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Crow Wing County Fair celebrates 148th year

The first Crow Wing County Fair was in 1872 in Brainerd. Fairs in Crow Wing County then were hosted sporadically in Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and Crosby until 1937 when it became organized and permanently located in Brainerd.

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Marge Hillman sits and talks to visitors Thursday, Aug. 6, 2021, at the Crow Wing County Fair about the fair's history. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The original purpose of the Crow Wing County fair was to provide a place where county residents could exhibit their agricultural products and livestock.

Much has changed since those humble beginnings but, "the philosophy remains the same, to provide an opportunity for our patronage to touch base with the agricultural heritage of Crow Wing County," according to fair officials.

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A copy of the newspaper with an article about the Crow Wing County Fair that was held in Pequot Lakes hangs on a wall Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in an industrial building on the fairgrounds in Oak Lawn Township. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Marge Hillman is the space rental coordinator for the Crow Wing County Fair. She fielded questions from attendees in the fair’s first exhibition booth featuring panels about its history.

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“We’ve put up these in the past — we would have some of them in the buildings — but this is the first year we’ve actually had a booth for the fair,” Hillman said Thursday, Aug. 5.

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The county fair has been in many locations since its inception in 1884 — something many people might not realize.

“We just thought it was a good thing to promote,” Hillman said of the county fair’s background in the Brainerd lakes area. “People didn’t realize how far back the fair went.”

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A first-place trophy and a plaque from years past of the Crow Wing County Fair are on display on the fairgrounds Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, along with a sign by the Crow Wing County Historical Society soliciting donations of local fair memorabilia to add to its collection. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The county fair was originally held at the Brainerd Driving Park in south Brainerd from 1884 to 1891. The county fair was revived in 1899 at the Swartz Driving Park in southeast Brainerd after an eight-year hiatus and was held there until 1903.

Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh of Little Falls was the principal speaker for the county fair in Pequot Lakes in October of 1907.

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“My, how the fair has changed. I mean from what we have to what they had. I mean we have buildings where there wasn’t any building to be displaying your things,” Hillman said. “And back then, agriculture was the main focus.”

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The Crow Wing County Fair Association was organized in 1937 and the fair was held at Lum Park along Rice Lake in Brainerd.

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People can stop and read about the history of the Crow Wing County Fair at its exhibition booth on the fairgrounds along 13th Street Southeast. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The county fair relocated to the Brainerd Armory in 1938. Temporary livestock barns were erected by the National Youth Administration west of the armory. Arrowhead Amusement Co. provided two shows, a zoo and four rides at that fair.

In 1939 the county fair moved yet again, to a new home on 51 acres east of the paper mill and bordering Rice Lake. But the 1946 fair was canceled because of the polio epidemic, much like the 2020 fair was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Birney Wilkins was elected secretary-general manager of the county fair in 1939 and held the position for more than half of a century. Because of his tenure he was known to many as “Mr. Fair.” A five-day county fair in 1949 set a then-record for attendance of 26,361 people.

The Northwest Paper Co. appeared before the county fair board in 1957 and asked if they would consider relocating the fair because the paper company was in need of the land to store 200,000 cords of wood.

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The county fair moved from the Mill Avenue site in 1962 to its home along Southeast 13th Street in Oak Lawn Township, where it has remained ever since . The fair come to feature attractions such as food and beverages, amusement rides, live entertainment in addition to agricultural and art exhibits.

Future plans for the county fair include a horse arena and updates to existing buildings on the fairgrounds, eliminating standing rainwater by raising buildings and installing drains and tiles.

The fair board is working with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for a future bee pollinator garden between the south pedestrian gate and the curling center, according to officials.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

Related Topics: HISTORYCROW WING COUNTY FAIRBRAINERD HISTORY
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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