150 Nebraska State Fairs

August 1, 2019 NEBRASKAland Magazine


The fairgrounds in Lincoln in 1888. The widespread use of trash receptacles was still in the future. History Nebraska RG3356-3-3

By David L. Bristow, History Nebraska

Nebraskans will celebrate the 150th Nebraska State Fair Aug. 23-Sept. 2. Can you name the fair’s five host cities, and the two years the fair was canceled?

Nebraska City hosted a three-day territorial fair in 1859, and the first two state fairs were there in 1868 and 1869. Brownville hosted for a few years, then Omaha and Lincoln switched back and forth until Lincoln became the fair’s longtime home from 1901 to 2009. Grand Island has been the host city since 2010.

One of the earliest Nebraska State Fairs, and the first of two held in Brownville, 1870. History Nebraska RG 2304-3-6

No fair was held in 1898 because host city Omaha was putting all its efforts into its Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, a World’s Fair-type event. And the U.S. government suspended fairs in 1945 due to World War II.

Beatrice Simmons of Cozad, 1st Heifer Calf Club, 1924. History Nebraska RG3356-22-4

From the beginning, fair promoters disagreed whether the fair was primarily about education or entertainment. In 1868, future Nebraska governor Robert Furnas of Brownville scolded readers of the Nebraska Advertiser: “Don’t go into sideshows to see fat women, or a calf with two heads and eight legs, or any other monstrosities; but look at the stock, examine the points and make note of where you can purchase a fine Short Horn or Chester White, or any other desirable stock.” At a time when the great majority of Nebraskans were farmers, Furnas believed that the fair’s main purpose was to improve people’s lives by improving agriculture.

You can’t have a fair without fair food. Hamburger stand, 1946. History Nebraska RG2183-1946-904-1

Meanwhile, gambling and liquor were allowed at the fair until 1879, and early newspapers complained of “indecent shows.” The popularity of horse races, entertainers, and carnival-style midways may have disappointed the purists, but the fair relied on the big crowds those events drew.

Auto racing in the 1920s. History Nebraska RG3356-20-242

Even Furnas acknowledged that the fair offered “a week of recreation for every family,” and that “it happens on many farms that there is really no let up,” making it hard to get away. By the time they arrived at the fairgrounds, in other words, most Nebraskans believed they’d earned the right to enjoy themselves.
Here are a few of our favorite photos from fairs past.  

Visit History Nebraska’s website at history.nebraska.gov.

The post 150 Nebraska State Fairs appeared first on Nebraskaland Magazine.

Previous Article
Tool-sharpening Dam Builders
Tool-sharpening Dam Builders

Anyone who has watched a North American beaver (Castor canadensis) gnaw through a tree trunk has surely bee...

Next Article
Game and Parks seeks to hire additional conservation officers

LINCOLN, Neb. – There is still time to apply to become a Nebraska conservation officer. The application dea...