Behind the scenes: Indiana State Fair

It’s 10 a.m. and cloudy when I park my car in the lot directly across the street from the Indiana State Fair gates. Only $5, and easy to navigate, I present my complimentary ticket and pick up my phone to call Dave Shaw, Chief Operating Officer of the Indiana State Fair. A few minutes later, he swings by to pick me up in his golf cart and take me around the fairgrounds, explaining all the way. In the end Dave would spend two entire hours talking to me about everything from risk management to parking to event planning, while I asked countless questions and snapped away on my Nikon.

Indiana State Fair

Soy-powered tractors lead the way

Dave comes to the Indiana State Fair Commission from the entertainment industry – so less cows, and more stage acts. He is marketing savvy and extremely personable, stopping to chat with the State Police on the grounds, fist-bumping the parking attendant and calling out to fellow staff members by name. The ISFC does approximately 350 events per year, nearly one event per day. The full time staff is just under 100 employees, while the group increases dramatically with volunteers during an event as large as the State Fair.

We cruise under the stadium seating of the infield to catch up with an older gentleman, who is maneuvering his golf cart toward the ticket booths. Dave tells me that this particular employee is enjoying his 55th year of service as a State Fair employee. As startling as that may seem, it’s not uncommon. Throughout the morning we meet several other individuals who have given their lives to the State Fair, to the tune of 10 or 20 or 30 years. Some employees have been born here, others are just here because they love it. It’s easy to see why Dave is under the spell of the fair, and quickly pulling me under.

Indiana State Fair Midway

Indiana State Fair Midway

Dave points out his favorite pretzel stand, stops to pick up a wayward street cone and hops out of the still-running golf cart to grab a piece of trash and stow it in the back, explaining all the while. The underlying theme of an event like the fair comes back consistently to the state itself: Indiana farmers, artisans and members of the community are both recognized and valued when it comes to planning events and inviting participants. Many of the items sold on site are from Indiana or made with Indiana products.

The state even takes a big role in something most large events take for granted: alcohol. I hear the story of how back in the day a fairground strewn with glass bottles encouraged the state to write a law that forbade any alcohol to be served during fair time. Believe it or not, that law is still in effect today. Later in the afternoon I see petitions in the Indiana Wine and Beer section, where local brewers and vine owners call for the same attention their fellow farmers and growers have had for years: recognition for their work in the state. It must be noted that even without alcohol, a whopping 70,000 people still walked through the gates on the first Sunday of the fair.



There are several things that stand out to me about the Indiana State Fair:

* well organized, intuitive layout. There’s a lot to be said for 250 acres of fairgrounds, even easier to get turned around. But once you have a map in hand, or you hop onto one of the soy-powered tractors, it’s easy to find your way around the fair, from cattle barn to Midway to the infield.

* crowd control. On the main thoroughfare between animal barns and infield, there is a very simple median. In some places, it’s concrete with a small patch of grass and a few benches back to back and in other spots there are exhibitors like Ford or the local radio station. This isn’t random filler – this is intelligent design. Crowds filter on either side (with multiple food trucks on both sides) and allow for easy maneuvering of people, goods and vehicles (golf carts, tractors, and the like).

* clean, clean, clean. The 1000+ volunteers at the Indiana State Fair are organized, well identified, and numerous. I would wager a guess at least 1/4 of those volunteers are cleaning the fairgrounds in some capacity. These folks are spearing trash, emptying bins, cleaning the streets, and generally insuring that you will have a clean (and safe) experience. Nothing about a state fair is clean, but this place is. This includes the bathrooms, which are almost exclusively permanent restrooms, and not those towering rows of blue porta-potties.

* seats galore. With all that wandering and eating in the August sun, a body really needs a place to sit and cool down. There are plenty of places to rest your weary feet at the fairgrounds: benches outdoors, tables and chairs under portable tents. But the real gem is the indoor seating – most notable in the Agricultural Hall. I can’t guarantee all those people sat down to learn about honeybees, but they sure were enjoying the long wooden benches in the air conditioning.

Pioneer Village

Pioneer Village

* a throwback to history. For the most part, these fairs have been active for about 150 years. The Indiana fair takes it’s educational (and historical) aspects seriously. One of the best places to witness this is in Pioneer Village, a well constructed indoor / outdoor area that showcases traditional arts and labor. Pioneer Village is one of Dave’s favorite spots on the grounds, and he was happy to park the cart and walk me around the area, pointing out key employees and scenes: A woman baking donuts over an outdoor fire, farmers cutting wood with a steam-powered engine, a local sitting down for a shave and a hair cut at the barber, and traditional dress all around.

* connection to youth. Nowhere is this more apparent than the brand new Glass Barn, made possible in large part by Indiana Soybean Farmers. The intention of this building is to connect young kids to agriculture, in a whole host of ways. There is a competitive game called “uFarm,” a grocery store based model called “uEat” and my personal favorite: weGrow, an interactive look at the lives of local Indiana farmers. How? via videos of their farms, and actual live Skype calls several times a day. Dave noted some of the staff had to drive to the farms, install wi-fi and show farmers how to work an iPad – all in the name of agriculture.

Indiana State Fair

Glass Barn, weGROW exhibit

Some other items worth mentioning:
– The Indiana State Fair now has a Text Message Assist program that is monitored 24/7, and serves the purpose of answering fair-related questions quickly. I didn’t try it out for myself, because who needs it when you’re driving around with the COO?
– The Colisseum where livestock and their owners typically compete, is currently under construction. The good news is it’s not locked down – it’s sectioned off with large descriptive posters, images and videos so fairgoers can see what the new building will look like. Anyone can walk in to tour the facility to get a glimpse of the brand new steel, and read about the construction process.
– One of my most burning questions was about the fair theme itself, as I so enjoyed the Year of the Dairy Cow last year and now was wondering how The Year of Popcorn came to be. In sticking with Indiana crops and local commodities, Dave noted that each year a commodity is decided upon and promoted as part of the fair’s marketing scheme. This year, Pop Weaver is recognized as the main sponsor, and the kernels of this agreement are everywhere.

Year of Popcorn

The Year of Popcorn

– The Giant Popcorn Ball constructed with love and caramel to celebrate the Year of Popcorn was put together by a whole host of people, including Dave and his staff. Picture the ISFC accountants taking the morning off to glove up and tamp down pounds of popcorn. Team building! The ball weighs 6510 lbs and is over 24 feet in circumference.

Ending my morning with Dave in the Marketing office, I laugh at a stack of giant foam vegetables, a discarded blue ribbon half my height and an entire table full of trophies in the hallways. Here are hard working staff, and the debris of the fair. This is one of the longest running fairs in terms of actual days (16) and some of the staff stay in various apartments throughout the grounds. I wonder if that means funnel cake for breakfast?

Taking the tour of the fairgrounds with Dave and meeting many of his fellow staff, and seeing the priorities for such a huge event was a really eye-opening experience. I’m grateful to Dave for his time and his generous explanations to my many questions. Who knew this city girl could be so stoked about a state fair? Y’all come back now …

Full photo slideshow in the next post šŸ™‚

Indiana State Fair

Blue ribbon winner, Cake Decorating


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