Can you imagine what going to a county fair might have been like in 1871? Hitch your wagon to the horses or oxen, load up the family and make a long journey. What would you find once there?
    Minnesota had only been a state for 12 years. The Dakota Conflict had recently occurred, and people were again populating rural areas. Railroads were replacing steamboats as the mode of transportation. The McCormick reaper had been in use for a few decades and wheat production was thriving in the state.
    The lives of farm men, women and children were filled with endless chores, hard labor and often hardships. Water was hauled by hand for watering stock and every household need. Cash came in the fall at harvest, and the family had to plan and save in order to make it through the winter and buy seed in the spring.
     Despite these challenges, county fairs were started as agricultural competitions. Among the animals and items on display were horses, pigs, cows, furniture and foundry products, fruits, vegetables, flowers, paintings and photographs. Cash prizes were awarded.
    Fairs also provided an outlet to leave daily struggles at home for a few days and get something not available on the farm: entertainment. At the fair, you could let your hair down and see the newest inventions to make life easier, such as washing machines, kerosene lamps, a John Deere plow, windmills and so on. Salesmen were willing to explain.    
    These comments were made by Doug Ohman, an author and photographer who will be presenting a talk at the Nicollet County Fair about life 150 years ago. Our county fair started in 1871.     
    The Minnesota county fairs, which number 95 today, even though we only have 87 counties, began in the late 1800s.
    The concept of a county fair organized by an agricultural society was initiated by Elkanah Watson. He organized an event in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1811, which was an exhibit of animals that was a competition with prize money paid for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine and sheep. Watson then worked for many years to help communities organize their own shows and fairs in New England. Soon the concept of agricultural societies moved to other states, including the Midwest.
    The core elements of those agricultural society events of the 1800s are at the heart of the agricultural fairs today, according to historians. They include competitions for the best agricultural and domestic products of the county or community and are an annual event for the community to come together to celebrate, share and learn. The idea of the fairs is to advance livestock, horticulture and agriculture with emphasis placed on youth development programs such as 4-H and FFA. There are also outreach and activities to advocate about farming practices to fair goers.
    Fairs back then also had entertainment. By 1880, the Nicollet County Fair boasted new exhibit buildings and a race track at the fairgrounds. Of interest that year were horse races with trotters and runners. Baseball games were played at the fair, and fireworks displays were offered in the early days. A newspaper article announced the 1895 fair program: chariot races, horse races, balloon ascensions and band music.
    Over the years, the fair’s livestock shows have been a special pull, especially for exhibitors. Both youth and open class shows are of interest to our family. We have several 4-Hers preparing their leased animals at our farm during the busy weeks ahead of the fair. It’s encouraging to see their work and pride in their project animals.
    Beyond the friendly competitions and the learning experiences for youth, the fair is simply the best time of the year for many families. It is true that fairs bring jobs, revenue and support our local businesses by bringing people into a community. Though there is not a parade through town at the beginning of the fair to draw attendance as there used to be 100 years ago, there is a sense of excitement and togetherness that happens at fair time. You see special friends and neighbors just once a year at the fair. You take time to sit and visit in the barns, at a show, a demolition derby or over a pork chop and an ice cream cone. The pleasures of a community celebration with socializing, competitions, learning and enjoying local food and entertainment have likely not changed in 150 years.
    “Nicollet County Fair, it promises to be a very great success,” proclaims a newspaper headline from way back when. Let’s hope so for 2021 and beyond.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.