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Missouri State Fair returning ‘full steam ahead’ to celebrate bicentennial

For more than 120 years, the Missouri State Fair has been a major event celebrating the state and its agricultural industry. As Missouri celebrates 200 years of statehood, the annual event is gearing up to return in full force to celebrate the milestone with its usual traditions — as well as a few surprises — next month.

Last year’s event pivoted “back to basics,” presenting a youth livestock show as COVID-19 canceled most other events from the Grandstand concerts to the Governor’s Ham Breakfast. While last year’s offering emphasized the fair’s roots with a celebration of the state’s biggest industry, Missouri State Fair Marketing Director Kari Mergen said the 2021 fair would go all out in celebration of the state’s bicentennial.

“We did pivot to a youth livestock show last year, so it was very important to the commissioners, staff, and the governor that we be able to carry on that agricultural tradition that the fair was founded on,” Mergen told The Missouri Times. “This year we’re going full steam ahead — there are concerts, the carnival, there’s food, and agriculture, of course. If someone’s been to the fair before, we’re anticipating they’re going to walk in and it’s going to look just like it has in any normal year.”

The milestone will be a focal point this year: Missouri 2021 Central, a display in the Woman’s Building dedicated to the bicentennial celebration, will include the Bicentennial Quilt from the Missouri Star Quilt Company and state historical society. The display will also offer a special Missouri Explorers challenge encouraging fairgoers to explore the grounds and learn more about the state’s history. 

This year’s Butter Cow Sculpture is also being designed in honor of the milestone with a “throwback to the early 1900s” theme. 

Mergen said the celebration had been in the works for five years, with the state’s Bicentennial Commission approaching the fair early in its planning stages to ensure the event was involved in the celebration. 

“We’ve been able to really build a relationship and try to offer as much as we can for the celebration. The fair is going to be kind of a wrap-up event for the bicentennial to finish up the month of August by highlighting the state,” she said. “We have a lot of things planned and we’re excited about all the things that they’re bringing and the chance to be a part of the state’s celebration.” 

Another celebratory feature will highlight Missouri’s Founding Farms, honoring farms that have been owned by the same family since 1821 in collaboration with the University of Missouri Extension. The farms will be honored on Aug. 16 as part of Farm Family Day. 

After being scrapped last year, the Governor’s Ham Breakfast returns this year on Aug. 19, gathering elected officials and agricultural leaders to feast on country-cured ham and other Missouri-made products. 

The Grandstand will host several big-name musical guests, including the Beach Boys, Trace Adkins, Boyz II Men, Hank Williams Jr., and more. Other events include tractor pulls and winged car races. 

As COVID-19 cases rise across the country — including in Missouri — the State Fair Commission is working with the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and local health officials to monitor the situation and adapt if needed. Mergen said there will be hand sanitizing stations and optional masks scattered along the fairgrounds, but nothing is required for entry to the fair as of yet. 

“There’s nothing additional being mandated to us at this time, but we’re watching everything that’s going on with COVID and keeping in contact with our local health authorities,” she said. “We encourage people to use their judgment; we’re an outdoor venue with a lot of space, but certainly if you don’t feel comfortable being in that environment we totally understand that.”

After moving to a smaller event last year, Mergen said everyone involved was excited to return to the fairgrounds for a full-fledged event to celebrate the bicentennial and the Show-Me State. 

“To be able to bring this all back means a tremendous amount to all of us that work here, but also to everyone that looks forward to the fair,” she said. “Everyone has their fair things, whether it’s the food or the agriculture or the people. The fact that they can come back and enjoy that, it’s going to be huge for a lot of people. While they’re here, we hope they see something new they can look forward to for next year.” 

The Missouri State Fair is an 11-day event that began more than 120 years ago in Sedalia. It was originally created at the urging of the Missouri Swine Breeders Association and remains a competitive agricultural affair. The 40th and 41st General Assemblies allotted a combined $65,000 to establish the site and begin construction on the fairgrounds before the first fair on Sept. 9, 1901. 

This year’s fair will be held from Aug. 12-22.