clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why the Utah State Fair remains relevant 162 years later

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City looks a lot different than when the Utah State Fair was first established in 1856.

It was nine years after the pioneers first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, according to, when the Deseret Fair opened for the first time as a “space to display some of the finest products from their own homes, shops and fields.” During its initial years, the fair was held at locations that, in today’s urban landscape, would seem out of place — locations such as where the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Salt Palace Convention Center and Trolley Square now sit.

“One of the functionalities in the beginning of things like state fairs were that people didn’t live in as dense of urbanized centers as we do now, so it was an opportunity for people from more rural areas … to be able to come together to be able to share their (agricultural) practices,” said Shannon Jones, an associate instructor in the University of Utah’s Department of Nutrition and Integrated Physiology, in an interview with the Deseret News.

But as America became more industrialized and urban, a smaller and smaller portion of the workforce was living off their own land and a greater and greater number were leaving rural areas to work for wages, Jones said.

“We had to buy everything. We couldn’t just make it. We couldn’t go out in our back 40 and get our chicken and grab the food out of the garden,” she said. “It just became a very different way to relate to ourselves and to one another.”

Yet even with that shift from rural to urban, the Utah State Fair still exists 162 years later, and what's more, over 270,000 people attended the fair last year, according to Judy Duncombe, director of the state fair.

But how does an event so rooted in agriculture stay relevant?

Duncombe said evidence of its pertinence is in one of the most frequently asked questions at the fair.

“The two most often asked questions are ‘Where are the restrooms?’ and ‘Where are the baby pigs?’” she said, adding that survey after survey has shown that it is the animals that are the No. 1 thing that draws people to the fair.

“I think that today the relevance of fairs is even more important because there aren’t as many people involved in (agriculture),” she said. “It becomes a really important thing for the general public because … they don’t have that family involvement and that hands on (experience) that they used to get. Now they’re even more interested in it than they were before.”

According to Justen Smith, Utah State University’s director of extension for the northern region, there’s been resurgence in recent years of people showing interest in where their food is coming from, which is particularly evident in the growth of farmers markets.

“We see a resurgence in people wanting to buy local,” he said. “They’re very concerned about the type of food they’re consuming and where it’s coming from.”

Jones said many people want to know if their food is organic or if the animals were treated well, and the state fair is a place they can go to get answers.

“The state fair is a really great way for people to connect with the food and animal producers one on one,” she said. “I think it’s really interesting to see how it’s evolved. We’ve kind of come full circle.”

Duncombe said one evidence of this resurgence of interest in food’s origins is the reinstatement of the Barnyard Friends fair exhibit.

She said the feature was dropped from the fair when interest waned, but once exhibitors noticed more and more patrons asking questions about how the animals are treated, fair officials decided to bring it back. Barnyard Friends allows patrons to interact with baby farm animals and participate in hands-on agricultural education activities, according to the fair’s website.

“It gives people the opportunity to meet farmers one on one, talk to some of those producers that are raising the livestock and ask them those questions in person and be able to see examples of what they’re talking about as far as what kind of feed the animals are fed or the type of care they’re receiving,” Duncombe said.

Although the fair includes more than agriculture displays — including musical performances, carnival rides and vendors — Duncombe, Jones and Smith all maintain that it’s the agricultural side of the fair that keep people coming back and continue to make the event relevant.

“If you look at the roots of the fair, it’s showcasing agriculture,” Smith said. “That’s what it was hundreds of years ago, and at the base of it and the root of it, that’s what it still is and I think that’s what people appreciate. … The entertainment part’s fine too, but the root of it all is celebrating the harvest, celebrating agriculture and where our food comes from.”

If you go …

What: Utah State Fair

When: Sept. 7-17, times vary

Where: Utah State Fairpark, 155 N. 1000 West

How much: $10 for adults, $8 for youths ages 6-12 and seniors, free for children under 5, $40 for a season pass

Phone: 801-538-8400