By Lauren Perry
“The Fair has been instituted primarily for the benefit of the farmer, the stock raiser, the horseman, and also for the many arts and handiworks to which our women turn their attention. This is a time of remarkable development in all industries known to man, and the Fair is the place for the distribution of new ideas that are sure to redound to the benefit of those concerned. There is no reason why old Houston County cannot and should not have a Fair that will publish her merits throughout the state and the managers determine that such shall be the case. The Fair of 1892 will be a Banner Exposition!”
– A fair board letter written to the public in 1892.
How it began
As the late Judge Charles A. Dorival leaned against railings to watch a herd of galloping horses before him, he saw nothing but the perfect county fair. He spent a great deal of his youth watching the horse owners of Houston County timing their finest breeds circling the tracks at the fair grounds. However, as the box office began to lose their finances, the fair grounds, where Dorival spent so many of his happiest days, were restored back to agricultural uses.
In March of 1912, the Houston County Agricultural Society was reorganized, led by C.J. Wheaton. The committee of 11 voted to reinstate a Houston County Fair and hoped to hold the inaugural event in the fall of 1912, although there were no funds or property for the festival. As a contribution to the Fair Fund, each member paid $1, as did a few citizens, who are recorded to be Philip Schwebach, Mike Clifford, James Driscoll, H.E. Wheaton and A.J. Von Arx, and $10 was donated by the Hokah school. The board was able to successfully pull off its first fair, which was held in September of 1912 in the streets of Caledonia. Livestock was housed in Dr. Whitbeck’s veterinary stables, where one could rent a stall for 65 cents a day. City Hall housed non livestock exhibits while vendors and games lined the streets.
For the next three years, the fair continued to be held in the city streets where tents were rented for certain exhibits, and hay was sold at $8/ton and straw at $2.50 a load by Mick Welscher. In May 1915, the fair was moved to the three acres of land that was purchased from Peter A. and Gertrude Palen for a total of $1,100 and four acres from Martha H. and E.K. Roverud for a sum of $1,600.
A horse barn, school and main building were constructed to house amusements and livestock, although some were still housed in tents. Due to heavy September rains, it was decided that year that the fair would be moved to the latter part of August and has taken place then, ever since. Over the next four years, the improvements to the Houston County fair and its grounds were unimaginable.
With a water line being extended in 1918, and the addition of 27 acres, as well as the construction of cattle sheds, sheep and swine barns, and poultry buildings, it is no secret as to why the Houston County Fair rapidly grew into one of the finest and most attended fairs in the state.
1920 also saw the construction of the grandstand, which saw additions in 1928 and 1930. Electricity was added to the grounds in 1921, and rest rooms were built a year later. In 1935, the beer concession was introduced to the fair, originally being let out on bids. For nearly 20 years, it was run by the Red Baron Flyers Club. However, the Fair Board decided to run it themselves, with the help of a hired manager, and have done so since 1990.
Years of interest
After 13 years of smooth sailing, the fair hit a snag in 1925. Due to a severe case of polio throughout the community, a large portion of town events were cancelled or postponed, including school and the fair. On Sept. 7, the county believed that the disease was no longer a danger in this area, and school resumed. A Children’s Fair was held in late October, and fair goers were treated to a snowfall where the merry-go-round was buried under a layer of white, and entry clerks took frequent breaks to warm their hands over small oil heaters.
The 4-H program became an official part of the fair in 1924 and continues to be a rewarding experience for many young people. In a letter written in 1928, Gladys Lapham, Houston County’s first 4-H club leader, said, “May 8, 1914, saw a new era in agriculture through the origin of the 4-H clubs.” With the objective to advance to the state fair in St. Paul, youths are encouraged to bring their finest livestock and arts to the table. “Without 4-H, I don’t think the state or county fairs would have survived,” Lapham wrote in an article in the book “Caledonia Pride.”
The Houston County Fair was a wonderful experience, organized by people who worked very hard for little reward to put on what was known as the finest county fair in Minnesota, the late Bud Monarch reminisced in “Caledonia Pride.”
“It was just full of 4-H arts and crafts, animals all the way from rabbits to big cattle and the grand stand show that was second to none. In those days the grand stand show had an MC who told stories, chorus girls who danced much as they do in Las Vegas today but with a few more clothes on.”
During the years of Eddie Zimmerhakl’s term as fair board secretary, a “girly show” was implemented to make the fair bigger and better. The show was a 25 cent admission charge and a 50 cent charge for additional exposure. “How was it? Do we have to close it up?” Zimmerhakl questioned after Judge Dorival inspected the performance. The judge made no comment until he was eye to eye with Zimmerhakl. “Eddie, I saw nothing that I have not seen before.”
1935 proved to be an individual experience. Due to arguments with the county board over land leases, Spring Grove hosted an upbeat affair on their streets.
Ranging from an exuberant midway, award winning livestock and a bingo tent where young and old play side by side, the Houston County fair remains the perfect mix of rural and urban and is truly “where town and country meet.”
This year, along with every other, the Houston County Fair Board has done a fabulous job of putting together a wonderful event with a expansive schedule of events.
•Wednesday, Aug. 14
Throughout the day there will be a wide range of 4-H activities along with the talent show and queen coronation. Finally, the grandstand will house the skid steer rodeo at 7 p.m.
• Thursday, Aug. 15
Senior Citizen’s Day will kick off at 11 a.m. in the entertainment tent with a wide range of games and presentations. Ever popular bingo will start at noon followed by the Timberworks Lumberjack Show at 7 p.m. in the grandstand. Also at 7 p.m. is Houston County FFA judging, located different places based on the animal that is showing.
• Friday, Aug. 16
Kid’s Day programming begins at 10 a.m. in the entertainment tent with Ag Olympics in the pavilion at 11:30 a.m. After a day full of Pint Sized Polka, contests and 4-H shows, the demo derby will be held at 7 p.m. in the grandstand.
• Saturday, Aug. 17
Saturday is kicked off with the diaper derby at 10 a.m. followed by a quilt auction and best hot dish contest at 11 a.m. At noon families can participate in Family Day events with a three-legged race, spoon/egg race and balloon contest. Also at noon in the entertainment tent will be holding a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. A little smell of heaven may lead you to the apple pie contest in the office building at 4 p.m. and then to the modified tractor pull housed at the grandstand at 6 p.m.
• Sunday, Aug. 18
At 10 a.m. the grandstand hosts a kiddie pedal tractor pull followed by an 11 a.m. Euchre tournament at the entertainment tent. At 11:30 a.m. get a laugh from the “dress your animal” contest in Krech Arena. Return once again to the grandstands for a field class tractor pull at noon, then to Krech Arena for the awards program and herdsmanship awards. Finally, a 3 p.m. hula hoop contest in the entertainment tent will wrap up this year’s fair festivities.