The Great Minnesota Get-Together

Minnesota State Fair: Origins and long-standing traditions


This Week in Range History

The Minnesota State Fair is a yearly celebration of agriculture, crafts, food, and community. In the 21st century, nearly 1.8 million people attend the 12-day event every year, making it the second-largest state fair in the nation. The gathering is a Minnesota tradition that has more than earned its nickname, “The Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

Agricultural societies held fairs in Minnesota Territory during the early 1850s. They were designed to showcase the crops, livestock, produce, and handiwork of Minnesota’s territorial residents. Fair organizers hoped that displaying proof of Minnesota’s productive farms and active social life would encourage immigration to the territory. The first state fair was held in Minneapolis in 1859, and the fair’s governing body, the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, was officially chartered the next year.

In its early years the fair had no set location. Between 1860 and 1884, it was held in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Red Wing, Owatonna, and Winona. Some of these fairs were more successful than others. Between 1874 and 1876, displays were greatly diminished by a grasshopper plague that destroyed many Minnesota crops. When fairs were held outside of their city, Minneapolis citizens organized a competing fair. The traveling state fairs were difficult to organize and often poorly attended.

By the 1880s, the Minnesota State Agricultural Society had decided that the fair needed a permanent home. In 1885, Ramsey County donated land from the county poor farm as a site for the fair. Later that year, the first fair was held on the new fairgrounds situated between St. Paul and Minneapolis, in what would become Falcon Heights. The site ushered in a new era for the Minnesota State Fair.

The State Fair placed the bounties of Minnesota at center stage. In an attempt to lure farmers to the young state, early fairs introduced new breeds of livestock and crops. Exhibits proudly displayed the bushels of wheat and pounds of creamery butter that Minnesota produced. Prized livestock, giant vegetables, and elaborate arrays of farm produce became highlights of each year’s fair. These displays were not restricted to agricultural products. The 1876 fair featured an exhibition of ore from the newly established mines on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

New agricultural technology often debuted at the fair. The 1860 fair was the first to feature a display of farm machinery. Early state fairs often featured reaper trials and plowing matches that demonstrated the potential of new farm equipment. By 1909, the Machinery Hill area had its own building and space to display a widening range of agricultural equipment. At its height, Machinery Hill took up 80 acres and featured 100 manufacturers.

In addition to agriculture and manufacturing, the Minnesota State Fair celebrated art, craft, and culinary skill. Early fairs set up displays of needlework, handicrafts, and cookery to draw women visitors. Quilt competitions celebrated the artful reuse of textiles. They quickly became an artistic showcase of color, fabric, and embroidery. These exhibits and contests celebrated the essential work of the home—from sewing and quilting to jam-making and bread baking— as an important part of Minnesota life.

In its long history, the Minnesota State Fair has played host to momentous historical events. Theodore Roosevelt delivered his famous line “Speak softly and carry a big stick” during a fair speech in 1901. Legendary racehorse Dan Patch set a new record for pacing the mile at the fair’s racetrack in 1906. In 1927, the fair made musical history when John Philip Sousa debuted one of his most famous compositions, “The Minnesota March.”

The State Fair upholds many longstanding traditions. The Minnesota Dairy Industry has sponsored the Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition since 1954. Nightly grandstand shows and fireworks displays have been a much-loved part of fair life since 1899. But perhaps nothing is more evocative of the Minnesota State Fair than its food. Foods on a stick (including Pronto Pups, introduced in 1947) embody the whimsical spirit that gives the fair its unique character. Minnesota State Fair, 1917

Since its founding in 1859, the Minnesota State Fair had been an essential yearly tradition in the agricultural state. However, after the United States entered World War I in 1917, the fair took on an entirely new significance. Organizers reframed the event as a “Food Training Camp” that showed Minnesotans how to produce and conserve resources vital to the Allied war effort.

After the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, some believed that the fair should be canceled. Gasoline was rationed. Many believed that the railroads, needed to transport people and livestock to the fair, should be used by the military instead. Due to newly imposed food restrictions on sugar, wheat, and meat, many popular cooking and baking contests could not go on as usual. In spite of these concerns, fair organizers argued that it was vital that the fair be held as planned.

Agricultural Society publicist Ray Speer proposed the idea of the fair as a “food training camp.” It was more important than ever, he argued, to introduce Minnesotans to new agricultural products, livestock, and farm machinery. The beginning of the war in 1914 had caused major disruptions in the European food supply. When the United States joined the Allies, producing enough surplus food to feed American soldiers as well as Europeans became a priority. The state fair, Speer claimed, would help Minnesota farms produce more. It would also teach all Minnesotans new food conservation and preservation techniques.

The Agricultural Society’s view prevailed, and organizers went to work planning the event. Promoters were careful to emphasize that every Minnesotan had a role to play in the war effort as well as at the fair. Cartoon advertisements, printed in newspapers across the state, emphasized how every aspect of the fair could be linked to Minnesota’s support of the war.

The fair was held between Sept. 3 and Sept. 8 at the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul (later Falcon Heights). It showcased a multitude of new plants, animals, and methods of farming. Agricultural scientists displayed new varieties of corn, wheat, and other crops that could result in larger harvests per acre. Farmers were encouraged to raise livestock that yielded more meat. Developing stronger breeds was of special concern during the fair, since much of Europe’s livestock had been destroyed in the war and would need to be replaced when it was over.

Farm machinery played a more important role than it had at past fairs. Though agricultural machines had been exhibited since the 1860 fair, the 1917 fair featured the latest and most efficient models. Though there were 175,000 farms in Minnesota alone, there were fewer than 16,000 tractors in the entire country. With increased demand for food and with the Army taking both men and horses from Minnesota farms, there was more incentive than before to create a modern, mechanical farm.

While agricultural production was central to the 1917 fair, organizers made it clear that all Minnesotans were needed to participate in the war effort. Classes in gardening, canning, and preservation offered fair attendees ways to help raise the state’s food production. Children were encouraged to form clubs to raise everything from potatoes to chickens. Cooking demonstrations helped home cooks cope with the schedule of increasingly wheatless and meatless meals.

The fair also highlighted new fashions and sewing techniques that wasted less fabric. Organizers replaced fancy sewing contests with more utilitarian ones. The Red Cross, YMCA, and YWCA held outreach activities at the fair, all emphasizing how men women and children could support the troops. Booths collected money for Liberty Loans and stalls displayed handicraft projects by disabled veterans.

Much of the entertainment at the 1917 fair was influenced by the war as well. Army officers staffed recruiting booths and presented displays of horsemanship. Sporting contests highlighted the athletic ability essential to the men who might enlist. A nightly show at the Grandstand featured a cast of three hundred reenacting major battles of the Western Front complete with a massive fireworks display.

Despite early concerns that it should not be held at all, the 1917 fair broke all attendance records to that date. It drew 116,000 people on Labor Day alone and a total of 382,405 across its seven-day run. Goetz, Kathryn, “Minnesota State Fair: Origins and Traditions,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society, www.mnopedia.org/event/ minnesota-state-fair-origins-and-traditions; and Goetz, Kathryn, “Minnesota State Fair, 1917,” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society, www.mnopedia.org/event/minnesotastate fair-1917 (accessed August 5, 2018).

TURNING POINT

In 1885, the Minnesota State Agricultural Society holds the first fair at the newly built permanent fairgrounds, midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

CHRONOLOGY 1854: Minnesota holds its first territorial fair in Minneapolis.

1859: Minnesota’s first state fair is held in Minneapolis.

1861: Because of the social disruption of the Civil War, there is no state fair.

1862: In the wake of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the state fair is cancelled.

1876: The state fair featured an exhibition of ore from the newly established mines on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

1885: After years of traveling state fairs, the first Minnesota state fair is held on its now-permanent site near St. Paul.

1893: Due to a conflict with the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the state fair is not held.

1901: Theodore Roosevelt utters the famous line, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” in a speech at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 2.

1927: The Tilt-A-Whirl, invented and manufactured in Faribault, makes its debut at the Minnesota State Fair.

1945: Because of fuel shortages due to World War II, the fair is not held.

1946: A polio epidemic causes the state fair to be cancelled for the second consecutive year.

1947: Pronto Pups are first served at the Minnesota State Fair.

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