by Pete Leih, Guest Columnist
As we wind into August and into the final stretch of the summer, the season of town festivals, as well as county and state fairs, is upon us and in full swing. County fairs are often intrinsically woven into the fabric of communities, especially in the rural areas of greater Minnesota that are more agriculturally inclined. Though the agricultural roots of Hopkins have long faded to the urban and industrial, the Hennepin County Fair, hosted by the Hennepin County Agricultural Society, called downtown Hopkins home for many years as the site of the Hennepin County Fairgrounds.
The earliest roots of the Hennepin County Fair go back to the formation of the Hennepin County Agricultural Society in February 1853. This incarnation of the fair, in downtown Minneapolis, though its exact location remains unknown, probably near Washington Avenue, was in October of that same year. This early showcase of agricultural exposition in Hennepin County was short-lived, however, and was discontinued a short time later.
In 1907, fundraising began along Mainstreet for the Hopkins Commercial Club to host a Harvest Festival. Fundraising for the event was so successful that to use the surplus money, a proposal was made to host an agricultural fair. Exhibits were housed in the local halls, including the Opera Hall (now housing the Mainstreet Bar and Grill) and Olsen’s Hall. Livestock tents and concessionaries operated outside the exhibits along the main thoroughfare and used the Market Block area between 11th and 12th Avenues (now home to the Hopkins Cinema), which at the time was where local farmers would congregate to sell and trade their farm goods. A large midway was created by cordoning off Excelsior Avenue (Mainstreet) from 8th to 10th Avenues. A 5 cent admission was charged to those wishing to view the exhibits, which drew enough attendees that this first edition of the fair not only was able to support itself, but even turned a small profit for the organizers.
From these early and humble beginnings, one of the “most progressive county fairs” in the state grew. The following year, in 1908, the fair expanded south from the Market Block to include the areas all the way to First Avenue South as well as the building of a platform and bandstand. Two years later, in 1910, fair organizers purchased a 22-acre parcel of land just to the west of the fair and erected buildings for a cost of $9,000 as the new home of the fair around the area that we now know as Central Park. Seven years later, Hennepin County would purchase the site from the fair organizers for $20,000. The addition of permanent brick buildings, including a new grandstand, established this is the home of the Hennepin County Fair until 1962.
Though Hopkins was no longer a farming and agricultural community, the fair would continue to be in the area until its move to the northwestern areas of Hennepin County in the 1980s. The wooden buildings and other structures at the fairgrounds were torn down after the county sold the land to the City of Hopkins, though a few of the buildings remained until more recently. The racetrack and spring that originated the north fork of Nine Mile Creek were used as a city landfill until the area was brought up to a suitable enough height to become Central Park as we see it today. Many of the brick buildings on the west end of the fairgrounds were converted for use by Hopkins Public Works, but are largely gone now.
Though many years have passed since the Hennepin County Fair has called Hopkins home, the rich tradition of many years of celebration and exposition at the fairground in Hopkins are a fond reminder of the agricultural and industrial roots that helped make Hopkins and the surrounding area what it is today.
The Hennepin County Fair is currently in June at the Corcoran Lions Park, in Corcoran. Additional information regarding the fair and the Hennepin County Agricultural Society can be read at http://www.hennepincountyfair.com. For further reading on the Hennepin County Fair’s years in Hopkins, visit the Hopkins Historical Society at the Hopkins Activity Center where copies of “Hopkins Minnesota: Through the Years” are available for purchase, as well as other memoirs, photographs and documents in the collection. More about the Society can be found athopkinshistory.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Pete Leih is a volunteer for the Hopkins Historical Society.