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.