Thornton Farmstead: Home of the Iowa State Fair

I’ve never attended the Iowa State Fair. I gain weight just reading the 2019 Food On A Stick menu! But I did visit the fairgrounds a number of years ago on a genealogy research trip with my dad. Why? Because the land formerly belonged to my 2nd great-grandfather, Calvin Thornton. Prior to that, it belonged to his pioneer father-in-law, John Harris, who left it to his daughter, Araminta. (So, it was really hers…and, well, who knows who it “belonged” to before they came to settle in the area, right? But I digress…)

Who knew that the Iowa State Fair was held each year on property formerly owned by my ancestors? Click To Tweet

History of the Fairgrounds

Calvin Thornton (1830-1908) was also featured in this blog post about family resemblances and this one about Thornton history lost and found.)

According to Wikipedia, the Iowa State Fair is held annually in Des Moines for 11 days each August. It began in 1854, and has been held on the Iowa State Fairgrounds since 1886. With over a million visitors it is one of the largest and best known state fairs in the United States.

Here’s my favorite part:

In 1886 the fairgrounds were moved to the east side of town on University Avenue. The property had previously been the Calvin Thornton Farmstead. The original house and barn are still on the fairground’s property. Other structures from the farm survived into the late 1940s when they were torn down.

Calvin sold the property and bought a farm in what is now the heart of Pasadena, California, where I worked at the telephone company for many years before I ever learned of my roots there. (My story)

Wikipedia is sadly out of date, though, in that the house was actually torn down in 2012. I learned this from a genealogy cousin I met on Ancestry named Kent Carlson. In 2011 he mounted a valiant, but unsuccessful, campaign (complete with Facebook page) to save the old homestead. I was sad to hear it, of course, but I felt even worse for Kent, whose impassioned argument for saving the house (including quite a bit of Thornton and Harris history) can be found here.

Click to enlarge.

This drawing is from the 1875 Andreas Atlas. The caption reads: Farm Residence of Calvin Thornton, and Des Moines in the Distance. Sec. 6, Grant ??, Polk Co, Iowa. I was so intrigued by it that I Googled the 1875 Andreas Atlas to see which other area properties were deemed illustration-worthy. (Update: I see in the enlarged image that Grant ?? = Grant Tp = Grant Township.)

The House Then and Now

The original Harris-Thornton House. Built about 1850. Torn down in 2012. Wonder who that is standing in the doorway?



The house was remodeled several times over the years. In 1950 they literally chopped off the second story, because it was too hard to heat. Now, where have I heard that before, about a house being hard to heat? (The Gangster Hideout.)






This is what the same house looked like when I was there in 2002.

As Kent Carlson wrote, “Today there is little evidence of the original fabulous Carpenter Gothic architecture.”

So, maybe not such a tragedy it was torn down? I’m thinking there were too many remodels to sustain interest in making it a Historic Place.





Grandfather’s Barn

The original (refurbished) barn, with the (now torn down) house in the background, in 2002.

But the barn is still standing!

Grandfather’s Barn is currently used as the home of The Iowa State Fair Wine Experience .

(Yes, it bugs me that, although they call it “Grandfather’s Barn”, what it actually says ON the barn is Grandfathers-no-apostrophe FARM.)





Click to enlarge

Here’s the 2019 Iowa State Fair map showing the location of Grandfather’s Barn. Note the fine print says Vermeer’s Grandfather’s Barn. I guess (according to this article) if the manufacturing company Vermeer spent $100K to renovate the barn, they get to put their name on it.



Are your ancestors associated with any landmarks or institutions?

Have you visited them? Share with us in the comments below!

Have you got a story to tell? Would you like some help telling it?

Copyright 2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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  1. Linda Samuels on August 13, 2019 at 8:05 am

    What a rich family history you have! And how cool is it that your family used to own the land that the famous Iowa State Fair is on.

    I’m not sure if I knew that your family roots were in Iowa. It turns out we have a connection. My dad, while not born in Iowa, grew up there- in Davenport. We didn’t have a lot of contact with that side of his family. We spent more time with my mother’s family. But when I was about 11 years old, my dad took me on a trip to Davenport to meet some of the relatives and check out his old stomping grounds. It was the first time I saw a field of corn and insisted on picking some to bring home for my mom to cook. Turns out it was horse corn (not so tasty.) My dad knew this but didn’t want to ruin my enthusiasm.

    The Davenport side of the family (his maternal side) were in the scrap metal business. Interesting that I have come from a long line of recycling/repurposers. Family threads.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 13, 2019 at 8:18 am

      So far I’ve written a bit about Indiana and New Mexico. Now Iowa. But there’s also Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Illinois, California….
      Cute story about the corn! Thanks for sharing it! And about the scrap metal being like recycling/repurposing. Yes…family threads…

  2. Andi Willis on August 14, 2019 at 5:51 am

    Fascinating! I visited Des Moines several years ago for the first time and it’s such a beautiful part of the country. (I was a bit surprised, honestly). Your ancestor’s made a good choice, but I bet the winters were nicer in California. I wonder how many other families have similar stories that have been lost to history.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 14, 2019 at 7:57 am

      I’ve got lots of stories (and places and things) that would have been lost to history — lost to my branch of the family, at any rate — had I not caught the genealogy bug. For one thing, I had NO IDEA how far back my family goes back in this country — 1600’s in several branches so far. Only a few have I traced back to other countries, and none of them recently.

  3. Janet Barclay on August 15, 2019 at 4:29 am

    What an exciting discovery! I’m not expecting to learn anything nearly as interesting about my family.

    Did you know that you can create an account on Wikipedia and add information to pages? That’s what the site is all about actually!

    • Hazel Thornton on August 16, 2019 at 12:31 pm

      Well, I wasn’t expecting any of the interesting things I’ve learned about my family, either! The Gangster Hideout I’d heard about but wasn’t sure how true it was. The Quakers (about which I haven’t written much about here in my blog yet) were a complete surprise (and more interesting than they sound). The Iowa State Fairgrounds — not a clue. And I did know that I could edit Wikipedia, but needed reminding — thanks!

  4. Sherra on August 16, 2019 at 3:38 pm

    Hazel – I love reading your stories and this one in particular because of my own Midwest roots! I just spent the first week of August in the Quad Cities with two college friends. One lives near Moline and we spent two nights at really nice boutique hotel in Muscatine on the river.

    The state fairs hold really special memories for me and we contemplated stopping at the Indiana State Fair on our drive home. One of my cousins is a 3rd generation farmer still farming some of the land my Grandad owned.

    It is so fun to know that your family’s family’s farm is part of the story of the Iowa State Fair!

    I won’t date myself to say who were the headline acts at the fairs we went to listen to but my country music roots run deep. 😉

    • Hazel Thornton on August 19, 2019 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks for chiming in, Sherra. I’m glad to know you enjoy my stories! Good for your cousin, carrying on the family farming tradition. Speaking of fun, I know you saw the photos that Lori Vande Krol posted on Facebook of Grandfather’s Barn. I’d never seen the inside before — so cool!

  5. Pat Meiners on February 17, 2022 at 9:44 pm

    Did you know that so many DM people went to the Pasadena area from about 1890-1910 to raise fruit that a railroad station was name Des Moines Station? It was from the LaHabra District.

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