Falcon Heights, MN

The 1946 Minnesota State Fair was Canceled Due to a Polio Epidemic

Matt Reicher

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Minnesota State Fair - Fairgrounds c. 1902Minnesota Historical Society

FALCON HEIGHTS, MINNESOTA - The 1946 Minnesota State Fair was an opportunity to celebrate an America that emerged victorious after World War II. Force to close in 1945 due to wartime fuel shortages, the state was ready to open its gates and celebrate the "Great Minnesota Get Together."

Unfortunately, Minnesota was caught in the clutches of a polio epidemic. As the state moved from spring into summer, it was reported that 1 out of every 2,114 Minnesotans had been infected with the virus that year. Children under 15 accounted for 70% of the state's cases.

As August approached and the disease didn't seem to be losing steam, talked turned to canceling the state's upcoming outdoor events. The intention was to keep people from meeting in large groups and potentially passing the disease. The Minnesota State Fair, scheduled to take place August 24 - September 2, was at the top of the list.

With roughly 1600 cases and just over 100 deaths reported in Minnesota since the beginning of the year, everyone involved was concerned about more people getting sick - especially kids.

A closed-door meeting was held between the State Fair board and health and education authorities on August 14 to discuss potential options. At the end of the more than one-hour session, based on the group's recommendation, the state board of health secretary, Dr. A.J. Chesley, issued the official order to cancel the 1946 State Fair due to the polio outbreak.

The declaration forbade the assembly of groups in ways that would endanger the public or spread the disease. Speculation leading up to the meeting was that the minimum decision of the group would be to ban children from the event. In the end, the group decided to error on the side of caution and closed it entirely.

In accordance with state law, only the state board of health has the authority to make the final decision. Even though Chesley believed that there was no conclusive evidence that controlling crowds would keep the virus at bay, he felt that, in the interest of safety, unnecessary crowds should be avoided - particularly when children are present.

Shortly after the announcement was made, crews of more than one hundred employees who had worked tirelessly to set everything up for the event went back to work, taking those same things down and returning them to storage for another year. Fair officials asked people who submitted entries to the various contests that would be judged to come and pick up their items.

The financial brunt of this decision fell squarely on the shoulders of the State Fair. Estimated costs by its forced closing were well over $100,000, with $25,000 already spent in advertising the upcoming event.

While they were concerned about the financial loss, they believed the group's final decision was the correct one. State Fair board secretary emphasized that closing the even would be a low price to pay if it saved the life of one person that might have gotten sick by attending the fair.

Before 2020 cancellation due to Covid-19, this was the last of five occasions that the State Fair was forced to close.

Minnesotans came rushing back to the fair in droves the following year. Many records were set in 1947, including event attendance of 902,693 and outside gate receipts of $349,841.

Sources

  • Downtown. "1946: Minnesota State Fair Cancelled Due to Polio Epidemic ❤️ Free Fun Guides." Free Fun Guides. Last modified February 28, 2020. https://www.freefunguides.com/minnesota/1946-state-fair-cancelled-polio-epidemic/.
  • Hawley, David. "From the Archives: Why the MN State Fair Was Canceled in 1946." Twin Cities. Last modified April 20, 2020. https://www.twincities.com/2020/04/20/from-the-archives-why-the-mn-state-fair-was-canceled-in-1946/.
  • "History." Minnesota State Fair. Last modified January 15, 2021. https://www.mnstatefair.org/get-involved/media/history/.
  • Minneapolis Morning Tribune. "Polio Ban Puts Fair in Reverse." August 15, 1946, 1.
  • The Minneapolis Star. "Decision Follows Polio Rise." August 14, 1946, 1.
  • St. Paul Dispatch. August 14, 1946.

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Freelance historian writing about Minnesota's beer and brewing history for Minnesota Then.

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