75 years in the making: A look back at the Agriculture Horticulture building at the Minnesota State Fair
When the State Fair was canceled in 1945 due to World War II and in 1946 for the polio epidemic, fair workers began constructing the new building. It opened in 1947 and has been a landmark on the fairgrounds ever since.
ST. PAUL -- When Ron Kelsey was 7 years old, he got polio.
The next year, in 1947, he taught himself to walk again just in time to attend the Minnesota State Fair. That same year, the Agriculture Horticulture building made its debut on the fairgrounds.
The building — and Kelsey — have been stalwarts of the fair ever since, for the past 75 years.
“I have always been involved with the fair in some way across my life,” said Kelsey, who became the superintendent of crops at the Agriculture Horticulture building 22 years ago. “I really enjoy answering people’s questions in the building during the fair and meeting people. That is probably my favorite part. I am proud of my history here.”
The Agriculture Horticulture building replaced the fair’s Main Building, which previously housed agricultural exhibits before it burned down in 1944.
Plans were already in the works for a new building, so when the State Fair was canceled in 1945 due to World War II and in 1946 for the polio epidemic, fair workers began constructing the new building. It opened in 1947 and has been a landmark on the fairgrounds ever since.
Kelsey’s been at the fair each of those 75 years, too — except in 2020, when it was closed due to the COVID pandemic. He dedicated his life to agriculture after growing up on a farm in Lamberton, Minn., and spending fair season showing his family’s crops.
When he turned 75, he even got a corn cob tattooed on his forearm. He says it didn’t hurt.
“I told myself when I turned 75 I would get a tattoo, and if I didn’t like it — well, I wasn’t going to live that much longer anyways. My kids got it for me as a birthday present,” said Kelsey, now 82.
This year, Kelsey arrived at the fairgrounds Aug. 14 and got to work with other volunteers and superintendents setting up the building. It’s a lot of work — every entry needs to be separated, laid out and tagged.
On Aug. 17, the setup was still in its beginning stages. A few rows of corn cobs lined green shelves, and soybeans were separated into plastic bins. Kelsey was hard at work and preparing to set up his famous Great Depression seed bag collection. He gets many of them from auctions, sales or even eBay. He displays around 400 at the fair.
The seeds are just some of the history to be found at the Agriculture Horticulture building, says Jill Nathe, the fair’s deputy general manager of agriculture and competition.
“It really still looks and is used much like it was 75 years ago. We have sort of that same eight rectangular halls, the corresponding number of the little wedge-shaped areas and then, of course, the column-flanked beautiful rotunda. It’s 110 feet tall at the center tower,” she said.
As agriculture and horticulture have evolved in Minnesota, so has the building. At first, the building was purely a place for farmers to show off their prized crops. But over the years, it’s grown to cater to people interested in learning about farming and Minnesota’s environment. Nathe says the building is for both rural and urban residents of Minnesota — and more important, to celebrate the foundation of the State Fair.
“We have to go back and think about why the fair was created — to celebrate agriculture and to show people what Minnesota had to offer,” she said. “For some guests, this may be the closest they come to things like this. We always want to make sure we are celebrating and showcasing agriculture at the fair and we will continue to do so. We’re already 75 years in.”
For many Minnesotans, the fair offers friendly competition — and the Agriculture Horticulture building is no different. Bernie Hesse, 65, has been entering his vegetables in the fair since the 1980s.
Hesse’s father was a gardener and his mother grew flowers; he learned his passion for gardening from them.
Depending on what he has been growing, Hesse will enter all kinds of vegetables, but he says his dream is to win the largest kohlrabi. He’s been coming up about 10 pounds short.
Hesse says he isn’t in it for the blue ribbons, but it doesn’t hurt when he wins. Last year he placed in competitions for lima beans, tomatoes, onions, peppers and pepper ristra.
“The thing I really like about it is you get to see different varieties of vegetables,” Hesse said. “And then you see what people are able to do — urban gardeners, but also folks that live across the state.”
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