Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Rice County: Fair or not? April 20, 2021

The Rice County Fair office, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

DECADES AGO, AS A YOUNG newspaper reporter, I covered county fairs. I’d grab my notebook and my camera and head to the fairgrounds. One particular summer, I was assigned to photograph 4-H kids and their animals at the Brown County Free Fair in New Ulm while working for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. I spent days tracking down youth and photographing them with their prize livestock. Pigs. Cows. Sheep. Horses. Chickens. Try getting animals to cooperate for a photo shoot. Not easy. The experience left me so exhausted and fair-weary that I lost all interest in county fairs.

Among the many popular local food booths. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Rice County 4-H is an integral part of the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Next to a livestock building sits this carnival ride, originating in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Ever since, I’ve seldom attended a county fair. But I recognize most people love fairs, including the Rice County Fair here in Faribault. They enjoy the food, the carnival rides, the entertainment, the exhibits and, yes, even all those penned animals hauled to town by 4-H families.

Livestock buildings at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Last summer, COVID-19 canceled our fair. And most other fairs, including The Minnesota State Fair, aka The Great Minnesota Get-Together. This summer, from small town Minnesota to the metro, officials hope to host fairs. In Rice County, the fair board tentatively plans for a July 21-25 fair. Whether that happens will depend on the pandemic and state restrictions on gatherings.

The open air BINGO shed at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Root photo March 2021.
Just across the way from the BINGO shed sits the Beer Garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
One of the newer fair buildings houses open class exhibits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file March 2021.

I’m all for putting health and safety first. This pandemic is far from over with cases of the virus surging. I recognize the weariness folks are feeling, but don’t accept that as an excuse for behavior that is increasing the spread. If people want to enjoy BINGO and beer, cheese curds and carnival rides, art and animals, and so much more at the fair, then they need to intentionally choose to help stop the spread of COVID. Mask up. Properly. Social distance. Stay home when feeling unwell. Get vaccinated.

An example of needed touch-ups. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

On a recent afternoon, Randy and I walked the Rice County Fairgrounds, just to have a different place to explore away from people. The emptiness of the space, without distracting crowds, exposes much. I observed that many of the aging buildings need upkeep, especially paint.

The new public restrooms at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I’m sure fair-goers will appreciate one new addition—the construction of public restrooms.

A view of the grandstand underside. This was rebuilt following an arson fire many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I often wonder why the fairgrounds aren’t used more, especially the grandstand. That said, the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market sets up occasionally at the fairgrounds in Faribault. Car shows and food trucks have also used the grounds. In a year when spread of the virus remains an ongoing concern, this vast outdoor space offers options to indoor gatherings.

Photographed on the side of the Rice County Fair office in March. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Whether the Rice County Fair happens in July remains unknown. It’s really up to us to follow public health and safety mandates/guidelines and to choose vaccination. We’re not powerless. We have the ability to control our behavior, to think beyond ourselves to the public good. To make the fair happen in 2021.

FYI: Rice County is lagging in vaccinations. According to Rice County Public Health April 16 data, 41.7 percent of county residents ages 16 and above have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. That compares to 52 percent statewide. We can do better.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Please check back for more Rice County Fairgrounds photos.


16 Responses to “From Rice County: Fair or not?”

  1. Ruth Says:

    I especially like the sign on the Conservation Building.

  2. To see those buildings standing empty seems so sad to me. Just another testament to the awful times we are living. Nice piece Audrey.

  3. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    Good points, Audrey. Just like President Biden said, we can celebrate July 4th this year in small gatherings. IF we do our part. I hope your post motivates more people to get vaccinated, to wear masks and social distance awhile longer.

    • IF we do our part is exactly what’s needed. I felt frustration again this weekend when I walked into the post office to see a half-masking clerk, a half-masking customer and two men without masks. The post office lobby is a small space. Even though I am now fully-vaccinated, I could not get out of there fast enough. Same thing at the grocery store with non-maskers and half-maskers. And in the bank lobby. I could go on and on. This pandemic is not over yet.

  4. jhc1218 Says:

    Hi. As a data junkie, I do want to clarify that Rice County is actually doing slightly better than the rest of the state on vaccination rates. The 41.9% rate on the Rice County site is comparing to total population, where the 52% state data is based on population 16+. Statewide rates of at least one dose based on total population is 41.2%. https://mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/data/index.jsp is where you can look at all the data. Cook County in far NE is doing best. We all need to take a lesson from them.

    • Thanks for that clarification, Jocelyn. All the data can be confusing. I just looked at the data site you reference. As I understand the stats, Rice County is currently at the same vaccination rate as the state, at 52 percent. That is what I see in choosing the “16+” comparison. I recognize those numbers change daily. I wonder why some counties are doing so much better than others in vaccination rates.

      • jhc1218 Says:

        I’m also curious to know what is driving the numbers in some locations. We’ve been to Cook County twice in the last year, and they are very serious about COVID precautions. They have the lowest total case rate in the state (3x lower then then next best county) with only 146 confirmed cases TOTAL and ZERO deaths. Not having an ICU bed within 100 miles may play in role in the strong defenses. They make an interesting case study for certain, as they had high levels of tourists this summer and fall.

      • Those numbers are impressive. Maybe some day we will get answers to our questions. Congrats to the good people of Cook County for doing such an amazing job in dealing with COVID and helping to keep locals and tourists safe.


    I too wonder why fairgrounds aren’t used more. I’m guessing local fair boards make the decisions. It’s a lot of real estate to not be used. There are some exceptions as you mentioned. Another example is Murray County’s fairgounds. It is used for the usual car races but also a major draft horse in July, a regional dairy show prior to the fair in August, an autumn boutique after Labor Day and then Hospice has a massive rummage sale using lots of the buildings. There may be some other uses. Some fairgrounds also are used for storage during the winter months. But still…underused for sure. Let’s hope the fairs and all of these events can go on safely IF we all follow the rules around covid.

    • Kudos to Murray County for opening its fairgrounds to so many other uses. Rice County also allows storage on its fairgrounds. But, for the most part, it’s a lot of unused real estate. And, yes, if fairs are to happen, people need to follow rules around COVID. That concerns me based on what I see now in Faribault with way too many people not masking or half-masking. This pandemic is not over.

  6. Another fun post focusing on an institution that I hope can be held safely again soon.

  7. Sandra Says:

    Thanks for the bldg tour of a fairgrounds that’s changed so much since my time, I drive through and occasionally get to town during Fair, really like the RCHS displays. Miss the old grandstand, all those booths somewhere else I assume. County fairs are a surviving tradition in a time of so many other festivals competing, I think our State Fair prominence has helped. The daughters came up through the 4H ranks in Ramsey Cty, both spent several years at the State Fair in performing a tech arts. My youngest used it as a college credit. Ramsey is the only urban fair with animals, grounds are a half mile from me. Also have unannounced plans this year. Living “by the numbers” is getting really old and I don’t even know what Ramsey’s numbers are. As goes the metro, so do we. I think the DOT uses the grounds which are about half the size of Faribault and Owatonna. 4H Extension also has offices in the big display barn. We can only keep a good thought about this year. We finally have an appt for Como tomorrow!

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