America's Wackiest State Fair Contests
Wisconsin dairy farmers don’t come to the state fair merely to show off their prize cattle. Some are among the 75 contestants prepared to take the microphone and let loose their moo imitations (bonus points for wearing a cow costume).
Better at hog calling or scarfing down cream puffs? Those contests, like the mooing one and dozens more, take place during the 10-day Wisconsin State Fair. All across America, contests are an essential part of state fairs and keep people coming back each summer. Some involve tried-and-true skills like horseback riding, while other contests are so wacky they almost need to be seen to be believed.
Contests have been state fair hallmarks from the start, when New York held America’s first fair in 1841. Designed to promote agriculture, it showcased livestock displays, exhibitions of new farming equipment, and a plowing contest. Livestock, vegetable-growing, and recipe showdowns sprung up at other fairs and are still major draws, sometimes with modern-day revisions.
At the Iowa State Fair, a women’s rolling-pin-tossing contest morphed over time to a rubber-chicken toss. “A few misguided throws and you can guess why it evolved,” says marketing director Lori Chappell. In Utah, the state fair still focuses on livestock and horticulture, but the biggest smell of success emanates from its Rotten Sneaker Contest, whose judges rate each part of the shoe for its stink.
Whether or not they have an agricultural bent, America’s wackiest state fair contests continue a tradition of low-tech, homegrown challenges, observes Neva Hutchinson, event coordinator at the Oregon State Fair. Its Milk Mustache Contest gives kids the perfect excuse to gulp down their milk and get messy—while proud parents snap photographs of the little champs.
Silly? Of course. These kinds of contests, created strictly for kicks, prove that people will do just about anything for a little fame and, sometimes, fortune. Average Joes get a few minutes in the spotlight, but they need some above-average combination of inhibition and true skill. “Contests and competitions celebrate what we do best as novices or avid professionals,” says Jaime Parr, the Nebraska State Fair facilities director. “Each one is a chance to educate and entertain fairgoers.”
So don’t be a party pooper. Join the crowds—and maybe even the competitors—at America’s wackiest state fair contests.
SuperFarmer Contest, Missouri State Fair
Missouri farmers show off their skills each summer at this Olympics-like tournament. Male and female duos go head-to-head throwing 42-pound cotton bales (men toss for distance, women for height); moving hay bales 30 feet across an arena; gathering eggs from a nest and finding the hard-boiled one (by cracking them on the male partner’s head); hanging a gate; and completing an obstacle course that involves rolling one partner in a tractor tire and jumping over a five-foot hay bale. “People plan their vacations around this,” says Gaylen Potter, the contest’s superintendent. “I’ll see them in the stands year after year.”
Where: Sedalia, MO
OleCow Lick Contest, Montana State Fair
If the 2011 contest-winning block in this photo appears mysterious, you must not be from these parts. “All the fairgoers know what salt blocks are—we’re in Montana!” says Patty Howse, the contest’s superintendent. The heavy, often colorful bricks provide supplementary minerals to cattle and are ubiquitous in local fields and prairies. Participants enter salt blocks in one of two Ole Cow Lick contest categories: Nature Carved, blocks that cows have licked down to resemble weathered sculptures, or Hand Carved, blocks transformed into art by humans. It’s up to fairgoers to select the winners.
Where: Great Falls, MT
When: late July
RottenSneaker Contest, Utah State Fair
For the past decade, kids ages 8 to 13 have saved their stinkiest shoes for this annual event, sponsored by Odor Eaters. A panel of judges gives sneakers the ultimate sniff test and rates each part of the shoe, from tongue to toe, on a scale of 5 (“Bad”) to 1 (“Really Horrendous”); lowest score wins. The victor then travels to Montpelier, VT, home of the annual National Rotten Sneaker contest, where his stinker goes sole-to-sole against winners from other regional competitions. In the past 10 years, roughly five Utah winners have been crowned grand champions.
Where: Salt Lake City, UT
Moo-la-palooza MooingContest, Wisconsin State Fair
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so maybe it’s only natural that residents of the Dairy State honor their cattle by emulating them. Seventy-five entrants, ages five and older, step up to a microphone and let loose two moos. They’re judged on realism, style, and originality, and rack up bonus points for humor and costumes. Participants have been known to hone their bellows; one past winner practiced while walking past cattle fields every day on his way to school. The best moo-er receives $1,000 cash, a cow-print coat—with a tail, of course, the Golden Cowbell trophy, and a year’s worth of sandwiches from Cousins Subs, the local company that sponsors the contest.
Where: West Allis, WI
When: early August
UglyLamp Contest, Kentucky State Fair
There’s no need to banish that tacky fringed lamp to the attic or garage. It just might be the big winner at this long-running showdown. Sponsored by Lynn’s Paradise Café, a quirky Louisville institution, the Ugly Lamp Contest draws approximately 100 entries a year in three categories: Born Ugly, Made Ugly, and Gam Glam (leg lamps, in conjunction with the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville’s production of A Christmas Story). A team of six bachelors does the judging—“because they know ugly,” says Patty Schnatter, CIO/COO of Lynn’s Paradise Café.
Where: Louisville, KY
Redneck RelayRace, North Dakota State Fair
You might be a redneck if...you’re already planning to participate in 2012’s inaugural relay race. This multipart competition requires teams to “pan for gold” by eating through a mountain of whipped cream (no utensils!) to find three coins; toss four corn ears into a bucket; run a designated distance while balancing eggs on a spoon; “shear a sheep” by shaving a balloon; transfer “moonshine” (water) from mason jars to an olive container; and then “carry a greased pig” (a Crisco-covered watermelon) to the finish line. Jeff Foxworthy would be proud.
Where: Minot, ND
Mother-DaughterLook-Alike Contest, Mississippi State Fair
For some women, turning into Mom is their worst nightmare. But that would be a huge advantage for these participants. The idea, borrowed from the Iowa State Fair, is simple: teams take the stage, their twinlike looks enhanced by matching outfits and hairstyles. “It’s really surprising how much so many of them look alike!” says Billy Orr, executive director of the Mississippi State Fair.
Where: Jackson, MS
When: early October
OuthouseRaces, Iowa State Fair
This wildly popular contest takes potty humor to a new level. Teams of four build outhouses and get decked out in their finest goggles and boots. They race 200 feet down a straightaway to a toilet where the “driver” cleans a chocolate smear sans hands (i.e., with his rear). After that, he digs through a cattle trough to find a corncob, changes a roll of toilet paper, jumps back into the outhouse, and is pushed back to the finish line. And the reward? The Golden Throne, a toilet seat inscribed, “We’re #1 in the #2 Business.” Second- and third-place teams win silver and bronze plungers.
Where: Des Moines, IA
HayBale Decorating Contest, Nebraska State Fair
Nope, that’s not really a bus. In this competition, local businesses and community groups paint, paper, and otherwise embellish giant hay bundles to resemble animals, Ferris wheels, birthday cakes, and other objects. The dressed-up bales are displayed throughout Grand Island and the fairgrounds.
When: late August
Where: Grand Island, NE
MilkMustache Contest, Oregon State Fair
What kid doesn’t like to make milk mustaches? Once a year, Oregon’s children get the perfect excuse to drink up and create big, messy ones—without fear that Mom will swoop in to wipe them away. (She’ll be too busy taking pictures, along with the rest of the crowd.) The biggest, most complete mustache wins.
Where: Salem, OR
When: late August