News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 6, 2010

The Off Season: Taking in the ‘cultural’ experience we call the State Fair

By Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — I suspect that some member or another of our family has made an annual pilgrimage to the Indiana State Fair — that legendary land of fatty foods and horse barns — since corn dogs were first put on sticks; as long as “Carter had pills,” my mom used to say. The fair is a mixture of the new and the familiar, of the traditional and the trendy, of ancient harvesting machinery and inflatable purple aliens, of hand-held paper fans and soybean diesel — powered golf carts, of road apples and Peruvian flute music.

On a Saturday summer morning, not an hour after an early breakfast, we loaded up our car and headed east across the dual lanes of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Highway, otherwise known as U.S. 36. It is a trip that our car follows almost by rote through Parke and Putnam and Hendricks counties to the capital; after all, our kids were 4-H’ers, so we’ve hauled everything from caged rabbits to boxed fossils, painted rockets to canned fruit to the fair.

Years ago, our families — both my wife’s and mine — came halfway across the state before sunup to find a place in the dust of the infield between the fairgrounds’ track and grandstand. In those older days, we rarely got to sample the greasy and tempting fare of the food vendors’ booths, thinking that surely we would wither and die before we ever tasted real “sati babi” or “original” lemon shake-ups. Our moms supplied our fair food — generally, anything that could be wrapped in waxed paper or carried in Styrofoam. We did, however, always manage to look just pathetic enough to get a bag of cotton candy or a blueberry sno-cone.

I knew that we were in for an unusual day this year when, within a few steps of being inside the fair’s gates, I spied a girl clomping along in front of one of the livestock barns wearing only a bikini and cowboy boots. It’s those kinds of wonderful inconsistencies, those fabulous realities, that always make our day at the fair a true experience. 

Since we were still hungry when we left home, and had driven nearly two hours by the time we’d made 38th Street, our first stop inside the fairgrounds was for lunch — an event anticipated with gluttonous delight. I love Italian sausage — particularly piled high with fresh onions — so I eagerly went for that delicacy with cash in hand.

My wife normally sees to it that we all eat healthy meals, but she, too, capitulated in the war against cholesterol and triglycerides by downing the Polish version of my lunch. At least we stayed away from the edgier fair foods: deep-fried peanut butter cups; chocolate-covered bacon; fried butter balls; and the dish that had been the rage, the “Doughnut Burger,” which consisted of a quarter-pound of beef slapped between two halves of a Krispy Kreme donut. 

We had chosen a good day to walk the fair; unlike every other day of it — the entire summer, for that matter — it was breezy and cool, a few drops of rain chasing us from tent to booth to stock barn. Only in the hour or so before we left that evening did the familiar simmer of a brutal August sun burn its way through the clouds to make us uncomfortable, and by that time, foot-sore and damp and beat to the socks, we were happy to make our way toward home.

More than anything else, I wanted to see the huge 25-foot sculpture called “God Bless America,” inspired by Grant Wood’s iconic painting, “American Gothic.” Standing alone and imposing in the AgroSciences Celebration Park, the sculpture, created by J. Seward Johnson, was on the north side of the fairgrounds, and since we parked on the south side, we hiked ourselves past countless kiosks hawking $5 sunglasses, hot tubs and collapsible yard rakes. We walked at a trot through the Parke County-inspired covered bridge (Dan Collom and his gang built it), and past the “Dock Dogs” exhibit, which starred a number of pool-diving pooches, including a hound named Boo.

After spending a few minutes admiring the enormous nostrils of Johnson’s subjects, we made our way to the Department of Natural Resources Building, a favorite stop of mine since the days I first wandered past its sweating aquariums with my dad more than 40 years ago. I’ve caught my share of bluegill and bass in my day, but seeing them through the sides of those gurgling tanks and under fluorescent lights was somehow different.

My wife loves the butterfly exhibit near the DNR, and although most of the swallowtails had gone into hiding for the day, the place was filled with Painted Ladies (the butterfly variety). The cool waters of the cement fish ponds were inviting, too, that is if we had wanted to wrestle with gars and paddlefish and enormous channel cats. There, I saw kids fishing in a 312,000-gallon pool, learning to catch, then release their trophies.

Inside the building, we stood in line to bend and peer through glass at the most common of Indiana’s snakes in the “Reptiles of Indiana” exhibit. We were there, not only to take a safe look at a poisonous copperhead, but also to find the exact kind of critter that we too often find around our spread. It was there, a red and gray and brown Eastern Milk snake that, although harmless, was still rather mean-spirited. We also saw the tiny but mighty brown recluse and black widow spiders; both more fun to meet on the other side of glass than face-to-face under a dark porch or deck.

From the DNR, we wandered through the FFA Building, patted the greedy, too-fat goats in a petting zoo, sat in wonderful hickory furniture, and perched atop tractors and lawn mowers that had yet to touch a field or lawn. From there, my wife and daughter and son’s best friend, Lucy, went off in search of a live bear show and my son and I took off to explore antique tractors.

Of all the things we saw that day, I think the two of us enjoyed our stroll through those rows of old tractors most of all. I wanted to see if I could find a Silver King among the lot, and eventually I did just that, a lone ghostly monstrosity just like the one my Uncle Arlo had so many years ago. We marched through a field of Olivers and Massey Fergusons, Fords and Allis-Chalmers, John Deeres and Cases, eyeing the machines and respecting the time and care they demand. My favorite: a 1907 International Harvester, powered by kerosene.

After an envious look at a 1916 Harley Davidson motorcycle and a nearly perfect ’31 Ford Model A coupe, we hoofed it over to the Swine Barn, the primary attraction there being the largest and second-largest boars in the world. At 1,277 pounds, the grossly obese porker named “Tickle Me Elmo,” was a fascinatingly disgusting hog that defies description. His latest half-dozen offspring, penned nearby with a docile but proud Mrs., ignored the standing-room-only crowd, yet often stretched out just enough to invite a scratched tummy.

Although we wanted to wander through the Family Arts Building and its countless photographs and paintings and handicrafts, the lateness of the hour prompted us instead to head toward the Exposition Hall, where each year we stroll through aisle after aisle of displays featuring the likes of detoxifying foot baths, replacement windows, personalized license plates and plastic novelties, the most popular, I suppose, being the ever-present plastic doggy doo and fake ice-embedded flies. As always, we listened to sales pitches about stainless steel cookware, leafless guttering and the evils of damp basements, but bought nothing but a can of salsa mix, which is dynamite when served with chopped tomatoes.

There’s more to tell, but no room in which to tell it. We’ll head back to the fair next year; of that I am certain. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll again get to see “Coco, the 40-foot plastic colon, a big hit with fairgoers a few years ago, maybe even take in the cockroach races…

After our trip to the fair, you can’t say we don’t know how to have fun.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune — Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at, and visit his website at to learn more about his books.