The Fourth of July has come and gone once again, and now it’s nearly August. Before August can roll in, however, the Scott County Fair must begin! The Scott County Fair is coming up within a few weeks, running from July 26th to the 30th, a long-awaited source of joy in mid-summer. Adults and children alike have waited patiently (and perhaps not so patiently) for the fair, mouths watering at the thought of deliciously fried food, a spike of excitement through the heart at the thought of rides, and pride at the thought of showing off their crafts.
The Scott County Fair has been a source of community camaraderie for a very long time, but for how long exactly? Strap on your boots and belts – we’re about to take a step back in time.
Long before the Scott County Fair was known with its modern name, it was first known as the Scott County Agricultural Fair. The very first Scott County Agricultural Fair took place in Shakopee in 1857. As the name suggests, the fair featured items concerning agriculture and livestock, hosting the displays in various buildings. The Scott County Agricultural Fair, having no permanent location, used Jordan, Belle Plaine, and Shakopee for fair locations, up until 1883. In 1872 the Scott County Agricultural Society was formed, and the society took it upon themselves to answer the demands of the people – find a permanent location for the county fair.
In 1883 a decision was made to have the permanent location in Shakopee. Twenty acres of ground were chosen, and within a year, buildings were erected to house agricultural, horticultural and livestock displays, as well as other various events, such as horse races.
Information on the Scott County Agricultural Fair is scarce between 1885 and the early 1890s. In years that had troubled times for crops, displays were small and nearly nonexistent. Mentions of fairs in Scott County do not appear until around 1893 – and this is where things get confusing. Instead of a county fair, there are articles of a street fair, located annually in Shakopee. The street fair was very similar to a county fair in that it ran for three days, and had displays on local agriculture and horticulture, but also featured music, dancing, parades, and performers of all kinds. It is not entirely known whether the street fair and county fair occurred in the same years, or that the street fair simply took place of the county fair when times were difficult.
Street fairs were held in late August or early September – to make things even more confusing, newspaper articles described Shakopee’s street fairs as Scott County Fairs – perhaps in a way to let individuals of Scott County know that the fair was all inclusive, and not just for those living in Shakopee. An article in the Shakopee Tribune in 1925 noted that the “Scott County Agricultural Fair…in Shakopee” had a “larger crowd than usual”. It is unknown whether this is another street fair or an actual county fair.
The Scott County Fair eventually moved to a location in Jordan. Similar to the fairs mentioned above, displays were available for viewing, and plenty of entertainment was provided, such as trained animals, parades, band concerts, and free movies. In 1973, the fairgrounds moved to 80 acres in St. Lawrence township, which is where the fair has taken place ever since. The fair and fairgrounds are always improving, with new buildings being erected for more viewing entertainment, and new attractions entering the scope of joy. Despite all of the years that it has been since the very first Scott County Agricultural Fair and the many changes the fair has taken over the years, the coming together of Scott County individuals and the pride that they feel for their local farmers, businesses, friends, and family members, has not changed.
So, make sure to take the time to visit the Scott County Fair this July 26-30, and embrace the community and shared sense of joy that the fair gives to visitors.
One of the earliest volunteer fire companies, and the first fire insurance company, were both set up in the 1750s by Ben Franklin and his friend Dr. Thomas Graeme. Fire companies served a social significance as well as the practical significance. You can see the social aspect of firefighting playing out in the illustration in the center of the image. Three hoses are trained on the burning building, and you can trace those hoses to three different fire departments. They each wear different colored capes: red, black and pale blue, to tell each other apart. Here, the three bands are acting in cooperation, but that wasn’t always the case.
The second illustration will seem familiar if you’ve seen the movie Gangs of New York. The man with the red shirt, stovepipe hat and Paul Bunyan stature sitting on the barrel is Mose. Mose was more of a myth than a man, but he comes out of the Bowery gangs of New York’s east side that are depicted in the popular film. He was also a character in one of the most popular plays of the New York stage. Most of the tough Bowery b’hoys were volunteer firemen, and their companies were their gangs. They would brawl each other for the honor of putting out a fire, often letting a house burn in the process. The barrel in the illustration is interesting. The first person to each fire was assigned the task of guarding the fireplugs. These are plugs in wooden water pipes that firemen would remove to connect their hoses to the main. The gangs in New York would send out a man with an empty barrel to put over the main to guard the plug from rival companies. These goons were called “plug uglies” and that’s very similar to what Mose is doing here.
What does all this as background have to do with Scott County? The earliest Scott County and Minnesota fire departments were just as social organizations as their eastern predecessors, only much less violent. Important citizens were active members of volunteer fire fighting, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere.
What did towns do without a fire company: let a house burn or put it out yourself. Fighting fires was everybody’s business and everybody’s job. As towns expanded and became more dense, the dangers of fire became more serious, and clamor for a fire company grew.
Fighting fires in the 19th century was tricky for several reasons: for one, building materials were easily combustible. While 1870s Scott County was by no means a new settlement, there were enough log houses to make a general conflagration in a city a major disaster. Second, sources of heating were dangerous: gas lights, fires, stoves, candles, all contained the possibility of getting out of control and starting a blaze. Finally, the earliest industries that helped cities grow often contained dangerous possibilities for fires. Lumber industry, flour milling, textiles, etc. In fact, one of Shakopee’s flour mills burned in 1885—a very dangerous fire because of the explosive properties of wheat dust.
In 1872 Shakopee had it’s first big fire at the St. Paul and Sioux City railroad machine shop on east First Avenue. It caused quite a bit of damage to a vital part of the city’s growth and sustenance – the railroad. In 1879, the National Hotel burned, wiping out an entire city block that contained a grocery, several saloons, and a meat market.
1883 is our starting date—that’s when years of agitation for a fire department finally paid off and a fire department was organized with elected members and three companies: Hook & Ladder, Engine (pumper) and Hose Companies. Belle Plaine organzied their company in January of 1883 with great success, however the department would dwindle and disband over the next two years. However, their early success may have inspired Shakopee to organize their company in the fall of 1883.
The Shakopee Fire Department (SFD) has all its original ledger books that record the dates of their earliest meetings, who was present, who was not present and had to pay the absentee fine, and a list of fire calls . This ledger is of the Hook & Ladder Co.—so not the entire department—and in 1884 their budget was $31.80, a tidy sum for that day, though they received a city appropriation for $2,900 for initial equipment purchases.
The department was always a tight social organization. But there was a lot of pomp and entertainment to their events. They held annual Thanksgiving and Christmas balls which were the talk of the town and also helped the department raise money. The ShakopeeArgus reported on their first one in 1883: “The first annual ball of the city Fire Department was held last evening and was largely attended and thoroughly enjoyed. The firemen were all dressed in their uniforms and presented a fine appearance in their drill…a thoroughly enjoyable time is the unanimous verdict.”
In America, we don’t talk about class very much. But some of the earliest visitors to our nation when it was young were amazed at the spirit of community and civic duty that cut across class lines. The son of a French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, was one of the most astute observers of early American life, and remarked on how, in towns across the county, people felt the duty and desire to pitch in and steer the direction of their community and nation. This translates down to the Shakopee fire dept., as well. On its rolls, you see that its members were farmers, butchers, lawyers, shop owners, craftsmen and speculators; blue collar and white collar, sometimes both at once. Most of them were immigrants. But they were connected to the growing town and to each other, perhaps by civic duty, by self-interest, or both.
Just as the early town was dependent upon the civic engagement of all its citizens to survive, so were nearby towns dependent upon each other. Fire calls in Shakopee history have often been assisted by companies from other towns. Before Shakopee had its own department, St. Paul was one of the only organized fire departments in fledgling Minnesota. They had men and equipment, like a pumper engine, though it took the department several hours to get here by rail. Jordan and Chaska were also instrumental in fighting Shakopee’s fires, and it works vice versa.
A page from the first ledger of the department shows part of the fire record for 1884. It indicates that barns and railroad shops were the unfortunate recipients of fire for the first half of the year. The Omaha Railroad company shops caught fire twice, and neither fire was ruled accidental but “incendiary.” It also lists J. B. Conter’s hotel barn as catching fire accidentally for a loss of $2. Conter’s hotel was Shakopee’s Pelham hotel, later the Merchant Hotel. The details of early Shakopee society that the ledgers reveal and the services rendered and records kept by the fire dept. are extraordinary.
The first decade of 1900 brought new improvements for Shakopee’s firemen. The city installed new water mains and fire hydrants for a larger and more reliable water supply. Hydrants provided their own pressure, so the use of heavy pumpers was reduced.
Shakopee Fire Department c1928-1930
In 1916, the SDF aquired its first motorized fire apparatus, a Kissel Chemical Fire Engine. That same year, fire broke out at Ries Bottling works (of which we have the letter). The fire took off because the warehouse that caught fire stored paper, boxes and wooden cases that fed the blaze. Apparently the Kissel did not perform well at that fire. Another large fire took place in 1923 at the Minnesota Stove Co.
A pivotal year for the SFD was 1954/5, the year that they got their new building and moved out of the city building on 2nd and Lewis.
Fires included the McMurray building at 1st and Lewis in 1957, the Shakopee Warehouse in 1962, and the St. Paul House in 1965 which firemen kept at for 16 hours. Simons Lumber Yard burned in 1968, and was at 2nd and Lewis, visible at left of the picture with the fire bell.
1959 had the worst fire that Shakopee has yet seen, not so much for loss of property or extent of the blaze, but for the only loss of life to occur within the department’s history. A fire started at Schesso’s garage, a Chevrolet dealership. The fire was tricky because the fire fed on the gas and oil in and around the cars. The blaze lasted 6 hours, in the course of which, Max Wermerskirchen, a 28 year old fireman, fell through the roof of the building while trying to break out a skylight to ventilate the building. The SDF dedicated a plaque to Max’s memory as the one firefighter to die in the line of duty in Shakopee.
We recommend Caroline Paul’s book Fighting Fire for the women’s side of the occupation. Her book is grizzly in parts, but a very interesting read.
Original article written by Patrick Rodgers, former curator at SCHS.
It’s been a busy few months at the SCHS! Below are photos and highlights from some of our recent programs.
– In February, we learned about the lives of several African-American men and women who lived in 1800s Shakopee, thanks to guest presenter David Schleper of the Shakopee Heritage Society.
– In March, Shelley Gorham from the Minnesota DNR taught us all about the Minnesota River valley, from the history of fur trading in the area to present-day habitats and wildlife. (PSSST- if you haven’t yet visited the SCHS’s “Minnesota River” exhibit, there’s still time! It will be up through the end of May!)
-In April, guest instructor David Hudson showed us how to make our own lye soap, just as people did in the old days. (Well, except we had the advantage of microwaves to help speed up the process!)
We’ve also had lots of fun kids’ programs recently!
– If you visited the museum on just the right Saturday in January, February, or April, you may have seen students carving tools out of rocks, throwing darts with an atlatl, or digging for artifacts in the museum garden. This was all part of our Youth Archaeology program. Big thanks to the Minnesota Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund for making these workshops possible!
– Meanwhile, younger kids enjoyed singing songs, listening to stories, and making crafts at our monthly Kids Kraft program, a fun opportunity to introduce young children to the museum.
We have many more great programs coming up, including our annual meeting next Thursday, May 18 featuring guest speaker and local racing legend John Boegeman. Register for that program here, and stay up-to-date on all of our events by visiting http://www.scottcountyhistory.org.
Spring is here! The flowers are blooming, the grass is green, and the days are getting longer. Indeed, summer will nearly be upon us in a month!
Now that the weather is warming up, and the sun is shining more and more, don’t forget to step outside your house and enjoy the warmth you haven’t felt since last year, as well as the activities your town has to offer.
Call your friends, sit in the yard, and enjoy a picnic or a party, just like these Shakopee foundry workers did back in 1905.
Parades will soon start marching down the streets of towns, so don’t forget to set your chair on the curb and make memories like these individuals did during a parade in Belle Plaine in 1901! (And maybe…not so secretly… snack on some candy).
Baseball season is already well underway, so make your way to your local baseball diamond, eat a hot dog and some nachos, and cheer on your favorite team, just like the fans of this Rock Spring team did in 1910.
Try and make time for some leisurely afternoon walks in your local park, be it to listen to music, take your dog for a walk, or just to hang out with friends, like these young women did in 1905.
Last, but not least, hit the road! Head to your favorite destination, with your windows or top down, and enjoy the spring breeze on your face and in your hair. Have fun and make memories, just like Mathilda (Nyssen) Stans and her family did in 1905.
Over his long career in photography, Shakopee native Leroy Lebens seems to have documented a little bit of everything in Scott County: weddings, construction, floods, graduations, sports, wildlife, and concerts to name a few. He also happened to track the growth and development of many Shakopee businesses and institutions. This week we are taking a closer look at a few of these photographs of Shakopee businesses from his collection we have housed at Scott County Historical Society. Spanning well over thirty years, these ten pictures feature places you can still visit and some of which have long been closed. This is just a small sampling of what we have found so far. Take a quick trip down memory lane with us!
Shown: Wampachs, Midland Glass, Shakopee Motors, Rahr Malting, Betty Lu’s, Abeln’s Bar, Mill Pond, St. Paul House, St. Francis Hospital, and First National Bank.