Dating back to 1869, the Nebraska State Fair is as old as the state’s university system – and just two years younger than the state itself.
Thus, the 2019 edition marks a century and a half of state fairs in Nebraska. Accordingly, this year’s landmark, which begins Friday, should matter to people from all corners of the Cornhusker State, since it’s a celebration of the Good Life.
In the words of new Executive Director Lori Cox: "This is the people's fair. This is your fair that you built 150 years ago."
With this year also marking the 10th edition to be held in Grand Island, the fair’s remarkable journey to its present home deserves a look back.
It bounced around eastern Nebraska – from Nebraska City to Brownville, then alternating between Omaha and Lincoln, according to History Nebraska – before finally settling in the state capital in 1901, where it would remain for more than a century.
From there, it moved to uncharted territory in south-central Nebraska. But the unprecedented move proved to be an unequivocal success both for Grand Island, which has repeatedly welcomed near-record crowds for its marquee annual event, and Lincoln, which turned its former fairgrounds into the booming Innovation Campus.
As a 2017 editorial noted, “there is no modern-day comparison for the Nebraska State Fair’s relocation to Grand Island – and subsequent rapid growth.”
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Despite the fact the fair in Grand Island has averaged 350,000 visitors a year – on par with attendance totals at the old State Fair Park – Lincoln and eastern Nebraska remain underrepresented at the gates.
Only 12% to 18% of fairgoers hail from Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties – the three heavily urban counties that account for a majority of Nebraskans. The iconic Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, roughly the same distance from Omaha as Grand Island, diverts plenty of people across the Missouri River.
That number is disappointingly low. This fair belongs to urban Nebraskans just as much as it does to those in the Tri-Cities area.
Accordingly, we encourage those from this part of the state who haven’t visited the fair’s new digs to make the short jaunt west. Rather than relying on old advertising tropes of “There’s something for everyone!” or similar fare, we’ll just let the schedule of events speak for itself.
To be sure, the Nebraska State Fair landed several big acts – with country star Maren Morris the headliner of the bunch – for its concert series, which features the greatest number shows since moving the shows out of the Devaney Sports Center decades ago.
With state fair attendance reaching as many as one in five Nebraskans, this milestone year marks as good a time as any to visit our fair in Grand Island.