounds were not paved. Most of the buildings have also undergone significant renovation. The cattle barn used to be a pretty dark and dismal place. The bathroom situation has also improved, which is important for people who spent 12, 14, or 24 hours a day at the Fair. There was a time when the privy in Pioneer Village was the best bathroom on the fairgrounds. The structure and operation of the Fair has also changed over the years. Things used to be rather casually run. Now it is much more professional and businesslike although this has led to a lot more rules and regulations and extra fees.
One thing that has not changed is that Indiana agriculture is the centerpiece of the Fair. It has always been billed as the showcase for agriculture, and that aspect has become even more intentional in recent years. The development of the North side of the fairgrounds has been focused on providing a venue to showcase 4-H, agriculture, youth, food production technology, and our agricultural heritage. With so many state fairs moving away from their agricultural heritage, it is nice to see the Indiana State Fair stick to its roots.
Some of my more memorable moments covering the Fair include the time I broadcast from the Swine Barn. Somebody had the bright idea of having setting up my broadcast location in the Swine Barn during one of the hottest summers in Indiana history. It was not a nice place to be. Neither the hogs nor I wanted to be there. As luck would have it, one of my guests was then Senator Even Bayh. I remember he was as unhappy as the hogs and I were about being in the barn with triple digit temperatures. By far, my best broadcast memory is the years I hosted a live, 30 minute, radio show from the Fair with Captain Stubby. It was an inspiration to work with this legendary Hoosier talent, and the live audience was great.
The Sale of Champions, now replaced with the Celebration of Champions, has many fond memories. But one not so fond memory was the year someone in the State Fair Marketing Department thought it would be fun to make the sale a “formal” event. So there we all were in the Coliseum in our tuxes and formal dresses, shepherding uncooperative livestock in and out of the ring. It was a rather surreal experience.
Food is omnipresent at the Fair. Over the years, I have developed some special traditions related to fair food. They include starting each day with a cold glass of chocolate milk from the dairy bar and ending each day with a milkshake from the same location. The fact that the American Dairy Association of Indiana is very generous to the media with free coupons, may have influenced this tradition. I have also compiled a list of the best long time vendors at the Fair. The strawberry short cake in the Ag Hort building is not to be missed, and the best sweet corn comes from the stand on the west end of the Harvest Pavilion. The chocolate covered frozen bananas from the Lions booth by the grandstands is also a favorite stop. There are many good kettle corn stands at the Fair, but my personal favorite is just outside the FFA pavilion. My wife, who has spent almost as many hours at the Fair as I have, is a big fan of the tomato juice stand in the Ag Hort building. As for protein, I alternate between the Hoosier Ribeye and the Pork tent each day. The lamb burger stand operated by the Indiana Sheep Breeders Association and the Poultry tent run by the Indiana Poultry Association were also among my favorites, and the fact that they are no longer at the Fair is a point of personal regret.
For most of the nearly 1 million Hoosiers who come to the Fair each year, coming to the Fair is a tradition. It is a tradition that fosters memories that span the generations. The State Fair is a time to come together and share our Hoosier heritage. At a time in our society when we don’t even know who our neighbors are, the State Fair is the closest thing to a community-building event we have. It is an event that fosters education, youth development, commerce, and a shared community experience that reaches across cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It brings together rural, small town, and big city folk in a way no other event does. For those of us who work the Fair each year, it is like a family reunion mixed with a large dose of overeating and exhaustion. And, the fact that it is all built around agriculture, just makes it all the sweeter for those of us who have a passion for farming.
By Gary Truitt