By RITA PEARSON, AP
MOLINE, Ill. – With one well-worn, battered blue suitcase, James Kopel of Moline spent the past 11 years attending every state fair in the United States.
By car and airplane, he figures he traveled about 80,000 miles — about half by air — and spent up to $40,000 to attend the official state fair in 41 states and the unofficial, but main event, in 11 others.
Wearing his John Deere cap and walking shoes, and carrying a map of the fairgrounds, the affable, retired Black Hawk College professor traversed the fairgrounds, sampling the food and viewing the livestock shows, 4-H exhibits and commercial tents at each one.
To say Kopel is an expert on state fairs is an understatement. He created a state fair evaluation form on his laptop computer, rating each state fair on 90 variables, including quality and affordability of food, cleanliness and accessibility of fairgrounds and exhibits, courteous office staff, variety of entertainment and educational experience.
Kopel collected volumes of data and memorabilia along the way, and hopes to write a book on his findings to guide others who love state fairs. Throughout his travels, the Moline School Board member did not miss any of the school board’s twice-monthly meetings.
Kopel, 68, relishes the big question of why he made visiting state fairs in all 50 states his personal mission.
The answer is: because he could. He had the time and the inclination.
Growing up on a farm near Marshalltown, Iowa, Kopel raised and showed Chester White swine at his first Iowa state fair at age 10 in Des Moines. He’s loved state fairs ever since, even as they’ve grown more commercial.
There’s an old saying, he says, that you can take the kid off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the kid. “That’s me.”
He and his wife, Harlene, traveled to state fairs in their RV after retiring, and visited 10 before her death. “After she died, it became an obsession, partly to honor her,” he said.
Kopel visited the remaining 40 by airplane and rental car, with a global positioning system to guide him from airport to hotel to fairgrounds and back again.
His best experience was at the Fryeburg Fair in Maine, which drew exhibitors from Maine and New Hampshire. “It was one of the cutest state fairs you’ve ever seen.” he said.
He said he felt like he had stepped back in time the moment he arrived at the fairgrounds. The wood grandstand was decked in red, white and blue bunting and a harness horse race was the daily feature. Each barn was small but immaculate with six barns devoted to oxen.
He felt he should have dressed in a straw hat, bow tie, cuffed long sleeves and suspenders. There were antique equipment displays and an antique family kitchen where the women wore period dress and served fresh-baked apple crisp.
“They put on a really nice show,” he said.
But there is no better state fair than the Iowa State Fair, one of the oldest, largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the United States, Kopel said. It has well-placed benches, shady trees and beautiful landscaping throughout the fairgrounds, he said, adding that its buildings attract exhibits year-round, a growing trend among state fairs.
Kopel completed his mission Oct. 6 in the state of Washington, after visiting his 11th state fair this year.
Next year, he plans to take his fair show international to Sydney, Australia, in April and by rail across Canada in the summer, stopping at every province’s main fair. His blue bag will go with him.