The Iowa Pork Tent at the Iowa State Fair celebrated its 40th anniversary this past August. And while much has changed since that first year in 1981, one thing that hasn’t is the support for the tent from the Delaware County Pork Producers.
The county organization has sent a contingent of at least 40 volunteers to work at the pork tent all 40 years.
Delaware County Supervisor Shirley Helmrichs was at the tent that first year. She has only missed one year of volunteering at the tent.
“A bunch of pork producers got together and said they needed to have a presence at the Iowa State Fair,” Helmrichs explained. “That first year, it really was a tent. Water ran through it underneath the tent and there was hardly any room to move. It might not have been real pleasant dining, but it was a big success.”
Today the tent isn’t a tent at all, but a permanent structure with a cement floor, kitchen area and plenty of seating. During the Iowa State Fair, the tent will serve between 80,000 to 100,000 customers who can select from a menu of Iowa chops, loin sandwiches, barbecue pork, pork burgers and bacon on a stick.
The Delaware County contingent always works an afternoon shift, beginning at 2:45 p.m. and usually ending by 9 p.m.
Helmrichs said the success of the pork tent comes from the commitment of over 900 volunteers needed to run it during the fair.
“It’s one of those things most of us look forward to each year. You know you will run into folks you don’t see in Manchester or Delaware County. It can be really hard to explain if you haven’t been there, but you have a really good time and you meet great people.”
Helmrichs said pork in the state is about family. “Raising hogs is a family affair and so is working at the pork tent.” She and her husband Otis brought their children every year.
“Our son Jamie’s first trip to the pork tent was when he was two months old. As kids get older, it’s sort of a right of passage. They come with their folks but they can’t work until they are older. They look forward to that.”
Jamie Helmrichs is now chair of the Iowa Pork Tent committee. As he explains, “People laugh when I tell them I grew up here. But this was my home away from home for 10 days every summer.”
Jamie Helmrichs is in the second year of his role as chair. He’s worked with the committee since 2010, and of course, for years before that as a volunteer every year.
His committee puts together the menu list every year, along with hosting meetings and gatherings throughout the year. He said he’s impressed with the yearly turnout from Delaware County.
“It’s an outstanding commitment. It’s awesome to see that from hometown people. Everyone has such busy schedules and it’s humbling to see that many people come down to help.”
Last year 21 Iowa counties sent teams of volunteers. “It would be great to see more counties get involved with that,” Jamie Helmrichs said. “Iowa is the No. 1 producing pork state. We have so many people involved in the industry.”
Money raised from the pork tent goes to lobbying efforts for the industry as well as for promotion.
Shirley Helmrichs describes the pork tent as “a big extended family,” adding, “everybody has some things they volunteer for. This one you get the side benefits of having long-time friends and promoting a product you believe in.”