Take a stroll along Food Alley
Some people go to the fair to see the livestock, some go to browse through the 4-H or FFA exhibits. Some people are drawn to the carnival and the free entertainment, and some get all caught up in the excitement of the tractor pull or demo derby.
But there is one thing that almost everyone looks for while visiting the Olmsted County Fair: the food.
Fair food traditions: then and now
As we have researched fair history, the first mention of food at the fair was in 1866 when the Minnesota State Fair came to Rochester for the first time. The fairgrounds that year were south of the city and north of the Zumbro River on property that is now part of Soldiers Memorial Field.
A story we found dated Oct. 6, 1866, gives a thorough review of the fair and says, "The Methodist and Universalist Churches opened Dining Halls, where they fed the hungry multitude for the benefit of their churches."
The concept of dining halls was carried on for many years as an integral part of the county and state fairs held here.
In the early days, the menu offered was close to what one would find in a restaurant or diner. Full meals were available with meat and potatoes, vegetables and salads, breads and desserts. Coffee and milk were more common than soda pop. Pies, cake and cookies were homemade and ice cream treats were a special offering if the hall had a freezer to keep them frozen.
Most 4-Hers will remember taking their turn at helping in the 4-H restaurant. That was a major undertaking and it was the most important fundraiser for the yearly program of 4-H events and activities.
At one time, the 4-H restaurant was located on the hill near where today’s 4-H building stands.
In the 1940s, it moved to a building where the beer garden is now located — the restaurant on the west end, exhibit space on the east end.
When the current 4-H building was constructed in 1956, a "modern" kitchen and dining room were put in at the north end of the facility. Leaders, parents and 4-H members all took their turns to prepare and serve the food, clear and clean the tables, and help their customers enjoy food in a comfortable setting.
Today, the 4-H Burger Barn in the livestock building is continuing the tradition of 4-Hers offering good food and quick service.
There are many other traditions to be found along Food Alley at today's fair, such as a stop at the Tom Thumb Donut stand.
Tom Thumb Donuts were born in 1949 and arrived at the Olmsted County Fair in the 1960s, brought here by John and Jan Desmond. In a Post-Bulletin story written by Harold Severson some years ago, John Desmond is quoted as saying, "I can remember begging people to try them at a penny each."
Funnel cakes are another favorite at the fair. John and Veirlyn Hoisington first opened their business, John’s Funnel Cakes, in a trailer on North Broadway in the spring of 1979. They brought their trailer to the Olmsted County Fair and funnel cakes were an immediate hit.
The "cakes" are a Pennsylvania Dutch pastry, deep fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. They get their name because the batter is poured through a funnel into the hot fat in a circular pattern.
First found at the fair
Over the years we’ve been introduced to a multitude of foods and treats that were first found at the fair.
There are Pronto Pups, which started as a State Fair special in the 1940s. Sno-cones are a delightful fruity, icy treat for a hot day.
Lemonade was probably sold at the early fairs, now we find it in stands where they make it on the spot for a fresh, cool treat. All you can drink for a dime is the way the American Dairy Association milk stand started in the 1960s, and their malt stand arrived in about 1973.
If you pair up one of these dairy treats with a pork sandwich from the Pork Producer’s stand, you have a meal that’s hard to beat. But if you prefer pizza or ethnic foods, baked potatoes or cheese curds, they can be found, too. Just take a walk down Food Alley and there will surely be something to please your palate.
When you’ve had your fill of good things to eat, visit the history display of 150 years of the Olmsted County Fair in the Graham Arenas Atrium. There you will find photos, newspaper stories and memorabilia dating back to 1860.
A souvenir book of the fair history will also be available for $5.