Minnesota State Fair History: 17 Amazing Facts

minnesota state fair history

As the largest state fair in the country, and also one of the oldest, you can imagine that the Minnesota State Fair is probably packed with history.

And you’d be right!

From historic speeches to record breaking race horses and death defying airplanes, the story of the Minnesota State Fair is filled with incredible history.

So the next time your chomping on some Pronto Pups and washing it down with a Mini Donut Beer, consider these 16 amazing facts about our fair’s history.

1. The State Fair is older than the state of Minnesota.

Yep, “The Great Minnesota Get Together” has been going on since before Minnesota was a state!

The State Fair’s origins trace back to the founding of the Minnesota Agricultural Society in 1854, a time when Minnesota was only a “territory” that had not yet officially joined the Union.

By 1858, Minnesota was officially granted statehood, which meant the Agricultural Society’s annual fair (which by that point, had already occurred four times) could officially be called a “State Fair.”

2. It hasn’t always been in the Twin Cities.

Originally, the fair’s location changed every year.

While the very first annual fair and the first official “State Fair” were both held in Minneapolis, the fair also spent a few of those early years in St. Paul, Fort Snelling, Rochester, Red Wing, Winona, and Owatonna.

3. The Twin Cities used to hold competing fairs.

For a brief period of time in the 1870s, the two Twin Cities didn’t play nice, and Minneapolis and St. Paul held competing state fairs each yaer.

4. The Fair found its current home in 1885.

To stop the competition between the Twin Cities, the Agricultural Society formed a committee to find a permanent home for the fair.

They settled on the fair’s current location, the land off Snelling and Midway that we’ve all come to know and love, due to its “politically neutral” location about halfway between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The land was officially donated by Ramsey County to the state of Minnesota in 1885. Previously, the grounds were a 210 acre poor farm, and over the years expanded to accommodate the fair’s current size.

5. Current size? 322 acres.

Although it’s not a perfect rectangle, the fair’s dimensions are roughly 3/4 of a mile by 3/4 of a mile. Which is pretty huge, as anyone who’s ever passed on the Skyride surely knows!

The expansion of size goes along with the fair’s expanded number of attractions over the years.

Originally, the fair was mostly agricultural exhibits and competitions. In the 160+ years since, the fair added numerous carnival games, entertainment stages, and pretty much anything else you could ever imagine.

6. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech took place at the Grandstand.

In September 1901, when Teddy Roosevelt outlined his famous foreign policy campaign to, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick,” he was doing so from the fair’s original Grandstand.

That Grandstand was demolished in 1908, and replaced with the current (and much larger) version in 1909.

7. The two oldest buildings were built 100+ years ago.

While many of the fairground’s original buildings have been built and rebuilt since the late 1800s, the fair’s two oldest buildings have stood continuously since 1907.

(They are the he Fine Arts Center and the Progress Center, for you trivia fans.)

8. The main entrance is named after Minnesota’s most dominant horse of all time.

Dan Patch Avenue is named after Minnesota’s famous race horse, Dan Patch.

Over his nine year career from 1900 to 1909, the legendary horse never lost a single race.

In fact, Dan Patch was so dominant that during the later stages of his career, he only ran time trails due to the number of owners who would simply refuse to race their horses against him.

At a time when horse racing was one of the most popular sports in the country, this made Dan Patch its biggest celebrity and eventually led to the renaming of the street.

(Likewise, the town of Savage, Minnesota was named after Dan Patch’s owner, Marion Willis Savage.)

9. Minnesota’s first ever airplane flight occurred on the fairgrounds.

The flight took place at Minnesota’s first air show, The Twin City Aviation Meet, in 1910.

The maiden flight was piloted by Glenn Curtiss, the first aviator in the world to get airborne after the Wright Brothers.

The show featured just a few flights, of varying success:

  • Curtiss’s first flight reached a maximum height of 50 feet and lasted half a mile (much to the crowd’s delight!) before a strong wind led to a crash-landing that damaged the plane.
  • Two hours later, his aircraft repaired, Curtiss took to the skies for Minnesota’s second ever flight, which ended in an even more spectacular crash that completely destroyed the aircraft.
  • Somehow, Curtiss was not injured, and the next day he took flight in a new plane. This flight lasted 5 minutes, to which all reports indicate the crowd went wild.
  • By the third day, Curtiss set a new world record flight time of 25 minutes.

10. It once held the single largest building for agricultural products in the world.

When the fair found its current home in 1885, they built a huge wooden-domed building to act as the “main building.”

As they added and added to this building over the years, by 1912 it obtained the world record for the “largest permanent building devoted to the exhibition of agricultural products in the world.” What a title!

Unfortunately, that record-setting building burned down in a fire in 1944.

Three years later, the fair replaced the record holding building with the current Agriculture Horticulture Building (aka the Ag-Hort).

11. It debuted the first ever Tilt-A-Whirl.

The Tilt-A-Whirl, one of the most popular carnival rides in the world, was invented in Minnesota by Herbert Sellner in 1926. And it made its first ever appearance at that year’s Minnesota State Fair!

12. During World War II, the fairgrounds were used for military manufacturing.

During the 1940s, many of the fair’s largest buildings were taken over by the government. Most notably, due to the Cattle Barn’s massive size (100,000+ square feet) it was used to manufacture military aircraft propellers.

At the same time, the Horse Barn was converted to the propeller’s machine shop and the Commissary Building acted as the cafeteria, among several other building transformations.

13. The butter heads started in 1964.

Interestingly, butter sculpting (of all things) has a long history at the Minnesota State Fair.

As far back as 1898, butter makers would create sculptures to draw attention to their products. 

But it wasn’t until the 1960s that butter sculpting at the state fair really took off. At that time, the head of the Minnesota Dairy Industry Committee dreamed up the crazy idea of princesses getting their heads carved out of butter for 6-8 hours at a time.

14. Our lovable mascot was born in 1966.

Fairchild, the Minnesota State Fair Mascot, became the official mascot in 1966.

The fair introduced his nephew, Fairborne, in 1983.

15. Minnesota winters haven’t been easy on some of the buildings.

In 1966, the Education Building’s roof collapsed due to excessive snow.

16. The fair has only been cancelled six times.

In the fair’s 160+ year history, it’s ran every year except for six.

The only times the Minnesota State Fair has been cancelled?

  • 1861 & 1862: Due to the Civil War and the U.S. – Dakota War
  • 1893: Because of the Chicago’s World’s Fair, which was occurring at the same time.
  • 1945: Due to World War II travel restrictions
  • 1946: Due to the polio epidemic
  • 2020: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Lucky us… 🙁 )

17. The fair has doubled in length from its original schedule.

In the late 1800s, the fair ran for just six days each year.

Over the years, the fair gradually extended its schedule, from six to eleven days.

By 1975 the decision was made to extend the fair to its current length (twelve days) and have it end on Labor Day each year.

To which we are more than happy, because it means even more days for one of our favorite Minnesota traditions!

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