Photos: When crashes, mayhem and fire drew State Fair crowds to Thrill Day

A daredevil set himself on fire and dove into a pool of water at the 1937 Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

The Minnesota State Fair's Grandstand is well-known as a venue for performers like Tim McGraw or Aretha Franklin. But there was a time when the Grandstand was the stage for utter mayhem.

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At the 1933 fair, the top draw was a collision between two locomotives, as the Lake Benton News breathlessly described:

Train collision
Two trains collided before the Grandstand audience at the 1934 Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

"The Leviathans of the rails will be in readiness at each end of the track in full view of the thronged Grandstand; the engineers will open the throttle wide, tie down the whistle cords and leap for life. The two thundering monsters will speed toward each other in a mass of steam and smoke — then the crash!"

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The collision was part of the first-official Thrill Day. It was an afternoon of motorcycle stunts, parachuting and plane acrobatics designed to draw crowds to the fair on a weekday afternoon.

Fair archivist Keri Huber said the events focused on crashes, noise and fire.

Woman and horse
A woman and horse plummet into a pool of water at the 1934 Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

"Because of the Depression, it was something to forget about your daily troubles," Huber said. "It was something that was happening in the real world, but then in a novel way it really did showcase what was happening around you, but just in a different form."

The Thrill Day theme continued through much of the 1930s and 1940s with stunts like a man setting himself on fire and diving into a pool, or acrobats performing on the wings of planes.

In 1938, Thrill Day featured daredevil "Flash" Williams as he crashed cars mid-air. The Madison Lake Times reported that the "climax of the thrill-packed program will be the shooting down of a war balloon in flames."

Huber said the fair was more focused on the war effort during World War II. But the Thrill Day theme made a return after 1948. A trade journal reported that up to 12,000 people watched Jimmy Lynch's "Death Dodgers" and other high-wire acts.

Kathryn Koutsky, co-author of the "Minnesota State Fair: An Illustrated History," remembers meeting the daughter of a woman who was shot out of a cannon. She said her mother had been pregnant during her last stint as a human cannonball.

But the edgy events lost favor following a series of accidents. In 1947, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune reported that aerialist Lloyd Rellim fell 75 feet to his death in front of a crowd of 18,000. A few years later, in 1951, "wing walker" Kitty Middleton and a pilot died after their plane crashed during a show, leading to the banning of stunt planes at the fair.

"There was a lot of tragedy with these thrill shows," Huber said. "It's something that certainly isn't pleasant and you want to leave the day with a good feeling. And when something like that happens, you have to reassess, is that something that we should keep doing through the years?"

Attendance at the events and the auto races began to lag, and the fair shifted over to the big music and show spectacles we know today.

"It's one of those things where there are so many things that you can get online or in movies or in TV that the crazy action and crashes was not as novel as it once was," Huber said. "It wasn't necessary because it was everywhere — you didn't have to access it once a year at the State Fair."

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