Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Deciding the future of the historic Blue Earth County fairgrounds January 8, 2014

The beef barn, shaded by an oak tree.

The beef and other barns are circled by aged oaks.

IN THE SHADE OF AGED OAKS sprawling along the banks of the Watonwan River in Garden City, agricultural buildings stretched long and lean as my husband and I drove through the Blue Earth County Fairgrounds on a July morning.

I was enamored with this charming and historic place, where buildings are labeled BEEF, SHEEP, POULTRY, FFA, 4-H EXHIBITS…

Just inside the entry to the Blue Earth County Fairgrounds.

Just inside the entry to the Blue Earth County Fairgrounds.

For 154 years, folks have come here each summer to celebrate the area’s agricultural roots.

But now this bucolic spot, which so charmed me during that brief drive-through this past July, may no longer serve as the site for Blue Earth County’s fair. The fair board is looking to move the fair within a two-mile radius of nearby Mankato, according to information on the fair website.

 A posting of fair sponsors just inside the front gate.

A posting of fair sponsors just inside the front gate.

Thursday evening, Blue Earth County Fair Association shareholders meet at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato to discuss the future of the fair, supported in the past by rural sponsors like Crystal Valley Coop, Watonwan Farm Service and the Blue Earth County Farm Bureau.

Shareholders will vote, beginning at 6:20 p.m., on whether to sell the Garden City fairgrounds. I’m not privy to financial details but, according to a story in the Mankato Free Press, the fair has consistently lost money in recent years. The thought is that moving the fair nearer the county’s center of population (Mankato) and adding amenities will increase attendance and better tell the story of agriculture. Click here to read the document, BLUE EARTH COUNTY FAIR: GROUNDS FOR GROWTH.

I expect this membership meeting may be a heated one pitting historians and preservationists against those favoring change, and country folks against city residents. I might be wrong.

If you buy a $5 share, you can vote. Once. There’s no buying multiple shares for multiple votes. Shares are available for purchase yet today (from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. and from 5-7 p.m.) at Busters on Madison Avenue in Mankato. And shares will be sold before the meeting, from 4:45-5:45 p.m. Thursday.

The open class exhibit buildings.

Open class exhibit buildings.

I’m not fully-informed on all sides of the issue. Yet I do know this: When my husband and I wove our way through the fairgrounds in Garden City, I was impressed by the historic character, the nostalgic charm, the quaint old buildings in the beautiful natural setting and the fact that a place like this still exists. There is something to be said for that, for the time-honored tradition of this fair and the pastoral appeal of this land. It is, undeniably, a picturesque place along the Watonwan River, a lovely gathering spot for the generations who have come here each summer to celebrate rural life.

LET’S HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS on the future of the Blue Earth County Fairgrounds. How would you vote? Move the fair to a site closer to Mankato or keep it here, in Garden City?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


22 Responses to “Deciding the future of the historic Blue Earth County fairgrounds”

  1. To continue to exist forces your hand at times; one cannot ignore economic factors. Sad, but true. It will be unfortunate if this location no longer hosts the fair. I’ve never been, but I can see the character through your photos and words. I think traveling a bit to a fair adds to the experience. Get out of the city and breathe a little people!

    • I definitely see the economic side and realize it costs money to keep up these buildings.

      What I especially appreciate about your comment is the thought of “getting out of the city.” Excellent point.

      • I am waiting for the tide to change so-to-speak. For how many decades now have people been gravitating towards cities and urban life? I am [reluctantly] heading that direction myself, eventually, to regain some of my day. Two hours per day of commuting for 12+ years now has worn me down some. I honestly hope the trend reverses, but I think that is highly unlikely due to commuting, price of gas…those economic factors. It is too bad. I don’t think we should live stacked on top of one another. My ideal world is every family living on a few acres or their own. Space to live, walk around and breathe. Grow a garden and plants some flowers. Commune with nature. Socialize with your neighbors and be part of your community. Go to your local county fair in the country. It doesn’t take long to see the holes in that notion unfortunately.

      • Oh, Dan, I don’t know how you manage such a long daily commute. But I know a lot of people do that. Sometimes I wish we could simply turn back time.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    Wow–that is a tough call, isn’ it? I know the fairgrounds in Mason City went through some really tough times and there was some mismanagement of money involved also if I recall correctly. Now it is no longer called the fairgrounds but the North Iowa Events Center and they try to get a lot of different things in to use the facilities. I think it is a sign of the times in a lot of places that the traditional fairgrounds as we know it is a thing of the past. The buildings of the one you pictured are lovely and I can imagine it will be an interesting meeting. Buying shares to vote is an interesting way to do it but I guess those who are most passionate either way will vote. Great job reporting this morning, Audrey!

    • This is precisely the direction I believe the Blue Earth County Fair Association wishes to go, creating more of an event center, thus drawing more people for multi purposes and thus more revenue.

      I agree. It is a tough call.

      But you know me and I tend to lean more toward retaining the charm of the past. Places like this fairgrounds are disappearing and can never be recovered once lost.

      I found purchasing a share to vote an interesting idea, too, although if you’ve been a shareholder all along you could always vote. Now it’s being “advertised” that you can vote if you buy a share. Thankfully people cannot buy votes by purchasing a lot of shares.

  3. Shirlee Iverson Says:

    This was the fairgrounds of my youth. It was to the Blue Earth County Fair that I, as a nine-year-old shy little 4-Her took my little batch of chocolate chip cookies for judging. The red ribbon I received still sits in my Memory box – although my children and grandchildren consistently give the very same recipe a consistent blue! Sixteen years ago I returned to the Blue Earth County Fair and felt again the joy and charm of the lovely setting. Even the roads into the Fair seemed mysterious and promising. I remember strolling through the fairgrounds hearing the echoes of my youth and appreciating that, although so much has changed since those days, a few important values have remained constant. Those values were personified in that little fair in that lovely place. I hope it stays.

    • Shirlee, thank you for sharing your detailed memories of the Blue Earth County Fairgrounds in Garden City. I enjoyed this personal perspective. And that you still have that red ribbon for those award-winning cookies really shows how important the fair was to you. It will be interesting to see what happens.

  4. DeLores Johnson Says:

    Leave it where it is. After all, isn’t the fair about farming and farm life and country living? If the area by Mankato expands then it will have to be moved again.

    It is such a beautiful, peaceful setting I cannot see why they would want to move.


  5. treadlemusic Says:

    When I first came upon this post and the first photo was on my screen I thought you had come to the Houston County Fairgrounds in Caledonia!!!!! The livestock buildings are identical and set up in the same configuration! These days all such entities are struggling for a “piece of the pie” but I wonder if all advertising avenues have been adequately explored? Marketing is strategic and, although location plays a role, we all know that people will drive many miles for something that piques their interest! Our Historical Society is wonderfully, creatively active and uses a building on the grounds for many events throughout the year (at Christmas all the historic/preserved buildings are decorated in period style….awesome!….and “walk-abouts” are advertised for a monetary donation). My vote would be for it to remain and pursue some of the creative marketing possibilities that are out there……………..

  6. Why?!? is my first question. I am assuming they are not moving the buildings and starting new. I think it is a bit of a waste in moving the fairgrounds. These type of fairgrounds are disappearing and that is what MAKES a county fair! I am a little torn when I see commercial buildings or residential homes empty and new is being built. Makes me a little mad too. I am off my soap box now – ha! Happy Hump Day:)

    • If you click on the link, Blue Earth County Fair: Grounds for Growth, in my post, you will get answers to some of your questions. As I understand, from what I’ve read online, the intention is to attract more fair-goers and others through-out the year via construction of amenities such as a grandstand, an ice arena, etc.

      The proposed new fairgrounds would remain in a rural setting, just not in Garden City.

      I understand your soapbox stance. Totally.

    • I totally understand growth and using it year round for multiple uses. I hope the old fairgrounds is reused in some way too.

  7. I certainly have no emotional ties to the setting and I guess I understand their thinking – if it’s that or no more fair at all…I’d go for moving it!

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