Hallelujah! Fewer politicians to grill at this year’s Iowa State Fair

If you’re sick of politics, this may be the prime year to visit the Iowa State Fair.We’ve hit a relative lull in the campaign calendar. That means average citizens hungry for nothing more than deep-fried food can take the fair back from what has felt like an escalating stampede of power-hungry national candidates and officials. We’re not at the peak summer madness of an Iowa caucuses cycle.There’s no presidential election in November to inspire Donald Trump to offer helicopter rides to kids. And the president, as Obama did in 2012, is unlikely to drop by the Bud Tent on a beer run. Even our Des Moines Register Political Soapbox is silent. Then there’s the fair’s hallowed Iowa Pork Tent, our state’s central altar of carnivorous political ritual. Most candidates feel obligated to appear here to flip chops on one of four massive gas-fired grills. The grills sit prominently out front as if staging the live theater of seared pig flesh and lofty human aspirations.I always feel like the unspoken symbolism of the Pork Tent is that the candidates are telegraphing to voters that they're vicious enough to get the job done as they stand there to slap and prod the sizzling meat.But this summer there’s more attention paid to the “fire and fury” directed at North Korea, not the fire here that will feed some 90,000 fairgoers in 11 days.I’ve lobbed my own questions at candidates while sweating over these grills. But I have no plans to do so this year. I assumed that it would be a lonely year at the Pork Tent.Yes and no. Kelsey Sutter oversees the Pork Tent and its more than 900 volunteers. This is her sixth fair.True, this year is tame, she said, compared to the caucuses horde of recent years. For instance, she and her colleague Drew Mogler, producer education director for Iowa Pork, got to know filmmaker AJ Schnack, whose cameras were a Continue Reading

Strange behavior in the Iowa State Fair campgrounds

A Des Moines Register investigation has uncovered what many Iowa State fairgoers would consider to be shocking behavior in the campgrounds, which packs more than 2,300 campsites onto 160 acres. My jaw dropped Wednesday when I discovered what was happening. If I add another vague sentence here about my utter surprise at what I spied, will it heighten tension or merely annoy you?  OK, I’ll cut to the chase: During a stroll Wednesday I glanced between two campers, only to see Fred Walters of Iowa City — brace yourself for it — hard at work behind his computer station. Yes, I’m as horrified as you. This is the fair, which is supposed to be our collective last escape of the summer before the school year kicks into gear (and by God, by law we will push back the first day of school to preserve it). Yet there Walters sat beneath his camper awning, behind a giant computer monitor, diligently pecking away at his keyboard. His laptop also was situated on the desk. Walters works remotely for an educational assessment firm based in Minneapolis. His wife, Jennifer, is in the same industry and was toiling inside the trailer. The couple figures, why not work here at the fair and let their two kids, ages 7 and 3, spend time with the grandparents at their own nearby campsite? Then hit the fairgrounds in the evening. In all my years at the fair, I have come to expect many qualities from its quirky campers. Diligence to corporate America is not one of them, here in a land where even casual Friday would seem about as out of place as a tuxedo. But I get it: Protect your fair time by any means necessary, even if that means you meet deadlines with the sound of distant screams from Thrill Ville. I love wandering the campgrounds, home to an annual decorating contest and no shortage of quaint custom signs such as this from the Banks clan: “BANKS, where you’re treated like FAMILY. Are you Continue Reading

‘Cow whisperer’ boy in wheelchair leads steer, melts hearts at Iowa State Fair

The signature moment of the Iowa State Fair may have arrived early, as early as Saturday, when Alec Gotto of rural Dyersville rolled into the arena of the Livestock Pavilion alongside his massive steer, J.D.The fair offers a continuous stream of 4-H kids like Alec, 11, who lead beasts into the show ring that outweigh them by hundreds or even thousands of pounds. But keep in mind I said “roll”: Alec has been paralyzed since he was 8 months old, since before he could crawl. Alec in his wheelchair led the lumbering, 1,400-pound J.D. (short for, of course, John Deere) into the ring as one of just 25 exhibitors alongside the likes of Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sen. Joni Ernst in the Governor's Charity Steer Show. The arena erupted in cheers and applause as the audience lavished the pair with a standing ovation that would carry them to victory for the People’s Choice Award. “I can tell you I had goosebumps,” said Doug Bear, director of industry relations for the Iowa Beef Council. "Definitely it was one of the top memorable moments of any of the Governor's Charity Steer Shows I've coordinated."  Download the Des Moines Register Fair Food Finder app: iPhone | Android | On the web  Alec operates his wheelchair by turning his head to nudge sensor pads situated in key spots such as just beyond his temples. His dad, Chad, custom fit a metal bar to the base of the wheelchair. But the steer is attached to the bar by nothing more than a pair of Zip ties — so that if the beast gets spooked and runs, Alec would be cut free, not dragged across the show ring. But true to his gentle nature, J.D. was Zip-tied to Alec for about two hours Saturday and barely stirred. “He’s the cow whisperer,” Chad said of his oldest of five children with his wife, Carrie.J.D. was “just a totally different steer when he was with Alec,” he added. I caught Continue Reading

Why we haggle over private vs. public space at the Iowa State Fair

Grandfather’s Barn near the east end of the Iowa State Fairgrounds, 152 years old, is the only building left that stood in 1886 when the fair purchased this land to give a permanent public home to our state's summertime mass homecoming.This year, the fair’s newest structures took shape next door: four modular homes with patios that command sweeping views of the trees and rooftops of the fairgrounds laid out below.Also just outside the back doors of these new homes: the grape stomp stage, Parlo Pizza and the hilltop Iowa Craft Beer Tent.Elegant landscaping and “private area” signs surround shaded balconies that have been enhanced with giant TVs, plush furniture and circular fans.My colleague, investigative reporter Jason Clayworth, wrote about these homes last week as having raised concerns of special treatment given to the fair's wealthiest donors. More: Should $1M donors get new homes on the Iowa State Fairgrounds? The Blue Ribbon Foundation in the last 25 years has led the charge to redevelop and modernize the fairgrounds and offers these homes for lease to donors who have hit the $1 million threshold — many of the same names you see emblazoned on the fair's largest venues.In a typical Iowa community, these donors probably wouldn't choose to lounge in such modest $85,000 digs. But here on the fairgrounds, every square foot is precious. So in the context of the fair, these are grand mansions.And here we are yet again, haggling over private vs. public space on the fairgrounds.Not that I'm surprised. We Iowans long ago began deciding, little by little and brick by brick, that increasingly this is how we want to pay for public institutions.The Blue Ribbon Foundation built the homes next to the barn with little fanfare. But they haven’t been exactly quiet about everything that led up to them.The foundation this summer unfurled a new biography of its work, "A Great State Fair," by William Friedricks, a history Continue Reading

Meet Karen, the new Iowa State Fair queen of food contests

Earlier this week the Elwell Family Food Center was silent save for the low hum of motors from the rows of illuminated, shiny chrome refrigerated display cases that sat empty. And then I spotted her sitting at the desk — the modest 2- by 4½-foot desk at the back of the building sits out in the open without any barrier to the fair chaos. The desk is the hub for nearly 10,000 food entries spread among at least 177 divisions. Karen McKilligan sat there in the spot that for more than 30 years had been the throne for her predecessor, Arlette Hollister. It’s big news this year at the fair among the kitchen crowd: Hollister, 87, suddenly ended her reign as superintendent of food contests, the corner of the fair that I’ve referred to as “the gladiatorial pinnacle for all Iowans who do battle with a spatula and measuring cup.”“It’s hard without her,” McKilligan said. “We miss her being here. It’s hard emotionally.” I spotted McKilligan again Thursday, the fair's opening day. She was the blur who sped from one contest to the next. She helped guide a rolling table of grotesque cakes. She gave a direction to a person in a giant mouse costume. Two years ago I wrote a profile of Hollister as she presided over not only the Food Center but the entire State Fair Parade as its distinguished grand marshal. Last year, McKilligan, 59, a longtime spectator and volunteer in the Food Center, officially became Hollister’s understudy. She shared every step of the process to learn the ropes. There was a loose plan for succession on an indefinite timeline.  More Iowa State Fair reading:  New things to see at the 2017 Iowa State Fair 20 things that even an Iowa State Fair fanatic can miss Here's where you can try the top 3 new foods at the Iowa State FairThat plan suddenly became reality in June when Hollister tripped and fell at a local hair salon, Continue Reading

State Fair to have food truck competition this year

The Great New York State Fair near Syracuse is plugging into the food truck craze.This year's fair will feature a Taste NY Food Truck Competition on Sept. 6. Twenty food truck chefs from around the state will be challenged to use primarily New York-grown ingredients to make dishes that will be scrutinized by the public and a panel of judges for awards and prizes.The Fair is taking entries now for the competition.Competing trucks will take part in the Fair's daily parade at 6 p.m. Continue Reading

Greenfield man charged with disorderly conduct for having sex at Wisconsin State Fair

A Greenfield man has been charged with disorderly conduct after a woman videotaped him and a woman having sex at the Wisconsin State Fair coliseum during this year's fair.Robert Ray Beasley, 29, was charged Friday with misdemeanor disorderly conduct "while in a public place, did engage in indecent or otherwise disorderly conduct, under circumstances in which such conduct tended to cause a disturbance," according to a criminal complaint filed by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office.If convicted, Beasley faces a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail, or both.According to the complaint, State Fair police were alerted to the incident on Aug. 6 after a video of the couple having sex on the bleachers of the State Fair coliseum was posted on Facebook."The anonymous caller also identified the male in the video as 'Bobby Beasley,'” the complaint said. "The caller stated she knew the defendant from his past occupation as a semi-professional wrestler with a local Milwaukee wrestling group."Police contacted the owner of the wrestling group, who said he had seen the video and recognized Beasley. RELATED: Couple caught having sex at Wisconsin State Fair were arrested at West Allis tavern The video was made by a woman at the fair about 11 p.m. Aug. 5, after she saw the couple having sex. The woman's companion yelled at the couple and Beasley stood up and "appeared to be naked from the waist down," the complaint said."The defendant then got dressed and starting yelling at the several individuals who were gathered around."The woman later positively identified a photo of Beasley as the man she saw in the incident.During the initial investigation, Beasley and his companion were found at a West Allis tavern. They attempted to flee, but were found in the basement of the tavern and arrested, a State Fair press release said.   RELATED: Two in custody after having sex at Wisconsin State Fair Beasley was initially Continue Reading

Apple CEO talks Iowa, RAGBRAI and the Iowa State Fair

Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook made an unannounced stop at Iowa's only Apple Store in West Des Moines on Thursday afternoon, eliciting glee among fans of the company's computers, iPads and iPhones.Cook was in Des Moines celebrating the announcement of the tech giant's new data center slated for Waukee. His day included a press conference outside the Iowa Capitol and a tour of the Waukee school district's Aspiring Professional Experience (APEX) program. Inside the Jordan Creek Town Center, a small crowd of techies and off-duty Apple Store employees started amassing a few minutes before the CEO's arrival. His drop-in wasn't publicized, but word spread among Apple enthusiasts that he might stop by."This dude is my hero," one employee whispered to a co-worker, "and he's standing right there."While some employees went about working on phones and computers ―  a one-hour class teaching the basics of the iPad even went on uninterrupted ―  others took a break to schmooze with the boss.Shedding his dark suit jacket and purple tie from a press conference earlier in the day, Cook chatted with employees and customers alike.He posed for photos with Apple workers donning the standard Navy T-shirts and jeans. A uniformed Build-a-Bear employee ventured over to see the chief executive of the nation's most profitable company. And several rounds of mall goers carrying heavy shopping bags stopped by.In an interview with The Des Moines Register at the store, Cook shared his thoughts on a wide range of issues, including the data center, RAGBRAI and the Iowa State Fair. Cook said he hopes the company's first investment in Iowa won't be its last. The first two buildings Apple has planned will span about 400,000 square feet, leaving plenty of open land on the 2,000 acres the company secured in Waukee. "We went in with the idea of expansion," he said. "If you look at what we've done in other communities, we Continue Reading

New York State Fair adds Pride Day to celebrate LGBT

ALBANY — The New York State Fair is getting its first-ever pride day. Gov. Cuomo said a celebration of New York’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities will take place Friday, Aug. 28, to formalize what has been an informal gathering at the fair. Pride Day at the Fair will begin with the raising of the Rainbow Flag at the main gate of the fairgrounds. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

Cousin Bruce Morrow is throwing his third Palisades Park reunion Saturday night at the State Fair in the Meadowlands

APARTMENTS rise today where Palisades Park once stood, but Cousin Bruce Morrow doesn’t think that’s any reason to abandon the memories. So the one-time WABC and now SiriusXM radio host is throwing his third Palisades Park reunion Saturday night, 7-10, at the State Fair in the Meadowlands, East Rutherford, N.J. “Palisades was a wonderful place,” says Morrow. “We felt freer and younger then.” If we felt younger, it could be noted, we were. Palisades Park closed in 1971, so you have to be at least 50 to remember it. Still, Palisades remains an institution that no one who grew up around New York back then could ever forget. Young folks on dates and families with kids regularly took refuge on the Cyclone and in the world’s largest salt-water pool. Even if you didn’t go there, you knew it, because you could hardly turn on top-40 radio stations WABC, WMCA or WINS in the 1960s without hearing Palisades Park jingles. “Palisades has the rides / Palisades has the fun / Come on over . . . .” Morrow was one of the WABC jocks who spun those spots, and he also hosted countless shows on the Palisades Park stage. He was famous - some might say notorious - for wearing a leopard-skin print suit. He will, he promises, be wearing it again Saturday night. “Once a year it comes out of the closet,” he says. “People go crazy when they see it.” Morrow won’t be alone on the stage. His musical guests will include Tommy James, Gary U.S. Bonds, the Capris, J.T. Carter’s Crests and Tony Orlando, who Morrow points out did some of his first shows at Palisades Park. The festivities and show will be carried live on Morrow’s SiriusXM show, Channel 6. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading