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The Minnesota State Fair: Origins and traditions

In the twenty-first century, nearly 1.8 million people attend the twelve-day event every year, making it the second-largest state fair in the nation.

Colored postcard of the Minnesota State Fair domestic Arts and Handicrafts building, c. 1910.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minnesota State Fair is a yearly celebration of agriculture, crafts, food, and community. In the twenty-first century, nearly 1.8 million people attend the twelve-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.

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In its early years the fair had no set location. Between 1860 and 1884, it was held in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Redwing, 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 eighty 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.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.