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The 1917 Minnesota State Fair became a ‘Food Training Camp’ for the Allied war effort

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.

Sideshows at the Minnesota State Fair, 1917.
Sideshows at the Minnesota State Fair, 1917.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

After the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, some believed that the Minnesota State Fair should be cancelled. 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.

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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.

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