A Brief History of the Alaska State Fair – Celebrating 75 Years!
Updated July 12, 2011
The U.S. government made the final, and successful, effort to populate the Matanuska Valley in 1935. A farming colony was established in the Valley, with the intent of opening up Alaska, providing food to the military in case of war, and giving families on relief a new start. A total of 203 families from Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma were selected. They arrived in the Valley in May 1935. Four years later, 40 percent of the original colonists still remained.
During their first year, the colonists constructed their homes, cleared fields and built a community. By July 1936, they were ready for a celebration. The Matanuska Valley Fair Association was formed and they decided to hold a four-day Fair from September 4 through September 7. The Fair celebrates the 75th birthday of that original event in 2011.
The colonists raised money for the original Fair by selling stock; within a few days, $1,200 had been raised. Admission was set at $1 for adults or $2 for a season pass; admission was free for children under 8.
The first Fair was held on the school grounds; today, that location houses the Mat-Su Borough offices. The inaugural event coincided with the opening of the Knik River Bridge, which linked the city of Anchorage and the Valley by road for the first time. This, combined with the railroad, meant that people from all over the state could attend. That year’s events included the crowning of the Fair queen, a baby show, boxing matches, horse races, dances, a rodeo and baseball games. There were also hundreds of agricultural entries, including giant cabbages, grain, carrots, onions, celery, peas and other vegetables.
In 1936, the Fair acquired a more permanent site from the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (ARRC), where the Palmer Pioneer Home is now located. In 1939, a then-record 1,600 visitors attended the Fair.
The giant cabbage contest tradition began in 1941, when the manager of the Alaska Railroad offered a $25 prize for the largest cabbage. Max Sherrod of the Valley took the prize with a 23 pounder.
“War jitters” contributed to a five-year hiatus of the Fair from 1942 to 1946. But the Fair was back in full swing in 1947, with 160 exhibitors. That number grew to 205 in 1948.
Due to expensive physical improvements, the Fair Association treasury dipped to $35 in 1949. The Fair needed some new attractions to draw crowds, and 1950 saw the first carnival rides at the Fair. An air show was added in 1951.
The new attractions worked and, by 1956, attendance had grown enough to justify the Fair Board’s petition to the Alaska Legislature for official designation as the Alaska State Fair. That year, Sen. Jalmar Kerttula presented a bill in the Legislature to designate the Alaska State Fair as the “official” state fair. Tanana Valley Fair in Fairbanks had also made the same request, so the Legislature decided to alternate between the two fairs. Tanana Valley Fair is the “official” state fair on even years and Alaska State Fair, Inc. is the “official” state fair on odd years.
On February 25, 1959, the Fair’s name changed from Matanuska Valley Fair Association to Alaska State Fair, Inc.
In 1960, the Fair celebrated its 25th anniversary. The crowds, including an appearance by John F. Kennedy, came out to celebrate and attendance reached 30,000.
In 1966, the Fair purchased 221 acres from Palmer Raceways Assn. and 1967 was the Fair’s first year in its present location. The total attendance that year reached 72,000.
The first 11-day Fair took place in 1968. The following year, two years after moving to its new location, the Fair donated its land in Palmer for the Pioneer Home.
The Fair’s long-standing relationship with the Mat-Su Miners baseball team (formerly the Valley Green Giants) began in 1975, when the Fair board was approached with a proposal to host a semi-pro baseball team and field on the fairgrounds. In 1976, the Fair board made land available. Many people were involved in the field construction, but none more so than the Hermon Brothers, who used personal time and equipment from their construction company to build the ball field. Therefore, the name Hermon Field was designated by the Fair board.
The Fair’s log food booths were built in the early 1970s by local logsmith Jimmy Hitchcock. Some of the buildings from Palmer’s early days were moved to the fairgrounds starting in 1975 as part of a bicentennial project. The buildings included Colony Church/Theatre, which was built in 1936 – 1937, and served as one of the three original colony churches; the Hesse-Smith House, which was built in 1935, and was one of five house plans offered to the colonists; the MacNevin House, built in 1935; Wineck Barn, which represents the dominant style of barn built for the colonists; and the Evan Jones House, built circa 1917 by the Jones family of the Jonesville Coal Mine. These buildings are still being utilized as Fair offices and for events year-round.
In 1976, three acres of the southwest corner of the fairgrounds became the temporary home for the Transportation Museum of Alaska. The museum, now named the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, moved to its current location in Wasilla in 1992.
In the early 1980s, major upgrades to the Fair’s electrical, sewer and water systems were made. That same year, construction of the Farm Exhibits building began, and the earth that was removed for the building’s foundation was used to build the Borealis Theatre bowl.
Originally, the Farm Exhibits structure was designed to be a multi-purpose arena for Fair-time activities, as well as year-round, non-Fair use. Funding for the construction was requested from the state, and completion of the building was to be done in phases. However, after the phase one funding was received, the state had no available monies to complete the project, leaving just the skeleton of a building, which is still in use today. Present use of the structure is minimal compared to the original intent of the building. One of the current uses is the display of livestock during the Fair; however, the low number of livestock exhibits reflects the change in Valley land use, which dictates the need for programs that are more in tune with current land uses and demographics.
Another significant change in the look of the fairgrounds occurred in 1997, when the construction of Pioneer Plaza and Raven Hall was completed. The Fair borrowed $2.1 million for this project, which was to be paid off in 2012. Due to frugal fiscal practices, the project was paid off in 2009. Today, Pioneer Plaza offers ample room for displays and attractions during the Fair, while Raven Hall serves as a public assembly facility with no municipal, borough or state subsidies.
The Fair marked the first year of the new century by filling and burying a time capsule, which is scheduled to be opened in 2036 in commemoration of the Fair’s 100th anniversary.
A major development in the physical evolution of the fairgrounds took place in 2001, when the Fair purchased 40 acres of land containing the Rebarchek gravel pit. In 2002, the Fair also purchased the Rebarchek farmhouse and five additional acres of land. In 2003, the Fair traded the Rebarchek gravel pit for 40 acres of the adjacent Hamilton farm, through an agreement with Alaska Demolition. The swap was a way to buffer the fairgrounds from non-compatible land uses, such as residential and commercial development.
Over the years, Fair attendance has continued its upward trend. During the 18-day Fair in 1998, a record 361,804 people enjoyed the festivities. That same year, the Fair accepted an impressive 10,890 exhibit entries – the highest on record. The Fair set another record in 2003, with 312,419 visitors attending the Fair over a 12-day period. That year, the Fair relied on the talents of 12 full-time employees, 420 temporary employees and 300 volunteers.
In 2004, after two years of construction, the Fair opened its new Green Gate and Railroad Depot on the south end of the fairgrounds. The development included new restrooms, covered areas, an electronic sign, and Glenn Highway Scenic Byway interpretive panels. The year-round facility also accommodates trains, buses, shuttle vans, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, and includes parking areas, rider drop-off areas and a one-way traffic flow. Changes to the fairgrounds continued in 2007, when the title to the Don Sheldon Events Center was transferred from the Mat-Su Borough to the Fair.
The beautiful gardens and colorful flowers that decorate the grounds have long been a mainstay of the Fair and a favorite amongst fairgoers. In 2007, the Fair’s handiwork received some well-deserved national recognition, when the makers of the Public Broadcasting Service program GardenSMART visited the Fair to film a 30-minute segment featuring the Fair’s herb, perennial and annual gardens, as well as highlighting the Fair’s famous giant vegetables. The segment also included a history of the Fair and its significance to the state.
The 2008 Fair coincided with Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood, and many events were designed to celebrate that momentous milestone. Among them was the unveiling of the official Alaska state quarter. On August 29 – the same day Alaska’s former Gov. Sarah Palin was named a U.S. vice presidential candidate – thousands of fairgoers gathered to witness the introduction of the State of Alaska quarter by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Lt. Governor Sean Parnell and officials from the United State Mint.
The Fair’s 2008 efforts earned it an award from the American Bus Association, which named the Fair one of the top 100 events in North America. This annual award recognizes 100 of the best events for group travel in the U.S. and Canada.
In 2009, Wasilla farmer Steve Hubacek set a new record for the world’s heaviest cabbage with his 127-pound entry into the Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. Previous fruit and vegetable world records set at the Fair include:
· 35-pound broccoli grown by John Evans of Palmer in 1993
· 18.985-pound carrot grown by John Evans of Palmer in 1998
· 42.75-pound beet grown by John Evans of Palmer in 1999
· 63.3-pound celery grown by Scott Robb of Palmer in 2003
· 64.8-pound cantaloupe grown by Scott Robb of Palmer in 2004
· 39.2-pound turnip grown by Scott Robb of Palmer in 2004
· 96.96-pound kohlrabi grown by Scott Robb of Palmer in 2006
· 105.9-pound kale grown by Scott Robb of Palmer in 2007
· 82.9-pound rutabaga grown by Scott Robb of Palmer in 2009
Highlights from 2010 included an estimated attendance of 290,199 visitors, 450 vendors, and 37,176 pounds of recyclables collected. That year, four new state records were set, including Dave Iles’ 39-inch bean, and Dale Marshall’s 83-inch gourd and 1,101-pound pumpkin. Iles also set a pending new world record with his 46-foot, 8-inch gourd vine.
Today, as a private nonprofit, the Fair faces many challenges, including code compliance, necessary infrastructure and maintenance upgrades, and providing the best programming that showcases all Alaskans. The Fair continues to address these challenges; for example, to involve a wide cross-section of Alaskans, the Fair plans to host its largest celebration of Alaska Native culture ever as part of the 2011 “Raven’s People: Celebrating Alaska’s Native Cultures” program.
Also in 2011, the Fair’s Flower Exhibits building (previously the Livestock Barn and then the Fair Exchange) will become the Kid Zone, offering fun, educational children’s activities as well as the Children’s Maze, a spectacular garden maze for young children featuring different themes every year. Meanwhile, the Flowers Exhibits department will move to a new area created especially for them in the Farm Exhibits building.
While the Fair has certainly come a long way since the first event in 1936, the spirit of the Fair remains relatively constant. Visitors do enjoy a wider range of events, such as big name entertainers and carnival rides, but the heart of the Fair still centers on the things the original colonists started with – agriculture, produce, lots of food, flowers, friends and family, and an old-fashioned, good time. The Fair looks forward to celebrating its long-standing traditions and its bright future with a 75th birthday celebration this year.