Where it all began
In 1859, a small group of county pioneers had a vision that Goodhue County needed a place to showcase their agricultural and homemaking activities. That vision became the Goodhue County Fair. The first 7 fairs were held in and near Red Wing. The Minnesota State Fair was even held in conjunction with the Goodhue County Fair in 1864. Later fairs were held in the center of the county at Hader for 3 years. Since then, the fairs have all been held in and around Zumbrota. Initially, fairs were held as street fairs in Zumbrota. In 1892, the fair moved to the S. B. Barteau farm northwest of Zumbrota. This site is now in the city’s industrial park area along Jefferson Drive (Old Hwy 52), now known as the Barteau House B&B. After the 10 year lease was up, the fair again moved into Zumbrota as a street fair. In 1915, the present grounds of 16.37 acres north of Zumbrota were purchased for $3,270. Finally, the Goodhue County Fair had a permanent place to call home.
The fairgrounds site was developed over the years. Two of the earliest buildings are still in use, the Horticulture Building and the Old Commercial Building. One of the big moments in the early history of the fair was in 1919, when the original grandstand collapsed. Full of people at the end of a horse race, people stood up stamping their feet when the whole works caved right in. Only one injury was reported. That structure was replaced by another wooden grandstand that served the fair well until the current aluminum structures were installed. The current grandstands have been a huge improvement for spectator viewing and safety. The new track design has really improved the demolition derbies. The grandstand building itself, with restrooms, showers, dairy parlor, storage and utilities, remained until 2009. That year a storm blew out part of the building’s structure. The building was razed and a new building set over the same footprint, retaining the milking parlor and restrooms that had been inside the old grandstand. The new building, sometimes called the “Township Building”, due to a funding partnership with many of the county’s townships, was realized. The new building again includes updated restrooms, showers, a new dairy parlor, new maintenance shop, and expanded exhibit and storage space. The restrooms/showers were completely rebuilt in the same space in 2022.
In 2021 the original horticulture building was resided
Our fairgrounds were the host of the famous Zumbrota Covered Bridge for many years. The bridge was home to a conservation wild animal exhibit and housed a variety of other exhibits over the years. The old Belvidere School, believed to be the oldest country schoolhouse in Goodhue County, has also found new life at the fair. The wall maps, stove , desks, and even the globe are all original. The school closed in 1959, and in 1966 the school was donated to the Zumbrota Covered Bridge Park, where it resided for 40 years. Over the years, the school suffered damage from occasional floods. Finally in 2006, the schoolhouse was relocated to the fairgrounds, where it remains high and dry. Displays and presentations help the young and old talk about life and education in a bygone era.
Harness racing on a half‐ mile track was one of the first real attractions on the grounds, drawing crowds until about 1940 when automobiles took over. Horses again are a part of our fair, with a horse arena, sponsored by 4‐H and other horse organizations, available to be utilized by a growing 4‐H horse program and others.
Our 4‐H youth program, currently the 3rd largest in the state, has been the mainstay since the early part of the 20th Century. Our barns have consistently been filled with livestock, and our 4‐H Building is bursting at the seams with additional 4‐H projects. From our fair, young people go on to compete at the Minnesota State Fair with some of the largest county contingents in BOTH livestock and general encampments.
The Goodhue County Fair incorporated as a stock organization in 1961. It is directed by a board of 15 volunteer county citizens. We are also supported by a Junior Fair Board, made up of active 4‐H youth volunteers. Our county’s Junior Board has existed for many years and is a model for other counties. Several of our current fair board “cut their teeth” on the Junior Board.
The fair has changed and diversified over the years to entertain, educate, and draw people of all ages with a broad range of interests. There is still a strong emphasis on animals and traditional 4‐H projects, but entertainment and educational programs and events are the key to hosting a successful 5‐day fair.
The carnival and commercial exhibits attract fair‐ goers from the area. The quilt show has enjoyed a rebirth as more people practice that art and even more enjoy the beauty and artistry of their works.
Evening grandstand events now include the always popular demolition derbies, tractor and truck pulls, and autocross races. Smoke, noise and steel always attract fairgoers.
Food, food, and more food! This alone is a good reason to take the family out to the fair. Deep‐ fried cheese curds, American Dairy Association malts, brats with sauerkraut, cotton candy, footlong hotdogs and mini-donuts are among the carnival and traditional foods available. Additions in recent years have included Hispanic foods, barbecue and vegetarian options. New foods are always an attraction for local food sampling.
The Beer Garden hosts live entertainment each night. Traditional and up‐ and‐ coming bands are included in the mix with many local artists becoming popular.
Our annual attendance for the 5‐ day fair is around 25,000, with weather playing a huge factor in the fair’s success. The outlook for fair activities seems positive. We are a tradition and have entertainment, fun, and education for all. We are truly a family‐friendly fair, with something for everyone, whether young or old, rural or urban.
Zumbrota celebrated its 150th anniversary as a city in 2006. As a part of that celebration, we hosted the famous Budweiser Clydesdales during our fair that year, culminated with them included in a parade through town and back on the Sunday after our fair. In 2011, the Goodhue County Fair celebrated its own 150th anniversary.
Presently, the expanded golf course and related housing subdivisions has really brought the city out to us. In years past, the fair was always outside the city, but the city has come to the fairgrounds. In the future, we hope and expect our fair will still be a gathering place. It’s the only county‐wide happening that draws everyone to a place for neighbors to connect, old friends to greet each other, and all ages to walk the grounds and remember the past, while talking about the future.
Couples meet at the fair and recreate the classic story of “Brigadoon”. The grounds light up like a city for the fair once a year, and then shut down until August rolls around again. It’s a tradition begun in infancy, a place for a youngster’s first carnival rides, farm animals, snow cones, and pronto pups. The future will bring changes. Fairs always evolve. We wonder what the changes will be, but we look forward to many more fairs in the years to come. Entertainment, fun, and education. Built on tradition but changing for the future.
More information can be found in the books, “Zumbrota, the First 100 Years”, “Till the Cows Come Home”, and “Bailey’s Folly”. Information about the area can be found at www.ci.zumbrota.mn.us, and through various historical societies with the county.
AGRI and Legacy grant activities
The Minnesota Legislature charged the Minnesota Department of Agriculture with providing grants to each of the state’s county fairs to support their agricultural, arts and cultural programming programming.
The Goodhue County Fair has used these grants in a variety of ways including:
- Programs by the Goodhue County Historical Society in the historic schoolhouse,
- Cultural displays and workshops by the Goodhue County Hispanic Outreach,
- Historic talks and slide shows by Doug Ohman (Pioneer Photography) about places and things of historic interest around Minnesota,
- Arts activities and workshops for children,
- Historic demonstrations of turning wooden bowls,
- Throwing pottery on a potters wheel and
- Partial sponsorship of the All American Lumberjack Shows.
Every year we look for new ways to utilize this grant to enhance the arts, cultural and educational offerings at the Goodhue County Fair.
In addition, there is an AGRI County Fair Grant available to Minnesota county fairs to support agricultural programs at the fair. Goodhue County has used this grant to make improvements to livestock and horticulture facilities. Improvements have included:
- New pens in barns
- Concrete in the livestock arena
- Improved lighting and ventilation in the livestock barns
- A new floor and windows in the historic horticulture building
- Livestock wash rack improvements
Thank you to the State of Minnesota for supporting county fairs with these grants.