Around 1897, the fight for the Missouri State Fair began. The decision to have one wasn't so hard, but the struggle over which Missouri town would host the event brought out the money, and the politicians. A delegation toured several mid Missouri towns, (Sedalia, Chillicothe, Moberly) and settled on the one with the most land donated for the project, Sedalia. On 150 acres, the construction began. Rail lines and street cars needed access. Livestock housing and show barns popped op quickly. The "best" mile and a half track in the state was built for bicycle and carriage racing. In mere months the fairgrounds (previously prairie) became a showplace for Missouri's Ag efforts. Folks tied prize livestock to the backs of wagons or loaded them on trains and headed to Sedalia for some neighborly competition.
Things have changed quite a bit, but folks are still gathering for the friendly rivalry. Wagons and trains have been replaced with pickups and aluminum trailers with living quarters. A trip that could have taken a week in 1901 can now be accomplished in a few hours from anywhere in the state. Probably the biggest and most overlooked change is in the animals competing for prizes.
Livestock today can be quite different from their predecessors. Most are sleek and trim. Low-fat is in and it is reflected by the animals shown at the fair. You have probably heard of a "feeder" pig, but no one uses the term "fat" hog anymore. Cattle are taller and leaner these days. In 1901 the desire for low slung cattle often had owners using the trick of photographing them in a pile of straw or sawdust to make them appear even shorter. We know healthier eating has caused breeders to aim for leaner cuts of meat, but why was a fat hog or calf so prized a century ago? For the fat of course!
Rendered tallow or lard was in high demand back in the "good old" days. Soaps and shaving creams were made from it. Steam engines needed it for lubrication. Tallow candles lit the way to the wood stove where lard was used to cook the morning meal. A quick buff with some beef tallow, and shoes were shiny and ready to head to town. Steel production, rifle making, salves and medicines, the stuff was everywhere! Before you start thinking this was back in the dark ages, it is still used in soaps, and up until 1990 was the favorite fry cooking choice at McDonald's restaurants. As healthier options were employed, the breeders began modernizing herds into the production animals we see today.
It was quite possible for the fattest hog to take first place at a fair around the turn of the century. Today the focus in on uniformity. I encourage you to take a look around the livestock barns at the fair. When the consumer demands a product, American farmers respond. The animals you see are the results of that demand. Go support your county and state fairs. Maybe a little more importantly, support the farmers and growers who put their best efforts out there for you to enjoy.