From the Archives: The Nebraska State Fair

Do you have your ribbon-winning pie baked and your prize bull ready to show? Did you know the first Nebraska State Fair was really a territorial fair and was held in 1859 in Nebraska City? The State Fair’s location varied in the early years. It alternated between Omaha and Lincoln from 1872 through 1901, and the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben were formed in an effort to keep the fair in Omaha. In 1901, the fair found a long-term home in Lincoln before moving to Grand Island in 2010.


The Nebraska State Fair at Brownville in  1870.

The fair was held in Lincoln in 1888 and featured horses and windmills.

A new grandstand was built in 1929 in Lincoln for the fair.

Like the hand-drawn photo border they used in the 1920s?


A thrilling turn during the auto races in 1937.

The agricultural center in 1936.

The caption on this 1938 photo read, “Visitors at the fair are watching a free motion picture shown every half hour at The World-Herald fair exhibit. The movie shows how photographs are prepared to send over telephone wires, which are part of wirephoto. In addition to seeing the free movie, each visitor to the World-Herald exhibit is given a free photograph of himself.”

In 1938, the Champion Town Boy and Girl were Duane Wilken and Mary Ann Meysenburg.

Aren’t they little dolls?


Speaking of dolls …

This 1938 World-Herald photo caption read: “Visitors at the state fair this week are finding the midway bigger and louder and bolder. The ‘Gay Paree’ show is a sample of the various ‘attractions’ whose barkers tell the crowds ‘the most important things about your life and sex will be revealed inside the tent.’ ‘Front Page,’ ‘Expose’ and ‘We Dare to Tell The Truth’ are other titles along the midway.”


Girlie shows were pretty much standard at state fairs back then. I actually had to block out a transparent piece of clothing in this next photo from 1951. The caption refers to the Iowa State Fair’s show the previous week, where a politician blasted the nudity of “Evelyn West and her 50 thousand dollar treasure chest.”

“The State Fair’s girl shows offered these scenes Sunday. … (This) is a scene inside the Vanities. A public furor last week at the Iowa State Fair prompted official and unofficial interest in what the Nebraska State Fair would have this week.”

This unidentified woman takes time out to rest after a long day at the fair in 1960. But she gets up and leaves once the sideshow spieler starts trying to attract the crowd to a girly show on stage.

A headline with this 1940 photo read, “Apples and Lard at Fair.” National defense was the theme of the state horticulture’s apple exhibit. This airplane in apples was one of the attention-catching exhibits at the show.

The big winner in the 1952 bee exhibit was Henry Puppe of Nebraska City. Here he shows a glass front hive of Golden Italian bees to Mickey and Ken Washburn of Ashland.

This 1955 photo features purple-ribbon Guernseys They are shown by Jack Nitz of Cedar Bluffs; Sharon Lee Sharp of Lincoln; Don Doolittle of Roca; Shirley Hoy of Lincoln; Pat Munn of Martell; James Chapman of North Bend; Mary Katherine Chapman of North Bend; Jack Vergith of Roca; Tom Chapman of North Bend; and Vernon Sharp of Lincoln.

Mrs. A.B. Snyder, of Flats, Neb., poses with her 85,789 piece champion quilt at the 1944 State Fair. It was the ranch wife’s first entry and first visit to the fair. THE WORLD-HERALD

Mr. and Mrs. Cook of Kearney, Neb., hold Miss Liberty, a replica of the Statue of Liberty made from milo (grain sorghum) in 1960.


Of course, no fair was complete without any of the following:



Sideshow acts were always midway attractions at the fair. The caption on this 1951 photo: “A young man, “hypnotized,” apparently is suspended in midair as the barker puts on his spiel. At left is a masked “frogman.” THE WORLD-HERALD



A political booth for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. The caption read, “(Harold) Hessenflow, visitors. … Ike on every tongue.” THE WORLD-HERALD



An unidentified boy chomps down on hot dog with midway in background.

There was no food on a stick in 1962!


Tragedy struck on Sept. 5, 1965, when two of the four towers holding the sky lift ride toppled. The accident killed two people and injured at least 40 more.

People comfort the wounded near one of the collapsed towers.


Finally, the midway in 1967. This ran as the cover of Midlands Magazine in 1969 in honor of the centennial anniversary. Click here to see that story.

Jolene McHugh

About Jolene McHugh

I was a graphic artist prior to coming to the Omaha World-Herald in 2007, and now I’m a photo imaging specialist, which means I prepare photos to print properly in the newspaper. I also have the incredibly fun task of restoring old photographs from our massive library. My favorite part of my job is getting lost in the history and stories behind the photographs. Many of the archive photos have little or no information attached, so I need to properly date and identify the people and places in them. Researching the stories is a bit like being on a historical scavenger hunt. The largest challenge I face is restoring photos we run in our books. Our newest book, “At War, At Home: The Cold War” is filled with hundreds of old photographs, and most of them small and in poor condition. I live in Omaha with my husband, one of my daughters and three very furry Maine Coon cats.
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