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150 Years at the Nicollet County Fair

The Nicollet County Fair Grandstand is centered in this photo. The smaller grandstand beside it was for patients from the St. Peter State Hospital.

On October 4, 1871, the Nicollet County Agricultural Society held the first annual Nicollet County Fair. Much like today, fairgoers saw horses, pigs, cows, locally made furniture, fruits, vegetables, flowers, paintings, and photographs. According to an advertisement, even Governor Horace Austin was scheduled to address the visitors.   

Since the annual celebration did not yet have a permanent location, the Fair was held around Nicollet County during the 1870s. They took place in St. Peter in 1872 and 1873 and Nicollet in 1874, 1875, and 1878. According to local newspapers, visitors were pleased with the site when it was held at Scandian Grove in 1877. But by 1880, the Fair moved back to St. Peter, where the Fair committee had constructed new buildings and a racetrack.

Over the years, the Nicollet County Fair offered a variety of activities for visitors to attend. They had horse races with “trotters” and “runners.” Men played baseball games at the Fair as early as 1890, and fireworks displays occurred at least as far back as 1900.  The 1895 Fair program announced that there would be chariot races, horse races, balloon ascensions, and band music. The 1915 Fair promised to have bicycle, motorcycle, and automobile races.  Acrobats, gymnasts, and comedians were also listed in the advertisements.

A horserace at the Nicollet County Fairgrounds in St. Peter. Horses and their riders have reached the turn at the south end of the track.

Over the years, the Nicollet County Fair offered a variety of activities for visitors to attend. They had horse races with “trotters” and “runners.” Men played baseball games at the Fair as early as 1890, and fireworks displays occurred at least as far back as 1900.  The 1895 Fair program announced that there would be chariot races, horse races, balloon ascensions, and band music. The 1915 Fair promised to have bicycle, motorcycle, and automobile races.  Acrobats, gymnasts, and comedians were also listed in the advertisements.

Even during tough times, the Fair continued. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Fairs continued to attract large numbers of visitors.  Between 8,000 and 9,000 people attended the 65th Annual Nicollet County Fair in 1934.  Mrs. W. H. Holz was one of the three people who each won a prize of $100. Despite many people leaving the county to serve in the military or serving in other capacities elsewhere, the Fair took place during World War II.  However, the 1946 Nicollet County Fair was canceled as a precautionary measure to reduce the spread of polio, which was a severe problem for many years.

What would the Fair be without Nicollet County 4-H? Nicollet County 4-H Clubs were impressively represented in 1956 when 469 members out of a total membership of 555 exhibited at the Fair.  “Livestock, dress revue, corn, potatoes, small grain, and garden exhibits were judged and placed at the county Fair for state Fair competition,” according to the St. Peter Herald. The August 8, 1968 issue of the Herald reported: “Record 4-H Displays At Fair-More Than 3,000.”  This was an “all-time high” for the number of project exhibits that were judged.

Color photo of a man standing inside a fair booth in 1971
Carl Annexstad is standing amidst the items on display in a dairy booth at the Nicollet County Fair centennial in 1971. Items on display include the Norseland Theater curtain and a photo and the medals of champion buttermaker Sam Haugdahl.

The Fair saw other anniversaries over the years, including its centennial. Gloria Benson wrote and directed “A Time to Remember,” a pageant for the 1971 Centennial Fair in which more than 60 people participated.  It described selected events in the county’s history during the previous 100 years in its two-hour performances. Mrs. Benson also wrote and arranged a Bicentennial pageant with 150 participants for the 1976 Fair. In addition, special permission from the singer John Denver, who married St. Peter resident Ann Martell, was obtained to use an altered version of one of his songs.

The fairgrounds also grew, modernized, and changed over the last 150 years. The wooden grandstand, which was at least 80 years old, was demolished in July of 1985.  It was replaced with an aluminum and steel structure. And in 1998, when a tornado blew through town, the fairgrounds suffered severe damage. At least 13 buildings were destroyed. But as with the rest of the town’s salvageable buildings, repairs were made, and the Fair was held early in August 1998.   

The fairgrounds suffered severe damage during the 1998 tornado. The extent of the destruction can be seen in this aerial photo.

One thing that never changes is the Fair’s importance to our small rural communities. Whether it’s 4-H contests, exhibits at Johnson Hall, or local entertainment, there are so many different things to see and do at the Fair that are unique to Nicollet County. But that is what makes County Fairs so meaningful to our communities.

The Nicollet County Fair’s importance must continue to live on for another 150 years and beyond to demonstrate the importance and vital role the county Fair plays in the community for all ages.