Local history articles, news, and events from the Washington County Historical Society
This issue: Contents
Tuesday, August 26th, 2014
  • Editor’s Note
  • WCHS News: “Earliest Residents of the Valley” Presentation
  • WCHS News: WCHS Annual Fall Dinner Meeting
  • Photo of the Week: State Prison at the State Fair
  • Old News: State Fair Advertisement
  • Featured Article: Getting Together Since 1871


Editor’s Note

Oh Minnesota. Sunday and Monday it’s so hot and humid I couldn’t make it to my car without breaking a sweat. And today, I regret not packing a sweatshirt. I suppose our schizophrenic weather can be explained by taking a glance at the calendar. How did we get to the end of August already?! Fall is coming folks!

In our News Section, take a minute and check out a few upcoming events we have planned for this autumn that we’d love to see you at!

Now, the one nice thing about reaching the end of August is that we are currently right in the middle of State Fair season! So before you head off to the Great Minnesota Get-Together, scroll down to see a photograph of an exhibit the State Prison once displayed at the Fair, read what was hyping up the 1911 Fair crowds, and learn a bit about the history of our own Washington County Fair in the Featured Article.

Want to learn more about the history of Washington County? Become a fan of WCHS on Facebook or follow us on Twitter! See a new photo every week, read special articles, and stay up-to-date with the latest WCHS happenings.

Sean Pallas

Historical Messenger editor and Warden’s House Site Manager




“Earliest Residents of the Valley” Presentation

The Washington County Historical Society will host Ken Martens on Sunday, September 7th at 2:00 PM for a free and open to the public presentation on the Native American settlement, history and legends of the St. Croix River Valley.

This often-overlooked element of our local history will be highlighted by Mr. Martens, Vice President of the Afton Historical Society and author of “The Perilous St. Croix River Valley Frontier”. This event will be free and open to the public.

From burial mounds to warring chieftains, this exciting presentation will cover centuries of drama and human intrigue that flowed down the coastline of the powerful St. Croix River.

The Warden’s House Museum is located at 602 Main Street N., Stillwater, MN.

Please contact Sean Pallas at spallas.wchs@gmail.com or 651-439-5956 with any questions regarding this event or to schedule a tour of the museum.


Fall Membership Dinner Meeting

On Thursday, September 25th WCHS will be holding it’s annual Fall Membership Meeting at the Water Street Inn, Stillwater.

The guest speaker for the meeting will be Frederick Johnson, author of “The Sea Wing Disaster”.

On July 13th, 1890, the steam-driven, paddlewheel-powered Sea Wing slipped beneath the stormy waters of Lake Pepin along with 98 of her passengers. She then quickly sunk into the depths of historical obscurity. Mr. Johnson will raise the memory of this Minnesotan tragedy back to the surface in this gripping maritime tale.

The meeting will start with a social hour at 5:30 pm, dinner is served at 6:30 pm, with the meeting and presentation to follow at 7:30 pm.

Tickets to the dinner/presentation are $20 for WCHS members and $25 for non-members.

Reservations are required. 651-439-5956.

Photo of the Week

State Prison at the State Fair – c. 1930

After the new Minnesota State Prison in South Stillwater (Bayport) was completed in 1914, it would refer to itself as the best prison in the nation for the next several decades. And like any good Minnesotan institution with a healthy amount of pride, the prison would make an annual pilgrimage to the State Fair. In fact, the State Fair was actually considered the prison’s busy-season. And that wasn’t because roudy Fair goers would be sent to cool-off at the big-house; the prison was seen as one of the attractions!

To accomodate the influx of curious visitors the prison administration actually printed out annual Hand Books “to furnish in brief and succinct form a clear and comprehensive conception of the institution and the way and manner in which it is conducted.” The booklet’s introduction stated that, “Very often during State Fair week as many as a thousand visitors are shown through the various departments in a single day”. And undoubtedly, many of their guests’ main points of interest were the state-of-the-art manufacturing plants.

The four-system twine factory at the prison could have been plucked from the dreams of Henry Ford. Utilizing four complete sets of matching machinery (hence, the “four-system factory”) the 500 inmates working in the twine plant in 1929 produced 24 million pounds of twine. For a bit of comparison, from 1853 to 1903, the prison plant only generated around 5 million pounds of twine.

Once processed, the finished twine was wrapped into 8 lb bundles. The photograph above shows a mock prison cell at the State Fair constructed almost completely out of these twine bundles.

Old News

State Fair Advertisement

Instead of typing out today’s Old News, I’ll let you take a look at this advertisement as it appeared in the Stillwater Messenger on August 26th, 1911.


Although today the main attraction of the Fair is, “Come! Eat way too much food…It’s on a stick!” you can see they were going for a more sophisticated approach a century ago. Promising “No Fakes or Freaks” and styled as “The Mecca for All Believers in Progress” the Fair of 1911 was billed foremost as an educational experience.In the first decade of the 20th century, the Minnesota State Fair prided itself in showcasing modern advances for the home and farm. For example, a prototype mechanized cow milking machine was first exhibited at the 1908 State Fair. Of course, they enjoyed slightly flashier technological advancements as well.

The very first mechanical flight in Minnesota had been demonstrated a year prior at the 1910 fair, and the famous Wright Brothers were once again on the itinerary.

Another exciting element of the 1911 Fair mentioned in the ad was the exhibition of the famous racing horse, Dan Patch.

In 1911, Dan Patch was a 15 year old, undefeated, 9 world-record holding harness-racing horse on his way to retirement. This wouldn’t be the first time the famous steed had visited the fair. In fact, the Grandstand you can see today was constructed in 1909 due the enormous crowds Dan drew to the Fair. But his 1911 State Fair appearance is special because this was the final public exhibition of this animal athlete’s long and successful career.

Dan Patch’s fame and accomplishments lead Hollywood to create several movies about his life and a number of early automobile companies to adopt his name. But perhaps the most prestigious honor is that when entering the Minnesota State Fair main gate from Snelling, guests will find themselves walking down Dan Patch Avenue.

Now that you’re armed with a bit of trivia about the State Fair, head to the Fairgrounds this week and keep in mind the more than hundred year long history the modern fair is built upon – and then don’t forget to pick up a bucket of Martha’s Cookies before you leave…



Getting Together Since 1871

by Brent Peterson

Every year at the beginning of this month, a certain fragrance in the air starts around Lake Elmo and glides to every corner of Washington County. The smell of Pronto Pups and Cheese Curds and the sound of “Bingo” being yelled by young children and older adults, put these together and it can only mean the start of the Washington County Fair.

The first fair was held in Cottage Grove in the fall of 1871. The next year the fair was held in Stillwater at the old Parson Farm, at the corner of Orleans Street and Sixth Avenue. At this fair, the Stillwater Fire department brought out their new equipment to show, there was a squash from Afton that weighed 140 pounds and a quilt made by a seven year old girl.

The following year the fair was moved to the Lily Lake Driving Park in Stillwater. After some disagreement about the percentage of the gate to be given to the driving park, the fair moved to Bass Lake [Lake Elmo] in 1875. In 1876 at Bass Lake, baseball was the game and there were matches everyday with the St. Croix Club of Stillwater, Clippers of Winona, Red Caps of St. Paul, Blue Stocking of Minneapolis, Silver Stars of Northfield, Crescents of Hastings. There was a $100 prize for the champion of the fair.

The next year, 1877, a tornado hit the fairgrounds in Bass Lake, and the fairs of 1877, 1878, and 1879 were held again at the Lily Lake Driving Park.

For the next couple of decades it is unclear where the fair was held or even if there was a fair held at all. In October 1903 the Washington County Fair Association was organized. In 1907, the fair opened in Forest Lake on West Broadway near the railroad tracks for the first couple of years. The fair then moved to an open field between NW Second Street and NW Third Street until around 1917 or 1918 when the World War put an end to the fair for a while.

In the early 1920s, Bayport was given the chance to have the county fair. It opened in 1924 at Crocus Park at the south end of the town. In 1927 the fair had record crowds turn out at Crocus Park. In 1928 the Capitol Amusement Company were engaged to run the carnival on the grounds. There was also Kittenball game, dances and an industrial exhibit of automobiles, washing machines and electric refrigerators.

In 1933, more than 8,000 people attended, a record for Crocus Park. The attendance record again had broken in 1936, and more than 10,000 visitors came to the fair at Crocus Park in 1945. Also in 1945, the fair board purchased the former Veterans Conservation Corps [VCC] site in Bayport and the fair moved there starting in 1946.

The fair was held in Bayport through the 1969 fair, and the new Washington County Fair Grounds were completed and the first fair held in Lake Elmo was in August 1970.

The fair grounds have grown and more buildings have been added since 1970 and this year’s fair in early August was a stunning success; drawing thousands of Washington County’s citizens together and continuing this 19th century tradition.