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History of the Cattle Barn treasured at the Minnesota State Fair

The 100-year anniversary of the Cattle Barn, which has around 1,000 head of cattle inside throughout the fair each year, was celebrated this year after last year's fair was cancelled.

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An entrance to the Cattle Barn at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 6, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek
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ST PAUL ― For 100 years and more, the Cattle Barn at the Minnesota State Fair has been a temporary home for thousands of cattle and the exhibitors showing them.

Last year was the 100-year anniversary of the Cattle Barn, located on the Como Avenue side of the fairgrounds. The 117,450-square-foot brick structure, which finished being built in 1920, can house around 1,000 cattle at a time.

Because officials had to cancel the fair for only the sixth time ever in 2020, fair-goers weren't able to wander the aisles of the historic barn on its anniversary.

"Last year with no fair we couldn't celebrate, so we're choosing to celebrate this year at 100 years and more," said Jill Nathe, deputy general manager of the agriculture and competitions departments at the Minnesota State Fair.


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Cows inside the Cattle Barn at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 6, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

Originally known as the Livestock Pavilion, the Cattle Barn was designed by famed architect Clarence H. Johnston, who also designed Williams Arena and Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, and the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth. Johnston served as Minnesota State Architect from 1901 to 1931.

"He kind of has his stamp on a lot of things in Minnesota, and we're lucky to have at least one of his buildings here on the fairgrounds," Nathe said. "When you really step back and look at the building, you appreciate some of the architecture."

She said that appreciation really came to light when sections of the Cattle Barn had to be rebuilt after two levels of the roof collapsed from the weight of snow in March 2019.

"We're really lucky to be able to celebrate 100-plus years of the cattle barn, because that was all rebuilt," she said.

A lot was learned about the building in the reconstruction process, said Nathe.

"We learned at that time about the brick size that was used, the windows and some of the additional facade pieces that were really important," she said. "And it was rebuilt to match that as absolutely as closely as possible, and maintain that integrity and maintain that history of this building."


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A sign commemorating the 100 year anniversary at the entrance to the Cattle Barn at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 6, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

Nathe said because of the repairs, she thinks the Cattle Barn has another 100 years in it.

"We've actually improved a lot after the collapse, and we were able to upgrade the lighting, the electricity and do some other things in the building," she said. "So I really think we've created a very flexible building with portable stalls that we can use for a variety of purposes for the next century."

Good to be back

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An entrance to the Cattle Barn at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 6, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

On the final day of the 2021 fair, Nathe said it was a great feeling to be back inside the Cattle Barn this year.

"It just meant a lot these past 12 days to have everybody here celebrating and being back together again," she said.

Nathe said that 4-H kids showcase their beef and dairy cattle projects in the Cattle Barn for the first four days of the fair. The middle four days are for the Open Class Dairy Cattle — which has Holsteins, Jerseys and red and whites showcased from across the Midwest. Open Class Beef Cattle exhibitors along with FFA dairy and beef cattle are in the barn for the final four days

"So throughout the fair, we have about 1,000-head of cattle in the barn at all times," said Nathe.


On top of browsing the variety of dairy and beef cattle breeds, fair-goers could watch cows being milked and get an education from the Moo Booth and Milking Parlor inside of the barn.

Nathe tells fair-goers interested in the history of the Cattle Barn to look up when they're inside because there used to be a mezzanine level. On some of the posts you can see the bolt holes where the level once was.

"I love this barn," said Joan Waldron of Buffalo, Minn., whose family runs Wildwood Farm. "If I could go back in time, I'd like to see that upper level of the barn because I've only seen pictures of it."

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An old photo of the Cattle Barn with a mezzanine level, added in 1921, which is no long part of the building. Noah Fish / Agweek

Wildwood farm, run by Tom, Joan and Jane Waldron in central Minnesota, raises shorthorn seed stock and club calves. Joan Waldron said this was their 50th year of having shorthorns, and they've been showing in the open class inside the Cattle Barn for 47 of those years.

Tom Waldron is the third generation on the farm, and his grandfather would exhibit cattle at different fairs by taking the animals via train.

"Wouldn't that have been cool to see, packing them all on the train?" asked Joan Waldron.

She said she's glad things have changed since then, because women didn't used to go with their farmer husbands at the time.

"That was just the deal at the time, the women had to stay home," she said.

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Tom and Joan Waldron and their cattle shown in the open class beef exhibition at the Minnesota State Fair on Sept. 6, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

The Waldron family has shown cattle at the Iowa State Fair as well as the state fairs in South Dakota and Wyoming. Joan Waldron said none of the other fairs compare to the Minnesota State Fair.

"This one is home," she said.

After having to miss last year's fair because of the pandemic, she said this year felt even more special.

"You come here and everything is familiar, and you get to hang out with all your friends who become family," Waldron said. "That's the best part — we wish we could win, but that's not even what it's about anymore."

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