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153 years of the Brown County Fair

Livestock shows, exhibitions and entertainment return after pandemic cancels 2020 fair

From Brown County Historical Society The Brown County Fairgrounds were established in part to create a horse racing track. Horse races were a major sport in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Chariot races were especially popular popular events.

This week Brown County celebrates the 153rd Brown County Fair, one of the largest gatherings in the region.

This year will take its place in history as the return of the fair after it was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.

Though the loss of the fair in 2020 disappointed many, it was only a small blip in the long, storied history of the fair.

The origin of the Brown County Fair can be traced back to 1858, but the event was not held consistently. The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 disrupted the event for several years.

The Brown County Fair board marks 1867 as the official start of the Brown County Fair. In the early days, it was held at Turner Hall. The livestock shows were held on the grounds with exhibitions and entertainment in Turner Hall.

The fairs held at Turner Hall only lasted the weekend and were usually held in September. The date of the fair would change based on how crops and gardens were growing in a given year. The start of the fair might be announced only 10 days in advance.

Agricultural exhibits were the reason for the fair. The Brown County Agricultural Society was incorporated in 1867 and organized the fair. The fair was extremely popular with farmers and agriculture groups. It was an opportunity for farmers to meet and share ideas and discuss latest techniques.

The 1870s, were a difficult year for farmers because of several hardships, including locust swarms, but the community and fair persevered. Attention began moving away from farm-related exhibits.

By 1879, the fair board realized including women’s exhibits led to greater turnout. Cash prizes for needlework and other handwork art projects were offered. An early needlepoint winner called “Die Wacht Am Rhein” was created by Catherine Reitz. It was hung in Turner Hall and remains on display to this day.

Children became the next target audience. In 1886, the fair opened with the first “children’s day” with free admission for kids. The children’s day was a success and the 1887 fair reached out to rural schools seeking exhibits. The schools responded and the youth interest in the fair rose.

By the 1890s, the fair’s art gallery became a major draw for the fair. In 1893, the “Panorama of the Battle of New Ulm,” painted by Anton Gag, Alexander Schwendinger and Christian Heller was displayed.

The fair moved to its current location on the north side of New Ulm in 1896.

The Brown County Agricultural Society merged with the Breeders’ Association. The Breeders’ Association had already purchased land for a horse racing track. Horse races were a big draw at the time, but the track would also be used for bicycle races and later automobile races. By 1896, a grandstand, exhibition building and musical stand were built at the current fairgrounds.

The fair was moved back to August to avoid conflicts with the Minnesota State Fair, but also to accommodate schools.

The fair was expanding in scope. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago greatly influenced public opinion of fairs with amusement park attractions. Soon county fairs around the country would incorporate rides. With the excess space, the Brown County Fair could follow the trend. A photo taken in 1908 shows a Ferris wheel on the midway near the track.

Permanent buildings were added to the fairgrounds. Exhibition Hall was built in 1909 followed by a poultry house in 1918. A second poultry house was built in the 1920s and the 1918 building became the 4-H exhibit hall.

The 1920s saw a rise in 4-H and other youth agriculture programs. For the first time, most agriculture exhibitors were teenagers and younger kids. This remains the trend to this day.

The 4-H exhibits were also a countywide event. It was no longer a New Ulm-centric exhibition. Farm children from around the county were participating. The popularity of the automobile made it possible for more people to attend the fair. Attendance in the ’20s was around 15,000 people a year.

A new grandstand was built with a seating capacity of 1,800. From the grandstand, audiences watched a variety of shows including vaudeville acts, acrobats and a variety of demolition events. From the early days of automobiles, spectators would pay to see vehicles crash into structures. In 1931, Al Loeffel, “King of the Daredevils,” would crash a car head-on to entertain crowds. The vehicle was only going 35 mph, but for the time it was a spectacle. Airplane stunts were common with parachute jumps. A bi-plane was even crashed through a shed during one event.

In 1937, a dormitory was constructed for 4-H students to stay during the fair weekend. The dormitory was separated by the boys and girls. By the beginning of the 1940s, the Brown County Fair was considered one of the best in the state because of agricultural competitions, grandstand acts and active midway. The 1941 fair saw more than 50,000 people visit the fair.

The Brown County Fair continues through World War II, but with some cutbacks. The 1943 fair canceled some events to conserve fuel and tires. The war year fairs included patriotic themes. The 1944 fair was called a “victory exposition.” WWII ended with the Japanese surrender the day before the 1945 Brown County Fair. The Minnesota State Fair was canceled that year, meaning Brown County drew bigger crowds than ever before.

With the war over, the 1946 fair was set to be even bigger, but a health scare changed everything.

A few cases of polio were reported in Brown County. A polio outbreak was spreading through Minnesota since July. Rather than risk being a source of a major polio outbreak, the fair was canceled. The decision cost the board a great deal of money, but public safety was the top concern. It was the first time the fair skipped a year, but it would not be the last.

The fair returned in 1947, but a major controversy brought about changes. In the early days, it was common for county fairs to feature girlie shows on the midway and Brown County was no different. However, in the late ’40s, the shows were located next to the youth dormitories.

Several county religious leaders protested the shows and the 4-H Clubs were pulled out of the fair. Faced with losing the agriculture exhibits the fair board shut down the girlie shows, which would never return to the fair.

By the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the fair began booking popular musical acts. Country singer Little Jimmy Dickens performed at the 1967 fair. Other big names would follow suit including Marty Robbins, the Statler Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Waynette and Johnny and June Cash.

The musical acts were not limited to country stars. The rock group The Raspberries played the fair in 1974. This trend only lasted 10 years before booking majors stars became too expensive. The fair managed to book Weird Al Yankovic in 1985 as he was still a rising star.

Unfortunately the same year, the wooden grandstand built in the 1920s, burned down. The cause of the fire was suspected to be arson. The current grandstands were built as a replacement in 1976.

The most significant change to the Brown County Fairgrounds in the last 20 years was the construction of the New Ulm Civic Center on the fairgrounds. The Civic Center opened in 2003 and has given new life to the fairgrounds and allows for a greater variety of events. The Minnesota Gladiolus Society holds an annual show inside the center during the fair. It is one of the only places the society can display the full show because of the Civic Center’s climate control.

The Brown County Fair faced another historic moment in 2020. Once again, the fair was canceled due to health concerns. This time it was COVID-19 instead of polio.

Fair Board president Anna Covington said was a hard decision to cancel the fair. The board was able to give visitors of taste of the fair. During the summer of 2020, food vendors were allowed to set up trailers on the fairgrounds. Some 4-H shows were also held on the grounds with social distancing guidelines in place. Though reduced in size, the events were popular.

Fortunately, the 2021 fair is moving forward with no restriction.

“We’re bringing it all back,” Fair Board president Anna Covington said.

The entertainment hall, the beer hall, 4H animals, demo derby, carnival rides and fair food will all be back. The only real change to this year’s fair is the Grandstand schedule. The two demo derbies were held on Thursday and Saturday, with a musical performance from GB Leighton Friday.

In 2017, Historian Daniel Hoisington wrote a book detailing the history of the Brown County Fair, titled “Meet Us at the Fair” in honor of its 150th anniversary. Hoisington said he is a fan of county fairs and Brown County has one of the better fairs in the state. He credited the fairgrounds and the great work 4-H exhibits for making the Brown County fair as a fun fair that has endured.

Covington credits the free admission with the fair’s success. “We pride ourselves on being a free fair and want to keep it that way,” Covington said.

Special event admissions bring in enough money to keep the fair going and expanding. The fair will continue to change and evolve with times, but Covington said they are also committed to keeping their past. The only fairgrounds building will be updated and maintained for future generations to enjoy.

Covington also credited the fair’s success with public participation. Brown County agriculture groups and businesses continue to assist the fair and keep it going for 150 years.

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