Judging cakes in the Women’s Building at the Fair is the judge, Mrs. Lloyd Cutler of Crown Point and her assistant Mrs. Lawrence Foster of Crawfordsville, superintendent of the Culinary Department in September 1931. Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Judging cakes in the Women’s Building at the Fair is the judge, Mrs. Lloyd Cutler of Crown Point and her assistant Mrs. Lawrence Foster of Crawfordsville, superintendent of the Culinary Department in September 1931. Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Located off of 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway, the Indiana State Fairgrounds is a large complex of buildings that hosts events throughout the year. Although people use the fairgrounds year-round, its central function remains the Indiana State Fair, an annual celebration and exposition of the state’s cultural and agricultural prowess. During the rest of the year, the fairgrounds provide a location for educational, sporting, and entertainment events.

Concerned about the state of agriculture in Indiana, the General Assembly created the State Board of Agriculture in February 1851. The board first met on May 27, 1851 with Governor Joseph Wright as president and appointed a committee to consider holding a state agricultural fair in the fall; they later recommended waiting until fall 1852.

Conceived as a venue for the exchange of ideas and to stimulate improved agricultural productivity, the first Indiana State Fair ran October 20-22, 1852 at present-day Military Park in Indianapolis. An estimated 30,000 people paid 20 cents each to see 1,365 exhibit entries featuring an array of agricultural products and machinery. From the beginning, the fair focused on improved agriculture and stock production, highlighted the mechanical arts as well as farm technology, and offered plowing contests, horse pulls, and harness racing. A Women’s Department sponsored exhibitions and competitions in sewing, needlework, cooking and baking, and other domestic arts.

During its early years, the fair was held in different communities—Lafayette (1853), Madison (1854), Indianapolis (1855-1858), and New Albany (1859). In 1860, the State Board of Agriculture, with the financial assistance of Indianapolis-area railroads, bought approximately 30 acres called Otis Grove (bounded by today’s 19th, Talbott, and 22nd streets as well as Central Avenue) as a suitable permanent location for the fair. However, a year after opening the new site, the board sought other space to accommodate the fair as the outbreak of the Civil War rendered the Otis Grove grounds more valuable for other purposes. These fairgrounds, renamed Camp Morton, were used by Indiana troops, housed Confederate prisoners of war, and served as the site for a Union hospital.

The State Fair returned to Military Park for the years 1862-1864; Fort Wayne and Terre Haute hosted the exhibition in 1865 and 1867, respectively. In 1868, the State Fair returned to its rebuilt Camp Morton location which, by 1872, included a two-story brick Exposition Building for the 30-day fair and exposition. During these years, however, the state board expressed increasing concern over the quality and reputability of side shows, vendors, and auctioneer stands, which resulted in the licensing of exhibitors. In 1870, the board attempted to bar “all side shows, auction stands, fat women, white Negroes, snake shows, and all classes of similar exhibitions,” demonstrating the rampant discrimination at play in side show and exhibitor culture that the state fair would grapple with for years to come.

With Indianapolis’ continued northward growth, the Board of Agriculture eventually found that it needed even more space for the annual fair. In November 1891, the board sold its Camp Morton grounds for $275,100 to three Indianapolis businessmen and purchased the Jay G. Voss farm, located two miles northeast of the Camp Morton grounds at present-day East 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway. In February 1892, the board hired the J. F. Alexander and Son architectural firm to supervise construction of the fair’s facilities on the site’s 214 acres. The new fairgrounds, containing 72 buildings, a 6,000- seat grandstand, and a mile race track, officially opened on September 19, 1892. Animal barns of vernacular architecture with monitors (raised center sections of the gable roof) were quickly erected to provide shelter for mules, horses, swine, and cows. By 1908, a coliseum with 12,000 seats had been built at the new location.


One feature in the Fair’s past is the Better Babies Contest, begun in 1920 under the auspices of encouraging improved hygiene and education for young children by taking baby measurements in an effort to find the state’s most perfect baby; by the early 1930s, it had been deemed a regular health exhibit. In reality, the contest was an influence of the wider eugenics movement which swept the nation over the course of the late 17th century and early 18th century and promoted the ideals of white supremacy as well as the elimination of child rearing by those deemed socially and intellectually unfit. The State Fair’s last Better Babies competition was hosted in 1932, and the site of the competitions has since been remodeled into Hook’s Drug Store.

Musical entertainment has always been a significant part of the annual fair. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, military bands, including John Philip Sousa’s, made numerous appearances. In recent decades, the fairgrounds hosted popular entertainers and musicians of the day, including the Beatles (September 3, 1964). It continues to offer a full schedule of popular and country-western performers.

The agriculture board guided fair operations until 1925 when the Indiana General Assembly created the Indiana State Fair Board. A new fair board, established in 1947, included representatives elected from 11 agricultural districts and 5 members appointed by the governor. To address the financial problems and deteriorating facilities at the fairgrounds in the 1980s, the legislature acted on a December 1989, recommendation from the Indiana State Fair Advisory Commission. It abolished the old fair board (1990) and created the Indiana State Fair Commission to operate the fairgrounds and an Indiana State Fair Committee (later renamed the Indiana State Fair Board) to run the annual State Fair.

Unfortunately, the state fairgrounds’ history has not been without its share of tragedies. On Halloween night in 1963, 74 people died and at least 400 more were injured when a gas explosion happened at the coliseum while the site was hosting a holiday ice show. More recently, a temporary stage structure collapsed due to strong wind gusts from an oncoming storm prior to the performance of popular country music group Sugarland on August 13, 2011. Seven people died from the collapse and 58 were injured.

The sixth oldest state fair in the nation and winner of the 1952 “Finest Agricultural Fair in the Nation” trophy, the Indiana State Fair has been an important asset to the state and the community. By 1992, the fair attracted 722,218 people, the highest attendance on record. A 1990-1991 economic impact study of the fairgrounds’ contribution to Indianapolis even showed over $609 million in total direct and indirect sales and a total fairgrounds visitation in excess of 5 million. By the late 2010s, the state fair had continued to show signs of growth. Over 17 days of operation in 2019, the event brought in 879,000 guests.