The Minnesota State Fair surpassed a new milestone in 2018 when total attendance over 12 days topped 2 million for the first time, shattering the overall attendance record for the fourth time in five years and setting five daily attendance records in the process.
It’s clear the Great Minnesota Get-Together is very popular, but is it more popular than ever? To find out, we requested historical attendance data from fair officials. Jerry Hammer, the fair’s general manager since 1997, passed along annual attendance numbers dating back to 1930.
As you can see from the chart above, fair attendance has risen consistently over the decades. The population of Minnesota was about 2.6 million in 1930, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the population today is roughly 5.6 million. That means in 1930 there were about 177 fair visitors for every 1,000 Minnesotans. In 2018, with 2,046,533 total visitors, the rate was about 365 per 1,000 people. By that measure, it appears the fair is quite a bit more popular today than in 1930.
Of course, in 1930 the country had just entered the Great Depression, so it’s likely that many people did not have a lot of disposable income. According to the fair’s 1930 annual report, the price of admission was reduced from 75 cents the year before to 50 cents, which is the equivalent to $7.59 in today’s dollars (and quite a bit lower than the current price of $14 for an adult). Fair attendance rose substantially as the economy recovered, thanks in part to improvements to the fairgrounds through the Works Project Administration and other New Deal-era programs, reaching 762,000 by 1941, a new record that would stand until after World War II.
The war was the most notable exception to the fair’s near-constant growth. Attendance fell dramatically, as hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans went overseas and the federal government placed restrictions on fuel and other necessary resources. The event was canceled altogether in 1945 because, according to Hammer, there was not enough planning time after the war ended that August, and it was called off again in 1946 due to a polio epidemic.
When the fair returned in 1947, so did the crowds, reaching a new high of roughly 903,000 people — about 323 visitors for every 1,000 Minnesotans, much closer to this year’s rate. Less than a decade later, attendance crossed a new threshold, topping 1 million for the first time in 1955, or about 337 visits per 1,000 people.
Fair attendance rose throughout the turbulent 1960s, setting yet another record of 1,281,000 in 1968, a year marked by extreme social unrest, or about 346 visitors for every 1,000 Minnesotans. Attendance continued to climb while the nation wallowed in the economic malaise of the late 1970s, reaching a new high of 1,375,000 in 1981.
But it wasn’t until 1988, when 1,621,000 visitors flooded the fairgrounds, that the Minnesota State Fair achieved its all-time peak popularity, with 377 visits per 1,000 Minnesotans. What happened that year? The weather was likely a key factor. It was a blistering summer, with the high temperature topping 90 degrees on a record 44 days. According to the 1988 annual report, the start of the fair coincided with “the first comfortable weather during what had been up until then a long, hot summer.”
How big can the fair get? Hammer said there is no plan to add more days and there's no daily maximum capacity, due to the large amount of space available and the ongoing expansion of facilities and amenities. About 67,000 more people would have needed to pass through the gates in 2018 to overtake the record popularity of 1988. There’s always next year!