The Kansas State Fair is the place to go for many things you definitely need: Pronto Pups, carnival rides, Ginsu knives and face time with farm animals.
But experienced fairgoers know that it’s also the place to go for things you definitely don’t need: Yard sticks. Tape measures. Bumper stickers. Chip clips. Paper fans. Toothpick dispensers. Plastic cups. And more writing utensils than you could possibly use in your natural lifetime.
The fair, which opened on Friday at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, has all its usual attractions, including one of the most popular but least discussed.
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Most fair attendees know that if they want to put in the time, they can collect dozens and dozens of free items from booths wanting to promote their products, organizations, candidates and agendas. There are so many free items to be had, particularly in the Pride of Kansas and Meadowlark buildings, that you’d think you should bring along a bag to collect it all. But there’s really no need. Bags are one of the most plentiful giveaways on the fairgrounds.
We decided to spend opening day seeing just how many freebies we could collect at the fair, and we passed a good two hours walking around like plastic-crazed trick-or-treaters. By the time we were done, we’d filled four bags full of things that were mostly useless but impossible to resist.
Come on! THEY’RE FREE!!!
Our shoulders ached under the weight of our haul, and when we dramatically dumped it all onto a table in Cottonwood Court, people stared in dropped-jaw amazement. Several came closer to inspect our treasures, and many demanded to know, “Where did you get THAT?”
Vendors at the fair said they’ve learned that the secret to getting people to stop is to have something to giveaway. Real estate agent Daniel Hoyer from Wichita’s Brown & Hoyer group described a day that he put out a bunch of fliers advertising his services and had zero takers. The next day he attached a free chip clip to each flier.
“And I moved 500 of those suckers,” he said with a laugh.
His booth this year in the Pride of Kansas building is stocked with two different kinds of chip clips, and people who fill out an information form with their names and e-mail addresses have the chance to win a stuffed pig toy, too.
Many organizations get creative when choosing freebies to distribute. The Greensburg Chamber of Commerce is giving away balloons, wooden nickles and souvenir lucky pennies that have been collected from the bottom of its Big Well. Kansas Democrats are distributing stickers and calendars. Kansas Republicans are handing out koozies printed with an insult toward Democrats. Two different pro-life groups in the Meadowlark building are passing out tiny babies (one squishy rubber, one hard plastic) meant to demonstrate the size of a six-week-old fetus.
Some booths give away the same highly coveted items each year. People come in droves for the Kansas Propane Makers’ automatic toothpick dispensers and return year after year to reload, said the booth’s staff. The plastic spatulas from the Liberal Convention and Visitors Bureau are Kansas State Fair legend. Wooden yard sticks also are the ultimate freebie prize, and people who carry them around the fairgrounds should be prepared to reveal where they found theirs. (This year, they’re at the Sutherland’s building on the north end of the fairgrounds.)
Fairgoers also can pick up shopping bags and paw-tographed Millie the Weather Dog photos at the KWCH booth, “I Like Ike” buttons at the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau booth; Marshalls badges and nail files at the Visit Dodge City booth.
They also can find free ice cream scoops, tape measures, plastic tumblers, hand sanitizer (both spray and squeeze), bumper stickers, bracelets, book marks, recipe books, wildflower seed packets, license plate frames, sunglasses, notepads, nail files, lapel pins, temporary tattoos, rubber footballs, rubber baseballs, water bottles, backpack tags, breath mints, mouse pads, ice scrapers and water bottles.
And don’t even get us started on all the free food samples. (Beer-flavored jelly, anyone?)
Julie Roller, the director of the Abilene convention and Visitors Bureau, said she learned long ago to bring bunches of freebies to her booth, which is in the Pride of Kansas Building.
This year, she has “I Like Ike” buttons and stickers as well as a magnetic word game that features nouns used to describe Dickinson County.
Fairgoers aren’t the least bit shy about collecting all the free swag, she said. Some are even somewhat serious about it.
“They love freebies,” she said. “And then they like to ask, ‘Can I get one for my mom, my grandma, my sisters?’ Then they use them for stocking stuffers at Christmas.”
“Yeah,” she said, met with incredulous looks. “It’s true.”
Tips to maximize 'free stuff' collection at the fair
1. Find your bag first: There are many, many items to be had, and you'll need something to hold them in. So start at a place that's giving away bags. You can find reusable cloth bags at booths like KWCH (at Grandstand Ave. and Ft. Riley Blvd.) or at Southwest Dairy Farmers (in front of the Cattle Barn). Lots of places also pass out heavy duty plastic bags intended for stuff collection.
2. Go to the right places: Free stuff is hiding everywhere, but the two main depositories are the Meadowlark building (the one with all the blue carpet) and the Pride of Kansas building (where the butter sculpture is.) But you can also find free stuff at random stops like the Highway Patrol booth. Keep your eyes scanning and pop in to random places.
3. Go soon: The free stuff supply starts to dwindle as the fair progresses. The earlier you go, the more likely you are to collect the most items.
4. Don't be afraid to chat: Sometimes, if you talk to the person manning the booth, you'll find out that the very best free stuff is hiding behind the curtain. For example, at the Pittsburg State University booth, we revealed that we were related to alumni and were given a license plate frame and a pair of sunglasses that the general public wasn't being offered. Also, some booth operators keep the good stuff put way so that kids don't run by and grab it all.
5. Choose wisely: It's tempting to grab everything you see, but ask yourself if you really need it. We became a little overly excited and came home with a whole bunch of calendars, temporary tattoos and wooden nickels we have no use for.