Brown County Fair’s history recounted at Junior Pioneers’ gathering
NEW ULM — Decades ago, the Brown County Fair was among the largest and most popular county fairs in Minnesota.
Members of the Junior Pioneers of the New Ulm Vicinity learned all about the fair history at their annual meeting Friday as historical author Dan Hoisington talked about his latest book, “Meet Us at the Fair,” at Turner Hall.
“I consider myself an extremely lucky person because I like history and telling a story,” Hoisington said. “New Ulm is the place to do that.”
The Brown County Fair dates back to 1858, Hoisington said. It was not held for three years, from 1861-1863, due in part to the U.S.-Dakota War.
Hoisington said despite grasshopper plaques that covered many farms, the fair was held at Turner Hall in New Ulm in its early days. “Agriculture was tough going back then, but the fair was held,” Hoisington said. “Downtown business merchants set up displays of their wares and farmers brought produce.”
County fair award competition was very intense, Hoisington said. “Many complaints were heard that judges favored New Ulm residents. One New Ulm woman, Mary Dauer, won awards and even sold her goods at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
U.S.-Dakota War murals, some of them made by Anton Gag, were among the biggest fair draws at Turner Hall. Dances and concerts were also popular.
In 1895, the New Ulm Breeder’s Association offered $2,000 in cash prizes to top horse race finishers on a half-mile track at the Brown County Fairgrounds. Other fair features included the first electric car, large balloons and the Rio Grande Wild West Show with trained horses in 1900.
Unusual acts featured tight-rope walkers, a high diver who jumped into a large bucket of burning oil and water after pouring gasoline on himself and lighting himself on fire. “Timing was everything. The act was successful.” Hoisington said.
Once, parachutes were attached to two dogs who were thrown from a large balloon. One of the parachutes didn’t open.
The heart and soul of the Brown County Fair were 4-H clubs which drew people from as far away as Comfrey after cars and trucks were able to make it to the fair and back to the farm, Hoisington said.
On July Fourth prior to the construction of Johnson Park, town team baseball games were played in front of the fairgrounds grandstand that featured a roof.
In 1940, newspaper headlines read that more than 50,000 people attended the Brown County Fair. Some of the most popular acts included an airplane crashing into a building and a car driven through a flaming wall.
In 1946, the fair was not held due to the polio epidemic.
Two years later, two Sleepy Eye ministers convinced 4-H clubs to withdraw from the fair due to “indecent” girlie shows. The news was front page headlines in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune.
In the 1950’s, Joey Chitwood’s Death Defying Hell Drivers were featured. A 1956 Plymouth was given away at the fair.
The Seifert Quads of Stark Township, rural Sleepy Eye were another popular 50’s feature. More than 6,000 paid admission to see the quads as toddlers at the Brown County Fair and later at the Minnesota State Fair.
Hoisington’s favorite printed Brown County Fair story involved a couple who came to New Ulm seeking a divorce many decades ago. Their lawyer was busy when they got to town, so they waited awhile, heard a band playing and saw a carnival. They went to the fair and had such a good time, they made up and cancelled their divorce plans.
“My hearty applause to all the men and women who led 4-H groups at the fair,” Hoisington said. “It’s a great chance to celebrate agriculture.”
Hoisington’s book with many newspaper stories and photos is available at the Brown County Historical Society Museum, from the Sleepy Eye Historical Society and from any Brown County Fair Board member. Cost is $19.95.
Earlier in the evening, Junior Pioneers President Lori Otis said fundraising efforts for a new park fence to connect with the old one continue with $10,470 raised including pledges. The project is estimated to cost $12,000.
“First I would like to thank all the volunteers, the board and membership for the opportunity to serve as your president,” Otis said. “We are a group of volunteers who offer their time and talent. Please keep in mind we are volunteers. Most members have full time jobs, families and other responsibilities. We will continue to serve this organization with the best of intentions.”
Otis said the Junior Pioneer picnic last summer had a great turnout. She said a tree was planted for the late Bruce Fenske, a long-time member.
Future plans include a special event for the 100th anniversary of the park and cabin, purchased in 1923.
Junior Pioneer membership grew from 646 in 2016 to 656 this year. Of that number, 335 people are life members, 120 live in New Ulm and 312 live in Minnesota.
The newest Junior Pioneer members are Trish and George Downs, who moved to New Ulm from Ventura County, Calif. just two days ago. George Downs’ ancestors include Wilhelm Pfaender, New Ulm’s first mayor, a principal city founder and Marion, former City Attorney Albert Pfaender and his wife Marion.