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Knocked out by COVID-19 for 2020, the Steele County Fair will be back in 2021 as Minnesota's largest county fair.
This year's fair opens on Tuesday, Aug. 17 and closes on Sunday, Aug. 22.
Since moving back to the Blooming Prairie area in 2014, Judy and I have truly fell in love with the Steele County Fair. The fair organizers are extremely dedicated and spend hours upon hours promoting the annual exposition, from the end of the fair to its beginning in the third weekend of August.
I can hear Todd Hale's voice in my ears as we approach this wonderful time of the year. Todd has been one of the many behind the scenes of Steele County's finest show.
Go to the Steele County Fair and read about its history:
The first fair in Steele County was held on Oct. 17, 1860 and premiums during that year were quite interesting. Best 6 yoke of working oxen – $6, best wagon made in county – $3, best buggy made in county – $5, best team and plow – $2, best butter churn – $1, best corn and best 100 lbs of flour – 50¢.
There is no record of fairs between then and 1871. Historians suspect the advent of the Civil War terminated fairs until 1871.
From 1871 through 1917 the fair was held at various sites throughout Owatonna. The fair was held on 40 acres of pasture land in 1872 at the head of Main Street in eastern Owatonna and eventually moved to the current site of 77 acres in 1918.
Steele County made real history when the Minnesota State Fair was held here in 1883 and 1884. Large crowds came by chartered trains to the city to enjoy the fair.
By 1927 the fair made the decision to make the fair a “free fair.” The fair grew and thrived.
The 1930s brought lavish stage shows with beautiful chorus lines that played before the grandstand nightly. By 1932 big car racing came to the fair. Auto racing and motor events became huge attractions, and to this day remain the most popular type of entertainment at the fair.
Free stages developed by 1979 and have hosted hundreds of talent and musical acts. The fair has also had a strong agricultural history. It still hosts about 2000 animals at the fair every year and the fastest growing show is horses.
The fair has always attracted merchandise and food vendors and now hosts over 500 booths with over 100 different food stands each year. In 2009, the fair had vendors from over 26 states. In addition to the merchandise and food stands, today’s fair features 24 bands, everything from old time to hard rock and dixieland to gospel music.
With attendance in the 1920s reaching 30,000 to over a quarter of a million visitors today, plus the hundreds of volunteers working together annually to assure a successful fair you can see why the Steele County Free Fair has been billed as Minnesota’s largest county fair for over 80 years.
Fairs are a time for families to come together. I was first introduced to county fairs as a kid. I first went to the Freeborn County Fair as a kid. I can remember getting a "whole quarter" from my father to spend at the fair.
I was not in 4-H but always got a kick out of going through the livestock barns. When I began my full-time newspaper career at age 20, I was given the opportunity by Freeborn County Extension Agent Eldon Senske to show a pig. I don't think I won any ribbons but had fun covering all of the activities.
I recall Batman and Robin showing up, riding horses on this special night at the Freeborn County Fair. This was in the late 1960s when BATMAN was a top television show.
I also enjoyed going to the ARCADE and buying 5x7 exhibition baseball cards. I wish I had them now. I'm sure they are collectors pieces.
My parents loved to go to the Freeborn County Fair on the last night of the fair because they gave away a FREE automobile.
County fairs are not just about entertainment, food and animals. This is a time for the youngsters to show off their leadership qualities and also a time for them to show their pride for their animals they put on stage.
COVID-19 will still be on our minds as we visit the 2021 Steele County Fair, but with reports of high vaccination rates, it is hope that this year's fair will be one of the most successful ever.
Stop by the Steele County Times newspaper booth in the Four Seasons Building. If you're not a Times subscriber, we can fix that by giving you a special offer for a subscription to Steele County's well-read newspaper.

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