Every time I see the complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica on the shelves of my living room, I think of the Kansas State Fair. Strange? Perhaps, but of course, there's a story behind that...

When I used to live in Wichita, the State Fair in Hutchinson was a regular must-do for my friends and me. We eagerly looked forward to bierocks, the Old Mill roller water boat ride and a view of the annual butter sculpture in the Pride of Kansas building. Yes, there was something a bit kitschy about it all for us, cool twenty-somethings, but then again, we always had fun. 

The year my husband and I were newlyweds, we made the trek with some other newly-married friends of ours. We had great expectations for the future. We were having fun at the fair, and somehow those encyclopedias seemed like an appropriate way to mark the kind of life we wanted to build together. So, on an impulse we made the purchase.

Should I mention they cost several hundred dollars?

Should I also mention neither one of us happened to have a job at that moment?

Oh, the bliss and optimism of new love. Our friends laughed at us then (and still do now), but I tell you what... I LOVE that set of encyclopedias - AND the fact that I bought them at the Kansas State Fair.

You see, I am sure many people think of the fair as a place just for farmers. That may be true of its roots, but really, it's more a celebration of optimism and building future dreams.

For a century now, Kansans have been headed to see the best and brightest of agriculture and industry in an atmosphere designed to wow, inspire, entertain and generally just leave a smile on your face.

We've changed a lot as Kansans in the last hundred years, and the opportunities of the fair have molded and shaped along with us. When we went this year to celebrate 100 years of the fair, I realized it is the perfect place to really experience the best and the brightest of what our state has to offer.

We moved away from Wichita, and stopped going to the fair, but I always kind of missed it. So, this year, after a 10-year hiatus, my husband and I went back to the fair. No longer newlyweds, this time we had three kids in tow. I still found myself caught up in the excitement as we neared the gates, and my middle child, confused by what a "fair" was all about turned excitedly to me and said, "Oh, Mom, is this all about fun?"

Yep. Joe, it IS all about fun.

We hardly got in the door when the boys spotted the old-fashioned farm machines. After 10 minutes of the oohs and aahs over "Johnny Popping" machines grinding grain and pumping water, I knew the two hours I estimated for the excursion would not be nearly enough time.

I was eager to get into the sales buildings. They are just so wonderfully random. For instance, while I sat down to test out a nice foot massager at one booth, my children and husband were across from me looking at glassed-in illegal drug samples and learning how to recognize scams from the KBI. In two turns of the isle, we learned the Libertarian Party of Kansas has two candidates for governor, picked up a copy of the Constitution from Pat Roberts supporters and found out what kinds of camping facilities were available at Milford Lake.

Another few steps and you can learn about insulation for your home, sample Kansas honey and talk to a really informed guy from the Exterminators Association about bed bugs, brown recluse and other annoying pests in the state.

That's all before you even get close to the Midway.

We made a special point to go through the 4-H building, where you can see projects designed by Kansas kids. The boys loved the "bugs in boxes," duct tape art, woodworking projects and electronics displays. They also enjoyed the "Pride of Kansas" building where they were wowed by the ever-famous butter sculpture, pumpkins so big they could crawl into them, and the chance to run their fingers through the 25-billionth bushel of Kansas wheat.

To say the fair is family-friendly is an understatement. I am a little sad this is the first time we've taken our kids. It's really just out of negligence. They absolutely did NOT want to leave. We spent five hours and I feel like we only barely scratched the surface of what we could have done.

If you plan a trip to the fair, you won't be disappointed. Just put on a lighthearted spirit, but also bring your cash and expect it to flow.  While much of the fair fun IS included in the price of admission, there are ample temptations to buy everything from Pronto Pups to a new set of kitchen knives. It may be easy for me to resist a hot tub or those funny little balls that go "splat." But you know, I've already confessed to the encyclopedias.

Now that I think about it, those encyclopedias were probably an appropriate purchase at the far, because while it might be a stretch to say the Kansas State Fair is an encyclopedic summation of Kansas, it IS like a primer. (Okay, okay, I know I'm still justifying my purchase...)

The last thing we did was the first thing my little Joe saw as we walked in the door, a sky-lift ride that floated us high above the fairgrounds. It was like flying. He said he wished we could live up there, and that we would never leave the fair.  

If you really want to get a taste for what it is like to be a Kansan...make plans to strap on your walking shoes next September and put the 101st Kansas State Fair on your 2014 calendar.

Karen Ridder is a freelance writer living in Topeka. A former News Producer for KSNW-TV in Wichita, her work can also been seen in print publications including: Topeka Magazine, TK Magazine and the Topeka Capital-Journal. She has written for several national blogs and was recently recognized as one of the 2011 winners in the Annual Kansas Factual Story Contest. Karen has lived in Kansas for 15 years and married a native Wichitan. Together they are raising three little sunflower boys and a dog named George.