The first Murray County Fair was held in 1880. From 1884 through 1898 there were rival fairs, one in Currie and one in Slayton. Each claimed to be the official county fair, but both were discontinued at the turn of the century. In 1912 the Murray County Fair returned and has been held annually (with two exceptions) since that year.
The first effort to hold a fair in Murray County began in 1878 with the formation of the Murray County Agricultural Society (MCAS). Two years later, in 1880, the society hosted the first annual fair in Avoca. The second annual fair was also held in Avoca, but rainy weather and poor road conditions reduced attendance. Until 1885 the fair was held in either Avoca or Currie. The MCAS established its official fairgrounds in Currie and held subsequent fairs there.
Although Currie was designated the original seat of Murray County in 1873, citizens agitated in the 1880s to make Slayton the county seat. County residents fought over the issue at the polls and in the courts until the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in Slayton’s favor in June 1890.
Slayton also fought to become the site of the annual county fair. In 1884 Slayton residents formed a rival organization to the MCAS called the Murray County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Association (MCAMFA). They held their own fair in Slayton in September of that year.
For the next fifteen years, rival fairs competed in the county. One was hosted by the MCAS in Currie, another by the MCAMFA in Slayton. Both claimed to be the Murray County Fair. This situation continued through 1898—the last year the MCAS held a fair in Currie. As the new county seat, the city of Slayton had grown to become the commercial center of Murray County.
As the city of Slayton had grown, so had its fair. By 1898 the Slayton Fair was the bigger and more well-attended event. It was no longer financially feasible for the MCAS to hold a fair in Currie, particularly since the state had awarded subsidy money to the MCAMFA and not the MCAS.
The MCAMFA and the city of Slayton had won the battle for the Murray County Fair, but it was a short-lived victory. A lack of popular support led the MCAMFA to discontinue its fair after 1899.For twelve years there was no fair at all in the county. In 1912, however, a coalition of county residents, businessmen, and county commissioners reorganized the Murray County Agricultural Society, purchased thirty-six acres for new fairgrounds in Slayton, and restored the county fair. The society has hosted the fair every year since then (with a few exceptions).
Fairs in the early twentieth century featured vaudeville-style shows, baseball games, carnival rides and games, and displays of open-class exhibits. Local Boys and Girls Clubs (the forerunners of 4-H) informally showed their pig projects for the first time in 1918. The 4-H program was officially founded in 1924, and in 1925 the Agricultural Society formally invited 4-H members to exhibit their club projects at the fair. 4-H has been an important feature of the Murray County Fair ever since.
Drought, depression, and war reduced the size and scale of the fair in the 1930s and 1940s, yet it continued annually with just two exceptions. Due to wartime shortages, the fair was cancelled in 1942, the year after US entry into World War II. It was cancelled again in 1946 due to the polio epidemic.
As popular entertainment tastes changed over the century, so did the fair. Beginning in the 1950s, musical acts, tractor pulls, demolition derbies, and enduro races replaced vaudeville shows and baseball games as grandstand entertainment. In the 1960s and 1970s, new buildings including a sheep barn (1968), 4-H exhibit building (1964), livestock arena (1963), FFA Farmyard (1973), and a commercial building (1979) were added to the fairgrounds.
Construction of new buildings slowed during the 1980s and 1990s but rebounded in the twenty-first century. Planners added a new horse barn in 2002, a new 4-H building in 2005, and a new grandstand in 2008.
Despite a declining number of farms and overall population in the region, the Murray County Fair remains a popular attraction, drawing thousands of attendees each year.
Gaul, Anita Talsma. Homely Girls and Pretty Babies: A History of the Murray County Fair. Slayton, MN: Murray County Agricultural Society, 2013.
Hansen, David J. Murray County’s War: The Battle for the Murray County Seat. Broken Arrow, OK: Daylight Publishers, 2007.
Minutes and Records of the Murray County Agricultural Society
Fair Office, Murray County Fairgrounds, Slayton
Description: Meeting minutes and other records documenting the history of the Murray County Agricultural Society.
Murray County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair file
Murray County Historical Museum, Slayton
Description: Original articles of incorporation (1884) and other records relating to the Murray County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Association.
Murray County State Fair collection
Murray County Historical Museum, Slayton
Description: Newspaper articles and paper ephemera, compiled by Eleanor Warren, documenting the evolution of the Murray County Fair.
Records of the University of Minnesota Extension, 1917–2012
Murray County Office, Murray County Courthouse Building, Slayton
Description: Financial records, annual reports, correspondence, scrapbooks, and photographs documenting the evolution of the Murray County 4-H Club.
In 1912, county residents reorganize the Murray County Agricultural Society, purchase thirty-six acres for new fairgrounds, and restore the Murray County Fair after a twelve-year absence.
Murray County Agricultural Society (MCAS) forms.
The MCAS hosts the first annual fair.
The Murray County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Association (MCAMFA) organizes; fairs in Currie and Slayton compete for the first time.
The MCAS fair in Currie is held for the last time.
The MCAMFA fair in Slayton is held for the last time.
The Murray County Agricultural Society is reorganized; the Murray County Fair returns.
4-H club members are invited to show their projects at the fair.
The fair is cancelled due to World War II.
The fair is cancelled due to the polio epidemic.
The Murray County Fair becomes a free fair (no admission is charged).
The fair holds its first tractor pull and rodeo.
The first woman member, Helen Opdahl, joins the Board of Directors of the Murray County Agricultural Society.
A new grandstand is built.