Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Winona Daily News on July 7, 2013.
Get more than three settlers in a county and the arguments would start:
Who raised the fattest hog?
Who grew the tallest corn?
Who bakes the tastiest pies?
There was only one way to find out.
Hold a fair.
Winona County was scarcely four years on the map, a sparsely settled tract of hardwood forest and ridge-top prairie when the first countywide agricultural exhibition was organized for Oct. 28-29, 1858. Held in Winona, the only sizable settlement in the county, the two-day fair was scheduled after the last of the harvest and before the Mississippi freeze-up closed commerce with the rest of the country.
Though the weather was less than cooperative, the settlers and townspeople who trekked to the fairgrounds on the western reach of Wabasha’s Prairie — the future locale of the fairways and putting greens of the Westfield Golf Course — were treated to a good look at the county’s stoutest oxen, the fattest, finest barnyard fowl, and news of the latest innovations in frontier agriculture. They enjoyed the chance to mingle and socialize before the onset of another Minnesota winter.
For the next 50 years, the city of Winona would lay claim to the county fair as its right, as the county’s namesake city and dominant center of trade, industry and commerce. But the perceived pretensions of the big town on the river grated on the up and coming communities to the west.
The fair not only brought people and business to town for the run of the annual exhibition, but as the fair was considered by the state to be an occasion to promote agricultural innovations and education, the state provided a subsidy to each county fair association — a subsidy that many in the western farm country began to believe was doing more to benefit the merchants in the city than the farmers in the countryside.
The local St. Charles newspaper, the St. Charles Union, charged that the state aid provided the Winona fair “has been drawn for purely local and mercenary affairs in Winona” and agitated for a rival fair to be established.
The issue came to a head in 1910 when on April 2, 25 St. Charles men headed by John J. Speeter, John Frisch and A.R. Huebsch incorporated the Winona County Fair Association dedicated to “promoting agricultural and industrial progress and furnishing a pleasant means of getting together for a good time and the exchange of ideas once each year.”
The St. Charles enterprise got a substantial boost when the state courts ruled that in the event there were two rival fair associations established in a county, the state aid would be divided between them.
The new organization promptly negotiated the lease of a 60-acre plot west of St. Charles to serve as the new county fairgrounds. They further acquired the existing Winona County Fair exhibit buildings, dismantled them, loaded them on rail cars and had them shipped to St. Charles, where they were reassembled on the new site in time for the Sept. 13 opening day.
The St. Charles men had promised the new fair would be second to none. They promised balloon ascensions, a parachute jump by a man and a monkey, a Russian fire dive, the Great James on the high wire, and an opening day address by Minnesota Gov. Adolph O. Eberhart.
More than 4,000 people flocked the grounds on opening day, the Winona Republican-Herald reported, although it wasn’t made clear if the governor’s address or the skydiving monkey was the main drawing card. The weather was fair, though the balloon ascent was somewhat of a bust, rising a feeble 100 feet before settling back to the ground about a block from where it began.
If there were hard feelings in Winona about the breakaway St. Charles event, they weren’t in evidence.
Special trains were scheduled to carry fairgoers from Winona to the grounds, and an automobile caravan was organized with about a dozen horseless carriages attempting the arduous journey west — suffering only a single mishap when Max Conrad’s machine broke down near Lewiston, forcing him to get a horse to continue the day’s outing.
The rival association in Winona responded by scheduling its own exhibition for the following week. It was christened the Tri-County Fair, as Winona’s organizers looked across the river to Trempealeau and Buffalo counties in Wisconsin for additional patronage and support.
For the next half-dozen years, the two fairs were in competition, the fair in St. Charles growing in popularity and support, while its Winona rival went into a steady decline, ending its run in 1917, leaving the only county fair in Winona County just east of the Olmsted County line in St. Charles.