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Men on fire, diving horses, colliding locomotives. See the proud & perilous history of the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand

The Minnesota State Fair Grandstand is 113 years old.

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — It's a tough lot, the life of a grandstand. All spiffed up for your big occasion and your guests turn their backs on you.

Consider this the opportunity to rectify that situation.

The sturdy structure kissed by the cheeks of generations of Minnesotans is 113 years old, finished on a rushed schedule and just in time for the 1909 fair.

The previous, wooden grandstand, built in 1885, was in such poor shape that a well-attended event in 1908 caused more than a little anxiety.

“They went out with megaphones, or whatever they had in those days, and said, ‘Don't stamp your feet, don't clap, don't holler.’ They were afraid it would collapse, and it probably would have,” Kathryn Koutsky, who co-authored a book about the fair with her daughter Linda, told KARE 11 in 2009.

“It's just an amazing history,” Koutsky added.

History for the grandstand began with horse racing and quickly evolved into horsepower.

Car races were hugely popular attractions.

But why just go round-and-round, folks eventually reasoned, when the crashes were what they came for?

“We have pictures of the cars jumping over elephants. They actually played polo with automobiles, old automobiles, and crashed into each other until the last car running was the winner,” Koutsky said.

Those sensible grandparents of ours did some awful things to Detroit's handiwork in the name of grandstand entertainment.

But it wasn't just cars.

Steam locomotives were placed on opposite ends of temporary tracks and sent careening into each other.

Airplanes were intentionally flown into flimsily built houses.

Nothing seemed too outrageous — a man on fire, a horse and rider diving into a pool.

“They would build sets that were 600 feet long of villages in France, and all over the place, and at the end of the pageant and the music they would blow them all up with fireworks,” Koutsky said.

But the grandstand's aerial stunts ended in 1951 when the fair board said, "enough."

To the horror of the crowd, a young wing walker named Kitty Middleton, and her pilot, crashed and died that year in front of the grandstand.

Middleton was 17 years old.

In its 100 years, the grandstand itself has evolved.

The Great Depression’s WPA expanded seating and added a grand ramp to the grandstand, leading to the interior exhibit space.

In the early years, that space was filled with new cars, then, later, with wares of all kinds, from fully furnished living rooms to artificial limbs.

“Clothing, you know, seeds. It was the Mall of America,” Linda Koutsky said

Above the exhibit space, all-day racing and stunts were giving way to evening concerts with popular entertainers.

At a 1984 concert, Huey Lewis left behind his tennis shoes. They remain to this day in the State Fair's museum collections.

The year 2000 marked the largest crowd for a concert in state fair grandstand history. The performer, Christina Aguilera, drew 22,117 fans.

It's a record that will never be broken. The bleacher seating added in the 1930's for racing was removed during remodeling in 2002, leaving a 13,000-seat venue.

While entertainment lineups have evolved, Minnesota State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer said one thing has remained constant.

“There will always be a need for a gathering place for people at the State Fair. In 1909, it was horse racing. Today it's concerts. I don't know what it will be 50 years from now,” Hammer said in 2009. “And this is this is the place to do it.”

Boyd Huppert is always looking for great stories to share in the Land of 10,000 Stories! Send us your suggestions by filling out this form.

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