6 moments you might not know from State Fair history

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A postcard for the 1910 Minnesota State Fair
A postcard for the 1910 Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

The Minnesota State Fairgrounds are bursting with fried foods, farm animals, novelty T-shirts — and more history than you know.

True fair-heads can point to the fair's buildings and streets and pull out a million stories, like the tale of Dan Patch. (He was a record-setting race horse, and the namesake for Dan Patch Avenue.)

Here are some notable moments in the fair's 157 years.

1885: The fair settles down

In the beginning, the Great Minnesota Get-Together was a traveling affair. The first-ever State Fair was held in downtown Minneapolis in October 1859, the year after Minnesota was granted statehood.

From there, it bounced around to St. Paul, Rochester, Red Wing, Winona and Owatonna. There was a lot of disagreement about where it should land. According to the State Fair archives, President Rutherford B. Hayes even tried to offer advice about settling the location dispute when he spoke in St. Paul in 1878.

Poster for first Minnesota State Fair to be held in its current location
This sign advertises the 1885 Minnesota State Fair, the first to be held at its permanent location. There was disagreement over the location; the sign diplomatically notes that it will be held "between Minneapolis and St. Paul."
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

In 1885, the fair finally settled in what is now Falcon Heights. At the time, the area was called Hamline, Minn.

The fair originally occupied 210 acres; it has now grown to 320.

The years the fair was dark

The State Fair has been held every year since 1859 — with five exceptions. In 1861 and 1862, the fair was not held on account of the Civil War and the U.S.-Dakota war.

In 1893, the State Fair didn't want to deal with the competition: The World's Columbian Exposition was a mere train ride away in Chicago. With an entire 600-acre city — known as "the White City" — built for the exposition, it drew more than 6 million visitors from across the country during its run. The scheduling conflict kept the Minnesota State Fair closed that year. (No one knew then, of course, about the serial killer stalking the Chicago fairgrounds. That could have changed travel plans.)

A propeller factory in the Minn. State Fair cattle barn, circa 1945.
A propeller factory was assembled in the Minnesota State Fair cattle barn in 1945. The fair was not held that year due to war-related fuel shortages.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

The fair closed again in 1945, due to fuel shortages during World War II. Some of the State Fair facilities were used in the war effort: There was a propeller factory in the cattle barn.

The fair stayed closed in 1946, due to a polio epidemic. When it opened again in 1947, the Pronto Pup — a defining feature of the fair for many — made its debut.

1901: The beginning of the 'big stick' | Teddy Roosevelt talks foreign policy at the fair

On Sept. 2, 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt gave the opening address at the 42nd annual Minnesota State Fair. Roosevelt delivered his speech, "National Duties," to a crowd of roughly 10,000 people at the grandstand, according to the Pioneer Press.

The speech is credited as Roosevelt's first public use of his famous foreign policy tagline: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

If you were standing in the crowd that day, you would have heard the then-vice president pronounce:

"Right here let me make as vigorous a plea as I know how in favor of saying nothing that we do not mean, and of acting without hesitation up to whatever we say. A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far.' If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble; and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life, there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting; and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words his position becomes absolutely contemptible. So it is with the nation."

Theodore Roosevelt at the Minn. State Fair in 1908
Theodore Roosevelt at the Minnesota State Fair in 1908. The president made several trips to the fair, the first in 1901.
Courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society

The Pioneer Press recently looked back at its own summary of the speech in 1901, and noted that Roosevelt's "big stick" line didn't make the paper. Apparently, it didn't make an impression the first time Roosevelt trotted it out.

"Laughter and applause were mingled throughout his address in equal proportions," the Pioneer Press wrote.

Three days after Roosevelt's speech, President William McKinley was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. He died from his injuries on Sept. 14.

Roosevelt was sworn in as the country's 26th president less than two weeks after his "big stick" speech at the Minnesota State Fair.

Presidents (and presidential hopefuls) can't resist the fair

Warren G. Harding visits the Minn. State Fair as a candidate in 1920.
Warren G. Harding, candidate for the presidency on the Republican ticket, posed with his wife, Florence, and wives of state fair board members at the 1920 Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

Of course, fairs are politician-magnets — they're almost as attractive as a baby or a good old piece of diner pie. Roosevelt is not the only president to visit over the years. There was Hayes back in 1878, during the fair's roving days, and William Taft at the grandstand in 1910.

Vice president Calvin Coolidge and his wife at the Minn. State Fair, 1922.
Vice president Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace posed with "the ladies of the Minnesota State Fair," in 1922.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

Warren G. Harding stopped by when he was still a senator, in 1920. Calvin Coolidge came twice, once as vice president and again as commander in chief. Dwight Eisenhower addressed the grandstand in 1947, and John F. Kennedy, though he missed the fair, came for a bean feed at the Hippodrome in October 1962. (You can read or listen to Kennedy's speech.)

General Dwight Eisenhower at the Minnesota State Fair in 1947.
General Dwight Eisenhower addressed a Grandstand crowd at the Minnesota State Fair in 1947.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

In 2004 alone, John Kerry, Sen. John McCain and Vice President Dick Cheney all came to the fair.

1910: The first flight in Minnesota takes off from the fairgrounds

According to the State Fair archives, the first airplane flight in Minnesota history took off from the fairgrounds. It happened during the Twin City Aviation Meet, in June 1910.

A 1912 postcard featuring a plane over the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
A 1912 postcard featuring a plane over the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

For years afterward, planes continued to be an attraction at the fair. On the fairgrounds map from 1923, you can spot the "Aeroplane Landing Field" out past the grandstand.

A map of the 1923 Minnesota State Fair
A map of the 1923 Minnesota State Fair noted the "aeroplane landing field."
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

1951: Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso make an appearance at the fair

Baby goat birth? Check. Milkshake? Check. Picasso? Check.

In the 1950s, the artists of Minnesota got some star-studded company in the Fine Arts Building. A touring exhibit from New York's Museum of Modern Art stopped at the fair.

The catalog from the 1951 Fine Arts display at the Minnesota State Fair
The catalog from the 1951 Fine Arts display at the Minnesota State Fair included artwork on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

The exhibit included works by Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Georgia O'Keefe, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Modigliani, among others. The catalog — which cost 25 cents — was preserved in the fair's archives.

And it was not a once-in-a-century opportunity. In 1954, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center contributed pieces to the fair's Fine Arts display, including another Matisse and a Renoir.

You should always be able to get your mini-doughnuts and your masterpieces one place.

1995: The state's largest naturalization ceremony

On Sept. 1, 1995, more than 800 new citizens were sworn in at a naturalization ceremony during the Minnesota State Fair.

It was the largest naturalization ceremony in state history, with people from 86 different countries — from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. It was held at the bandshell.

A naturalization ceremony during the 1995 Minnesota State Fair.
In 1995, more than 800 new citizens were sworn in at a naturalization ceremony during the Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair archives

The practice continued the next year, when 750 new citizens from 83 different countries were sworn in.

What better way to celebrate American citizenship than with bottomless milk?

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