Minnesota State Fair | Fair History

FAIR HISTORY

After four years of territorial fairs, the first Minnesota State Fair was held in 1859 near what became downtown Minneapolis. This was a year after Minnesota was granted statehood.

During the fair's early years, the site of the exposition changed annually with stops in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, Red Wing, Winona and Owatonna. In the 1870s and early 1880s, civic groups from both St. Paul and Minneapolis worked relentlessly to provide a permanent home for the fair in their respective cities. In 1885, the Minnesota State Fair finally found a permanent home at its present location, midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul when the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners donated their 210-acre poor farm to the State Agricultural Society, the governing body of the State Fair.

Secure in its new surroundings, the Minnesota State Fair began to grow. Physically, the fairgrounds blossomed to 320 acres. Architecturally, it is home to many historically-significant structures including the Arts Center, Progress Center, Grandstand and Coliseum (formerly known as the Hippodrome).

An important change in the State Fair over the years has been in the attractions offered to fair visitors. The character of early fairs was dominated by agricultural exhibits and competitions, reflecting its original purpose of encouraging farming in the state. While agriculture is still the primary focus, the scope of activities has broadened to include large-scale entertainment features, technological and industrial exhibits and scores of education and government institutions.

Since its inception, the fair has been held every year with only five exceptions: in 1861 and 1862 due to the Civil War and Dakota Indian Conflict, in 1893 because of scheduling conflicts with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1945 due to war-time fuel shortages, and in 1946 due to a polio epidemic.

For more information about the history of the Minnesota State Fair, please email your questions to history@mnstatefair.org.

FAIR ARCHIVES

It is important to preserve the past, while looking towards the future. Started in 2008, the Minnesota State Fair archives staff continues to catalog and sort over a century's worth of history. The collection is currently made up of tens of thousands of photographs, postcards, maps, correspondence and more. Items are numbered, given a storage location and logged into a database for easy retrieval.

Because the archives are currently under construction, it is not open to the public. However, historical information is available through several venues. Through a grant received by the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, the annual reports and competition results were digitally scanned and made available for viewing. Information on concessionaires, political figures, Grandstand productions and much more can be seen. To view the digital Minnesota State Fair annual reports and competition results from 1887 to present, click here. Historical photographs from our collection are featured here, with one added each week.

FAIR ACTIVITIES & RESOURCES

During the twelve days of the State Fair, you can visit the Minnesota State Fair History Museum, located in Heritage Square. Started by Gale Frost, a long-time fair connoisseur and collector, you can revisit the days of old. Photographs, award ribbons, badges, buttons, costumes and much more are on display. The museum is open daily during the fair from 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Want to take in history throughout the fairgrounds? Available year-round is the History Walking Tour. Created in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, the tour consists of various stops that focus on a particular subject. Both visual and audio components bring history to life. During the fair, you can pick up a brochure at the J.V. Bailey House, at the Minnesota Historical Society booth or click here to download it. Throughout the year, you can view it online or on your smartphone at www.mnhs.org/tours/statefair.

Prefer to flip pages? Recommended books on the State Fair are Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair by Karal Ann Marling; Minnesota State Fair: An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky; History of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society by Darwin S. Hall and R.I. Holcombe; and Minnesota State Fair, The History and Heritage of 100 Years by Ray P. Speer and Harry J. Frost.