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
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Wikipedia is sadly out of date, though, in that the house was actually torn down in 2012.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.
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 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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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Copyright 2019 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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