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4-H clover Minnesota State Fair 4-H Building, at 80, continues to serve young people 

September 14, 2020
Typical scene with Ambassadors greeting 4-H Building visitors at door
When youth next return to the Minnesota State Fair, 4-H State Ambassadors will be there to greet them.

Alumni of University of Minnesota Extension’s 4-H youth development program have a favorite topic: memories of the Minnesota State Fair. Especially if they called the “4-H Hilton” dormitories home while they exhibited. 

2020 is the 80th anniversary of the 4-H building’s dedication ceremony. Prior to 1940, 4-H’ers exhibited in the fair's livestock barns, grandstand, and the Women’s Building.

Construction began after the 1938 Minnesota State Fair by the depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and cost $600,000. It partially opened in 1939 before its official dedication on Aug. 29, 1940 and was immediately recognized as a must-see destination for fairgoers. 

Five years later, the Minnesota State Fair was canceled in 1945 due to World War II, and was canceled yet again in 1946 during an outbreak of polio. The fair came back stronger than ever.

black and white photo of youth sitting in cafeteria wooden chairs
4-H alumni from across the decades will recognize the wooden chairs in the cafeteria of the 4-H building, which are still in use today.

“I have great memories in the 4-H building,” says Lily Krona, a Minnesota 4-H State Ambassador from Beltrami County. “I've met so many kids from across the state of Minnesota. I always look forward to going back and making new friends and reconnecting with my old friends too."

“One of the great thrills of my life”

T.A. “Dad” Erickson was an early champion for 4-H programs in the United States, starting with youth in Douglas County, Minn. He went on to lead the 4-H program in Minnesota for 30 years. 

In “My Sixty Years with Rural Youth,” Erickson wrote: 

sepia toned photo of Gov Stassen speaking into microphone
Gov. Harold Stassen spoke at the dedication of the 4-H building in 1940, with T.A. "Dad" Erickson behind him.

“By the time we were ready to dedicate the building, Harold Stassen was governor. His dedication of our building was one of the great thrills of my life...Governor Stassen said: ‘We dedicate this building to the fine citizenship training given boys and girls in the rural homes of our state through the 4-H Club program as expressed in the 4-H pledge.’ And he recited our 4-H pledge. It seemed to me that the boys and girls never sang our 4-H songs so beautifully as they did that day.”

Keeping the lights on

During what would have been the 2020 Minnesota State Fair, the green lights in the tower were turned on. “We are grateful to Jerry Hammer, the fair’s general manager, and the Minnesota State Agricultural Society and board for adding this special touch to honor our 4-H'ers during what would have been the 2020 Minnesota State Fair,” says Jennifer Skuza, Extension’s 4-H state leader.

Tower of 4-H Building has bright green vertical lights above the clover

“After the COVID-19 pandemic, youth are going to be excited to come back to the 4-H building,” says Jane Johnson, Extension’s chief development officer. “We want to assure future generations that the 4-H building will be there to serve them, just as it was after the 1945 and 1946 cancellations.”

Youth have stayed active with 4-H during the pandemic through more than 300 virtual learning experiences and nearly 100 showcases, both virtual and, when possible, in person. 

“They have led in their communities,” says Skuza. “They have adapted to new learning modalities and been agents of change. Youth are making, collecting and distributing essential supplies, helping stock food shelves, and even growing food for those in need. 4-H youth have remained resilient and positive as they keep working on their own learning and development.”

Giving keeps it going

Philanthropy, large and small, has long been part of what makes the 4-H building useful to all.

Connie Rosendahl, a retiree from Extension and 4-H alum, recalls that the building did not originally have an elevator. Her mother helped raise funds for one so that she could continue serving as a chaperone after having a heart attack. 

Today’s youth appreciate the building's simplicity and vintage appeal. However, it needs regular maintenance to address life safety systems, roofing, windows, electrical panels, elevators and bathrooms that are past their prime. 

A scene from the girls dorm in the 4-H building with bunk beds and girls talking
4-H youth are part of a long tradition when they stay in the dormitories, although some things change with the times. The top bunk of the triple bunk beds is no longer used, for example.

Alongside these building renewal projects, Extension and the Minnesota State Fair are exploring an opportunity for a once-in-a-generation renovation of the building’s interior spaces. There’s an opportunity to create a physical space that engages youth and families in learning experiences, welcomes fairgoers, celebrates 4-H’s history, and elevates the 4-H State Fair experience beyond what could have been imagined by our predecessors. 

The scale and timeline for any interior changes are not yet determined, but will require substantial donor support. To make a gift online, visit z.umn.edu/4HStateFairBldg. Contact Jane Johnson to share a special 4-H Building memory and explore ways your family can support Minnesota 4-H.

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