Blue Ribbon Blog

Welcome to the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation’s blog!

We are a non-profit organization with a mission to raise funds for the renovation and preservation of the historic Iowa State Fairgrounds. Since our inception in 1993, the Foundation has raised more than $160 million through individual contributions, state appropriations, in-kind services, and corporate, federal and state grants.

Please follow our blog to learn more about our organization.

Holiday Gift Idea

December 5, 2019
drewnorton's picture

Are you making a list and checking it twice? The Blue Ribbon Foundation has unique and creative ways to give the person on your Christmas list the perfect gift.  Whether you want an Iowa State Fair keepsake or to leave a lasting legacy. There are several ways to support the Foundation’s goal of raising funds to help preserve and improve the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

State Fair Store
The Blue Ribbon Foundation manages the merchandise sold in the State Fair Store. Apparel, books, charms, collectibles, hats, and all sorts of fun Iowa State Fair souvenirs.

Giving Programs
What about the person on your list that has everything? The Foundation’s various giving programs are the perfect way for the Fair lover in your life to have their name on a piece of the Fairgrounds. Check out the different options:

  • Block by Block – Individual donor wall plaques create a quilt inside the Richard O. Jacobson Exhibition Center to match the building’s exterior quilt blocks representing counties across Iowa.
  • Building for the Future – A granite paver or engraved seat plaque at the Richard O. Jacobson Exhibition Center.
  • Buy a Brick – The most popular giving program, personalized engraved bricks placed in 15 different locations on the Fairgrounds.
  • Courtyard of Celebration – Located on the east side of the Patty & Jim Cownie Cultural Center, these pavers celebrate all things artistic on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
  • Growing Our Future – The newest giving program, individual donor plaques add a beautiful display in the heart of the Fairgrounds along Ruan Plaza.
  • Legacy Terrace – Tree plaques and granite pavers commemorate State Fair fans outside the Grandstand.
  • Shine On – Add a plaque to the base of a lamp post. There are several new lamp posts along Jacobson Plaza.
  • Trees for the Fair – With a personalized nameplate on a plaque in the Robert G. Horner and Sheri Avis Horner Service Center or a plaque at the base of a tree, the inscription possibilities are endless.

Honor and Memorial Gifts
This holiday season, do you want to honor a special person in your life or a special event? Has a loved one recently passed away? Tribute gifts can be made in honor of a friend, to commemorate an important event, or made in memory of loved ones. Make a Memorial or Honor Gift to the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation and celebrate the special Fairgoer in your life.

Thank you for joining the Blue Ribbon Foundation in preserving Iowa State Fair traditions by helping improve the beauty of the historic Iowa State Fairgrounds. Have a wonderful holiday season.



Together Accomplishing Goals

December 3, 2019
drewnorton's picture

Come join our T. A. G. Team! This new group of 100 donors has been created to bring like-minded, Fair-loving individuals together to make the Iowa State Fairgrounds an even better place. It’s a simple concept; Together we can Accomplish our Goals.

The T.A.G. Team is composed of 100 donors who want to make an immediate, positive and direct impact on our historic Fairgrounds by tackling a smaller renovation project. The 2020 improvement goal is to remodel the Livestock Pavilion’s two restrooms.

The Livestock Pavilion was constructed in 1902. The first masonry building on the Fairgrounds, the Pavilion was originally ventilated by a complex fan system that forced in fresh, warm air and drew out foul air at the same time.

One hundred and one years later, renovations to the dilapidated building were completed in time for the 2003 Iowa State Fair thanks to an $800,000 donation by Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino. In 2007, Bob and Marilyn Schlutz gave a $125,000 to add air-conditioning to the building. During the Fair, the Pavilion hosts livestock judging, horse shows, and the Governor’s Charity Steer Auction.

The Blue Ribbon Foundation has already secured a $30,000 grant from Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino to launch the project. We are asking you to be one of our T.A.G. Team members to make the project happen.

For a $250 donation, only 100 donors will be accepted into this unique group. Your name will be listed as a key player in the renovation project and you will receive a commemorative pin to denote your membership in the 2020 T.A.G. Team.

We welcome your participation so Together we can Accomplish our Goals. Donate now to join the Blue Ribbon Foundation as a member of the T.A.G. Team.




Spirit of Giving

November 25, 2019
drewnorton's picture

Last week the Iowa State Fair shared a special announcement. Joe Barksdale gifted the chocolate chip cookie business to the people of Iowa by entrusting the business to the Iowa State Fair. Barksdale’s cookies are a staple at the Iowa State Fair. Each year, thousands of families get in line to get their cup or bucket of warm, fresh chocolate chip cookies. Now that cookie tradition will continue for future generations to enjoy.

The Barksdale family has been doing business on the Fairgrounds since 1976 and baking cookies since 1993. They are no strangers to supporting the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation. Barksdale’s Concession first gave a donation to the Foundation in 1993 and they have participated in the Corndog Kickoff since 2002.

The Barksdale family was featured in the 2007 Foundation Newsletter Donor Profile. Joe said it best: “My favorite thing about the Iowa State Fair is the Fairgrounds itself.  It really is a park with all the trees and turn of the century buildings. There is no other Fairgrounds like it in the country.”

Thank you Barksdale’s for being one of the first Foundation donors and continuing to support the Foundation’s mission to renovate and improve the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

This gift and the upcoming holiday got me thinking. Starting with Thanksgivings through the end of the year, the “Spirit of Giving” is everywhere. The feeling of wanting to help people and give back can be felt around every corner. That feeling of being thankful and celebrating the year’s blessings is contagious. The Blue Ribbon Foundation is so thankful for our supporters.

Thank you to our donors.  From large to small, all donations are important to the Foundation. Donors have a reason for giving to the Blue Ribbon Foundation that is unique and special to them. We are honored that they choose to support our mission.

Thank you to the volunteers that give countless hours of their time to our organization throughout the entire year. Our volunteers are always willing to tackle any project with a smile on their face. These volunteers keep coming back year after year and we are continually thankful for each of them.

Thank you to the interns that join our staff each summer. These college students go above and beyond to help accomplish our goals. Their hard work does not go unnoticed and they are each deserving of a huge thank you!

Thank you to the other Blue Ribbon Foundation staff members and the entire State Fair staff for stepping up and assisting with whatever is needed to make our organization run smoothly.

In the spirit of giving, the Blue Ribbon Foundation says THANK YOU for giving to our organization this holiday season and supporting our work every day of the year.


Cheers to Barksdale's Concessions and years of yummy cookies at the Corndog Kickoff:



November 19, 2019
drewnorton's picture

The Blue Ribbon Foundation staff met last week to brainstorm ideas for the 2020 Corndog Kickoff theme. Having a new theme each year allows the Foundation to highlight a special aspect of the Iowa State Fair.

The Corndog Kickoff is our largest fundraising event. When planning, it helps me to break down the event into categories - auction, concessionaires, patrons, etc. Something simple that adds some fun to the night is the centerpiece decorations. As we plan for 2020, let’s look back at the Corndog Kickoff themes and decorations since I started.

2014: “Rock’n Round the Grounds” highlighted the music across the Fairgrounds from the Grandstand, free stage entertainment and everything in between. The miniature custom Iowa State Fair guitar paired with drumsticks and a classic record fit the theme perfectly.


2015: “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” compared the great Iowa State Fair to the holiday season. With wrapped presents and garland trees, we celebrated Christmas in July! Volunteers worked hard shaping wire hangers to form those trees.


2016: “Locally Grown” featured the impressive growing skills on display in the Agriculture Building during the Fair. With vegetables, crops and flowers – the time and talent Iowans dedicate to these plants is top notch and worthy of a blue ribbon. The straw bales looked adorable on the tables but were so messy.


2017: “What A Ride”. Who doesn’t love a classic Fair carnival game? From knocking down baseballs, ring tossing, duck pulling and ping-pong throwing, the Foundation highlighted the Iowa State Fair’s new Thrill Parks with the theme. We also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Foundation as an organization. 


2018: “All Roads Lead to the Iowa State Fair”. People from across the state and across the country travel to Iowa each August to experience the State Fair! With street signs, luggage and license plates - the Foundation created the ultimate summer road trip. Everyone knows the Iowa State Fair is a destination and perfect family vacation.


2019: “Let the Competition Begin” was all about the contests held during the Fair and winning a ribbon. We highlighted horseshoe pitching, marvelous hats, bubble gum blowing, grape stomping, chess, checkers and BINGO. The Iowa State Fair celebrates the competitive spirit in all of us.


It is easy to get caught up in the little details when planning the Corndog Kickoff. When I am stressed or overwhelmed, I remember how fortunate the Blue Ribbon Foundation is to have supporters that love the Iowa State Fair. These people are volunteers, patrons, auction donors, concessionaires, and auction item buyers. They come to the Corndog Kickoff each year to support our mission and future projects that will continue to improve the Fairgrounds. (I have a feeling they would show up with or without the decorations!)

Save the date for the 2020 Corndog Kickoff – Saturday, July 11. The theme is going to be one of my favorites!

Job Opening

November 12, 2019
drewnorton's picture

The Blue Ribbon Foundation wants to hire four interns to join our staff in 2020. The internship application deadline is November 30. What exactly does an intern do? Each summer, a team of college students plan, prepare and execute specific tasks and projects.  The Blue Ribbon Foundation depends on each of them to help our organization succeed.

List of Intern Projects:
• Iowan of the Day: promote program, help select winners, write press releases and speeches
• Recruit and schedule 600+ volunteers for the Corndog Kickoff and Iowa State Fair
• Manage canvas painting class, BINGO, and woodcarver’s auction
• Organize concert tickets and sponsorship credentials
• Plan Legislative Day lunch, 1854 Society brunch and other donor hospitality events
• Corndog Kickoff: coordinate live and silent auctions, advertise Dining Delights 
• Giving Programs: help Fairgoers with donations, lay engraved bricks
• Create advertisements, flyers, and media kits
• Merchandise: design new items, fulfill merchandise orders, and manage booths during the Fair
• Plan (and maybe participate in) Outhouse Races
• Organize wholesale bottled water sales
• Create social media posts, newsletter articles, E-News messages and blog content
• Bring Drew coffee every morning (Just Kidding!)

This list is just the tip of the iceberg! The Blue Ribbon Foundations loves when interns bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to our organization. We want each intern to gain valuable experience while at the same time supporting the Foundation’s mission to keep improving the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

If you know a hard-working college student that loves the Iowa State Fair, encourage them to apply. If you are up for a challenging but rewarding summer, join us!

Please email a cover letter, resume, three references and two writing samples by November 30. Design samples are encouraged, but not mandatory. All applicants will be required to complete a short writing and skills assessment before being offered the position. Read more on our website.


Walk Down “Iowan of the Day” Memory Lane

November 4, 2019
drewnorton's picture

The Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation created the Iowan of the Day program in 1997. The Foundation wanted to honor individuals that showed true Iowa spirit through continued volunteer work and community activities. We were looking for people who made exceptional contributions in their communities and across the state. 

The program was introduced in the 1997 summer newsletter. “We are excited about this new program because it honors Iowans for many of the same virtues that the State Fair is recognized for,” said John Putney, former Blue Ribbon Foundation Executive Director.


The first Iowan recognized on the first Thursday of the 1997 Iowa State Fair was Charlie Becker from Monticello. Charlie’s family enjoyed using the official Iowan of the Day golf cart throughout his special day.


Since that very first presentation on the Anne and Bill Riley stage, 230 Iowans have been given the honor of Iowan of the Day at the State Fair. These outstanding volunteers have represented 139 different towns from across the state. Do you see your hometown listed?

Ackworth, Albia, Alden, Algona, Allison, Ames, Anita, Ankeny, Armstrong, Arnolds Park, Bedford, Bettendorf, Bloomfield, Boone, Breda, Buckeye, Camanche, Carlisle, Carroll, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Centerville, Chariton, Clarence, Clarion, Clarksville, Clinton, Colo, Coon Rapids, Coralville, Correctionville, Corydon, Council Bluffs, Creston, Dakota City, Dallas Center, Danville, Decorah, Delhi, Denison, Denver, Des Moines, DeWitt, Diagonal, Dubuque, Earlham, Eldora, Ellston, Ellsworth, Estherville, Exline, Fairbank, Fairfield, Floyd, Fonda, George, Gladbrook, Glenwood, Grand Junction, Grand Mound, Grandview, Greene, Greenfield, Grimes, Grinnell, Grundy Center, Guthrie Center, Hampton, Hartley, Indianola, Iowa City, Iowa Falls, Jefferson, Johnston, Knoxville, Lakota, Lamoni, LeMars, Leon, Letts, Lewis, Lincoln, Low Moor, Macedonia, Manning, Marshalltown, Mason City Mechanicsville, Mindon, Mitchellville, Mondamin, Monticello, Murray, Neola, Nevada, New Hampton, New London, North English, Odebolt, Oelwein, Onawa, Osage, Osceola, Panama, Pella, Perry, Plainfield, Red Oak, Runnells, Sac City, Schaller, Schleswig, Sheldon, Shenandoah, Sibley, Sidney, Sioux Center, Sioux City, Slater, Solon, State Center, Storm Lake, Stratford, Sumner, Swedesburg, Terril, Treynor, Urbandale, Van Meter, Wall Lake, Wapello, Waterloo, Waukee, Waukon, Waverly, Wellman, West Des Moines, Westside and Winterset

These men and women of all ages personify the qualities and characteristic associated with Iowa – integrity, dependability, sense of community and a strong worth ethic. From the very beginning Cookies Food Products and Des Moines Marriott, have supported the Iowan of the Day program as sponsors. Thank you.

The Iowan of the Day nomination applications aren’t due until July 1 of each year. This fall and winter, the Blue Ribbon Foundation encourages you to think about the members of your community that go above and beyond to make your hometown a better place to live. Consider nominating them for the award.

A few previous winners:



Picture Perfect

October 28, 2019
drewnorton's picture

I recently updated the picture frames in my office. I change these photos of my family and friends out once a year. I usually have one photo from the most recent Christmas and one photo from some adventure I took within the year. I also keep a few photos on the front of my filing cabinet. These photos are Iowa State Fair related and make me smile throughout the workday.


From left to right:

2011 Corndog Kickoff: This photo was from the very first Corndog Kickoff I ever attended as a summer intern. The theme was “There’s Nothing Butter” and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Butter Cow. That night I was in charge of helping with the live and silent auction. It was the first time I was part of such a large fundraising event. (Here is the plug to apply to be a 2020 summer intern with the Blue Ribbon Foundation and put your skills to the test planning the Corndog Kickoff.) 

2016 Corndog Kickoff: This picture was taken as the 2016 Corndog Kickoff wrapped up. As the current Communications Manager, I sat with three women that had previous held the same position at the Foundation. Each had planned the Corndog Kickoff themselves and came back to volunteer at the event. I think this speaks very highly of our organization. Just like the Iowa State Fair has a special connection for so many people – so does the Blue Ribbon Foundation.

Steer-N-Stein’s Beer Sign: Who doesn’t want to pose by the 27-degree beer sign when it’s your 27th birthday?

2017 Iowa State Fair: The ladies of the Blue Ribbon Foundation office paused for a quick photo during the 2017 Iowa State Fair. This was Meg Courter’s (Sponsorship Director) first Fair. It takes all staff and volunteers working together to pull off the annual 11-day event.

2018 Iowa State Fair: I was able to take a photo with the 2018 Iowa State Fair Queen, Hailey Swan. Hailey is from my hometown of Bloomfield in Davis County. That same year, the winner of the Giant Pumpkin contest was also from Davis County. Nothing brings out your “Hometown Pride” than seeing your county represented at the State Fair level.

2019 Iowa State Fair: One of the highlights of my State Fair career is taking a selfie with Noah Cappe while he was filming an episode of Carnival Eats during the Fair. Can’t wait to watch the Iowa State Fair featured in this show. (He was just as friendly in person as he seems on television!)

Also hanging out on the cabinet are magnets I have collected from each Fair as a full time staff member. Some days it seems like I just started with the Foundaiton but a number of things have changed in 6 years. Major renovations have been made to the Cultural Center, Youth Inn, and now the 4-H Building. The creation of the MidAmerican Energy Stage, Ruan Plaza, two midway park areas, Jacobson Plaza, the Grandstand stage and seating expansion - plus two new Admission Gates.

Those are just the BIG projects – let’s not forget restroom updates, roof repairs, window replacements, electrical upgrades, road and sidewalk improvements. This doesn’t include the regular maintenance that happens every day to keep the buildings functioning properly.

I could fill every filing cabinet top to bottom with photos of the Fairgrounds improvements! If you enjoy any of these renovations or the countless others that have been completed since 1993 – join our fundraising efforts. Let’s make the Iowa State Fairgrounds picture perfect. 

Newsletter Comparison - Fall 2019, Fall 2009, Fall 1999

October 21, 2019
drewnorton's picture

There is no doubt the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation has grown over the years. Just look at the different programs highlighted in previous fall newsletters:

Merchandise & Water Sales:

  • 1999: $120,000
  • 2009: $310,000
  • 2019: $431,930

Woodcarver’s Auction:

  • 1999: $42,000
  • 2009: $33,405
  • 2019: $65,300

Number of Volunteers:

  • 1999: 164 Volunteers
  • 2009: 422 Volunteers
  • 2019: 600 Volunteers

Corndog Kickoff Benefit Auction and Fair Food Grazing Party:

  • 1999: $114,000 (Exciting package had backstage passes to meet Reba McEntire.)
  • 2009: $230,000 (Auction included round-trip airline tickets and passes to Disney World.)
  • 2019: $514,300 (Exciting item was a camping spot including the use of a Winnebago.)

Popular Merchandise Item:

  • 1999: John Deere 4010 tractor and Bean Pot Pottery Piece
  • 2009: Iowa State Fair watch and the 13th Edition of the Cookbook
  • 2019: Butter Cow Socks and two-sided Iowa State Fair Puzzle

Fall 1999 Newsletter Highlights: The new Hy-Vee Fun Forest was completed in time for the 1999 Iowa State Fair.  This park area with playground equipment is still utilized by children of all ages during the Iowa State Fair and throughout the year. The Cattle Barn renovation was near completion with new roof, cattle stalls, new offices and restrooms. The north and south annex were each expanded at this time.

During the 1999 Iowa State Fair, the Foundation participated in the Governor’s Charity Steer Show. The Donor Profile highlighted two special volunteers Betty Lou Smith and Jeanne Wheeler. Robin (Lage) Taylor joined the staff – we just celebrated her 20th anniversary!

Fall 2009 Newsletter Highlights:  Staff were preparing for the Fairgrounds 5K and promoting new giving programs in the Jacobson Exhibition Center. The Elwell Family Food Center opened its doors for the first time. Joy Eden was highlighted in the Donor Profile section. Joy volunteered at the Corndog Kickoff, sold water/merchandise at the Fair, helped at the payout table at the Woodcarver’s Auction and as a camper; she was the top name of the “Volunteer Stand-By List”.

Fall 2019 Newsletter Highlights: The 2019 Iowa State Fair was a huge success with the canvas painting class, BINGO and Woodcarver’s Auction.  Staff are planning the second annual Halfway to the Fair Happy Hour Fundraiser in February. Corteva Agriscience is highlighted in the Donor Profile. The company’s support of the 4-H Building renovation will help develop new classroom space in the building.

What traditions are still going strong? A few items are highlighted in each of the newsletters. From the very beginning, the Foundation has honored outstanding volunteers from across the state. Each newsletter highlights the Iowan of the Day winners. 

The Foundation is also still hiring interns to join our staff in the summer.  Over the years, the responsibilities have adjusted to fit the needed projects, but hardworking students can gain valuable experience to jump-start their careers after college.

Volunteers are essential for the Foundation operations. Even 20 years ago, these dedicated Fair-lovers gave their time and promoted our work to other Fairgoers.

Looking back at old newsletters, we are able to see how much our organization has grown since it started. I predict that the Blue Ribbon Foundation will only continue to grow in the next 10 and 20 years. I hope Fairgoers will support our mission and watch as we help make the Iowa State Fairgrounds even better.


Flashback to 2011

October 14, 2019
drewnorton's picture

It might seem early but the Blue Ribbon Foundation is already looking for college students to join our staff next summer as interns. The program has grown and adjusted to fit the needs of our organization over the years. I can’t help thinking back to the summer of 2011, the year I was the public relations intern.

The Foundation keeps documents, notes, ideas from the past – it was easy to find a blog post I wrote in June of 2011. It was titled “What I have learned so far”. The highlight of the blog - "People are truly passionate about the Iowa State Fair".


Whoa! Fast-forward 8 years and I have an even deeper appreciate for Iowans’ passion about THEIR State Fair. That summer was just the tip of the iceberg learning what it takes to run a successful nonprofit organization. I developed my communication, leadership and customer service skills. Things I continue to use daily in my job.

The Blue Ribbon Foundation internship program offers hands on experience. Each intern takes on projects that are essential for our organization to accomplish our goals. Our hope is that interns take the skills they already have and improve them while at the same time learning something new to help further their professional careers. Interns are able to interact with a variety of donors and volunteers. This networking is key. Not only does it establish giving relationships for the Blue Ribbon Foundation but allows the interns to meet professionals across the state.

Looking back, I remember being excited to be an intern with the Blue Ribbon Foundation but I had no idea it would open other opportunities and eventually lead to a full time job. As my role has reversed and I sit on the opposite side of the interview desk, I have a hard time containing my excitement as I meet new potential interns. I immediately want them to know what they are going to gain in a short period of time. The energy these students bring to our organization every year is contagious.

Please consider applying for an internship with the Blue Ribbon Foundation. I guarantee it will be a summer to remember. Applications are due November 30.


Making Progress

October 7, 2019
drewnorton's picture

During the 2019 Iowa State Fair, professional artists created a huge sand sculpture at the entrance of the Sandra Freeman Dowie Midway Plaza. The duo would work each day carving out the design, little by little until the entire project was complete. Seeing photos of the progress reminded me of taking photos as projects take place on the Fairgrounds.


The Blue Ribbon Foundation started in 1993 with the goal of raising $6 million in two years and $30 million in ten years. The entire state of Iowa stepped up to support the preservation of the historic Fairgrounds. This first goal was reached and surpassed! In 20 years, over $100 million was raised. To date, that total is $160 million.

The first project the Blue Ribbon Foundation supported was the creation of the Service Center. This first project showed Fairgoers that the Foundation would always do more than what was expected. 


Fast forward to present day. The 4-H Building renovation is underway. Six weeks into the project and changes are happening quickly. Some local Fair-lovers might drive around the Fairgrounds throughout the year to check on the development while others will see the finished product in August. We will keep you updated on the progress. 


The Blue Ribbon Foundation will continue to make progress in our goal of preserving and improving the Iowa State Fairgrounds. We invite you to join us. Donate today and know that your dollars are enhancing the grounds and buildings that make up the 445 acres of beloved agricultural heritage put on full display every August.