The Stevens County Fair is a yearly celebration of agriculture, entertainment, crafts, food and community. It is traditionally held on the second weekend in August at the fairgrounds located on the southwestern part of town. There is something for everyone at the fair and that doesn’t happen without the hard work and dedication of many people. This year is a special year for the Stevens County Fair as it marks the 150th anniversary of a fair in this county.
According to the fair website (with information from the Stevens County Historical Society) the first Stevens County Fair was held in 1873. The fair was first located on second street in Morris and the race tracks were down by Pomme de Terre River. The fairs were held as late as October. In 1876, the first Stevens County Agricultural Society was organized with the following officers: President: Charles Wintermute, Vice-President: M.L. Torkey, Secretary: W.W. Griswold, and Treasurer: C.J. Fisher.
In 1880, the exhibits were shown in a warehouse, owned by Amundson & Walders, on the west side of the track. By 1882 they were using large tents at the fairgrounds for exhibitions. In the years from 1898 to 1905, the exhibits were shown in the first Armory building which had been the old Great Northern Depot moved to the site of the present library. It was said that if D.T. Wheaton, who was the fair’s secretary, Secretary of the Board of Education, County surveyor and weather observer, had not been around, there might not have been a fair. But the horse races, both running and harness, became a drawing attraction of the fair.
In 1905, 25 acres of land was purchased from A. C. Peck for $75.00 an acre and the fairgrounds were moved to their present site. In the early days of the fair, everything for the midway came in on trains and the drayman was busy hauling loads to the fairgrounds. It was a great deal of work to set up the older merry-go-rounds because it was set on a track that had to be kept level. Local help was hired. It would take all night to get ready for the fair and when it was over, they would have 3 or 4 days to get everything back on the train to go to the next fair. There were many sideshows on the midway, each putting on a performance outside of the tent to attract the crowd to pay to go inside.
For years, admission to the fair was charged at the gate. But a large number evaded this fee by walking along the railroad tracks, climbing through a hole in the fence, and cutting across the railroad tracks to the fairgrounds. Officials ignored this, especially in the depression years. Eventually the Stevens County Fair became totally free admission and parking through generous donations by area businesses and organizations.
The fair was a place for the farmer to display his animals and produce, the businessman his wares, the housewife her canning ability, her garden produce, and her fancy work. In later years, the 4-H clubs became a prominent part of the fair. Auto races replaced the earlier horse races and soon the race track was a place for entertainment, rodeos, demolition derbys and enduro races.
The grandstand is one of the oldest buildings on the fairgrounds built during the depression years through the WPA program. The only buildings close in age are what is now a storage shed and the large tin building currently used as the poultry building. Through the years, buildings have been added to grow the grounds and house the exhibits. Currently there are 18 buildings on the fairgrounds requiring regular maintenance and, in some cases, replacement.
One thing that greatly impacted the fair was the construction of the Lee Center in 1994. For the first few years, the fair board did not use the center because people felt that it was too far to walk. Then the new Horse Barn was built in memory of Jory Anderson and Makensie Hauglund, two Stevens County 4-Hers killed in a car accident while at the state fair. This made the fair board decide to use the Lee Center for vendor exhibits and then extend the food court to this area. It was a big hit and the food court has grown and is very popular with attendees.
Entertainment was varied at the early fairs. Some years there were bowery dances. The grandstand programs had pageants, acrobatic troupes, airplane exhibitions, singing groups, and speakers who were listened to eagerly in the days before one could turn on the TV and get a speech anytime. Horse racing was spaced between the other events and later stock car races became a big hit. Eventually the races were replaced with big name entertainment such as The Statler Brothers and Alabama. These were phased out and replaced with rodeos, demolition derbys and enduro races. In honor of the 150th year of the fair, Diamond Rio will be performing in the grandstand on Friday night.
The fair board is also planning many other special events. The circus will be back in an area near the Lee Center. They are incorporating a Park and Ride where people can park at the Morris Elementary School and ride on a shuttle to the fair. The shuttle will run on Friday and Saturday evening from 5 to 11 p.m. This is sponsored by an area business. They have purchased five motorized carts through a grant, to be used by handicapped individuals.
Many regular acts will also be back. Puke and Snot will be entertaining visitors. Mike Walker, an impersonator and signer from Branson, Missouri will be performing. Local talent such as Kris Hanson will entertain and regulars like Sherwin Linton will be back. Paul Bunyan will be roaming the grounds entertaining and educating guests.
The fair will kick off on Tuesday, August 8 with the annual fair supper in the Lee Center. Admission for the supper will be a fair button that can be purchased from 4-Hers or at local businesses. Prizes will also be drawn from the button numbers with the grand prize of a trip to Northern Minnesota. This year there will be cookies to celebrate the anniversary year.
Then on Wednesday, Superior Industries will hold their annual Ribs and Rides night for Superior employees only. Many of the other food vendors also open that night for the people in attendance. Entry days for exhibits are 4-H on Tuesday, Open Class on Wednesday and Homemakers on Thursday. The exhibits are judged and then arranged for all to see during the fair hours.
Other food stands, not in the food court, can be found throughout the fair. Many of these have been part of the fair for several years such as the 4-H Food Stand and VFW stand now operated by the Hockey Association. The carnival also brings in their own food wagons.
The fair board is a big part of the fair and works hard not just during the fair but all year round. The board consists of 30 members led by president Ryan Sleiter and former president Steve Storck. There is a lot to do all year at the fairgrounds and many things going on that people are not aware of. This year some of the buildings had repairs and new paint and more concrete sidewalks were added. The configuration in the grandstand was changed for the big entertainment such as a VIP section and separate entrance and exit for these people. The VIP section has already sold out and the general admission tickets are also going fast.
The Stevens County Fair has come a long way in 150 years. The fair board takes great pride in putting on the best fair around and strives to bring new and exciting entertainment each year while also showcasing local talent. They understand that you come to the fair to socialize with your friends and neighbors and enjoy all that fabulous fair food. That’s why there are plenty of benches around the fairgrounds and a wide variety of eating establishments.
Storck and Sleiter explained that Stevens County would not be able to offer a free fair without the support from local businesses and many volunteers willing to help on the grounds. The county also supports the fair and the people attending make a big difference. It is truly a county wide event supported by everyone in the county. The biggest challenge they face is the weather, they can pretty much control everything else. They added that they are always open for suggestions and improvement ideas.