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The Missouri State Fair: A timeline

The Missouri State Fair is returning in full this year to celebrate the state’s bicentennial, continuing a longstanding tradition of showcasing everything Missouri has to offer. 

The annual celebration has hit many milestones — and a few stumbling blocks — since it began in 1901. Here’s a look at the fair’s history, from its early days to its expansion into one of Missouri’s biggest events. 

Bicentennial Celebration: 2021

The bicentennial is 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 also offers a special Missouri Explorers challenge encouraging fairgoers to explore the grounds and learn more about the state’s history. 

The fair’s participation in the celebration dates back five years, according to its organizers. 

Back to Basics: 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to many events last year, the State Fair opted to offer a more traditional celebration through a youth livestock show. Echoing the original fair, organizers held a showcase of the state’s agriculture, forgoing the carnival midway, Governor’s Ham Breakfast, and all other non-agricultural events. 

International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) awards: 2007

The 2007 fair saw high attendance, rising more than 8 percent over the previous year. The fair was awarded first place in several categories by the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE), including “Overall Program for Competitive Agricultural Exhibitors.” IAFE has awarded the fair several times since. 

State Fair Commission and Master Plan: 1996-2000

The General Assembly established the State Fair Commission in 1996 after years of consideration. The nine-member commission, appointed by the governor, collaborated with a consultant team and Missouri citizens to develop a master plan for the fair’s future, a project funded through a $4.3 million appropriation from the legislature.

The plan aimed to bolster the fair and create new buildings and exhibits based on feedback from fairgoers and stakeholders. In 2000 the Electric Cooperatives Building was unveiled, adding a media center with a live broadcast booth to the mix.  

Rock and Roll on the Fairgrounds: 1968-1974

A new grandstand was constructed in 1968, seating 8,000 guests at a cost of more than $500,000. The project utilized more than 60,000 pounds of concrete and 50 miles of wire steel.

In 1974, the fairgrounds hosted the Ozark Music Festival, a three-day-long event in the vein of Woodstock. More than 350,000 guests were estimated to have flocked to the festival, which featured prominent bands including Aerosmith and the Eagles. The festival was held shortly before the 1974 fair began, forcing staff to clean the grounds quickly before opening day.  

Aerosmith performs at the Ozark Music Festival, 1974.
In 1974, the fairgrounds hosted the Ozark Music Festival, a three-day-long event in the vein of Woodstock. (PROVIDED/VINTAGEEVERYDAY)

First Governor’s Ham Breakfast: 1953

The first Governor’s Ham Breakfast was held at the fair in 1953, beginning the tradition of political and agricultural leaders joining supporters for an early-morning meal of country-cured ham and other Missouri-made products. 

Cancellation and Tragedy: 1943-1952 

The fair was not held in 1943 and 1944 as the U.S. grappled with World War II but returned shortly after the war ended. In 1950, the Forty and Eight Railroad Car was installed on the fairgrounds to commemorate the friendship between America and France during the war. 

The 50th fair was marred by tragedy when a tornado touched down in the early morning hours on Aug. 20, 1952. A carnival worker was killed in the storm and all 60 permanent buildings were damaged, leading to nearly $70,000 in repair costs. Despite the damage, the fair resumed the next day.

Early Years: 1903-1921

The first permanent buildings dedicated to the FFA and 4-H and the coliseum were built between 1903-1906, and attendance surged by the end of its first decade. National figures began appearing at the fair in 1910 when the Wright Brothers held daily exhibits throughout the length of the fair, with President William Taft attending the following year.

The state’s centennial celebration was held at the fairgrounds in 1921, with nightly exhibits on the grandstand from an opera company depicting the history of the state. 

The cover for the Official Souvenir Program of 1921 Missouri Centennial Exposition and State Fair. (MISSOURI STATE ARCHIVES)
The cover for the Official Souvenir Program of 1921 Missouri Centennial Exposition and State Fair. (MISSOURI STATE ARCHIVES)

The First Fair: 1901

The Missouri State Fair wasn’t the first attempt to organize an agricultural exhibition in the Show-Me State: In recognition of the state’s status as the leading agricultural producer in the country, the State Agricultural Society organized an exposition in Booneville that lasted three years in the 1850s.

The fair was established only after a group of committed livestock breeders proposed action in 1897. While there were numerous cities vying for the event to be held in their towns, Sedalia prevailed with the highest bid of 150 acres. The 40th and 41st General Assemblies allotted a combined $65,000 to establish the site and begin construction. 

The Fair was led by Norman J. Coleman of St. Louis and took place from Sept. 9-13, 1901. The state faced a devastating drought that year, leading farmers to be underwhelmed with their yieldings. In addition, there were issues surrounding rail lines leading to the fairgrounds. Despite the challenges, Missourians were eager to attend and their enthusiasm led to numerous expansions over the coming years.