Before there was a state, there was a fair. The first Nebraska State Fair took place in Nebraska City in 1868, but over the course of the next 41 years the fair would move between the host cities of Nebraska City, Brownville, Lincoln and Omaha. It wasn’t until 1901 that the Nebraska Legislature selected the Lancaster County Fairgrounds (Lincoln) as the permanent site for the annual fair, where it would remain until 2009.
From 1901 to 1998 the Nebraska State Fair grew tremendously in Lincoln. Over the years, there were continuous changes and additions to the fairgrounds including an open air auditorium, the Industrial Arts Building (1913), a couple of grandstands, the 4-H Building (1931), livestock pavilions, exhibition buildings, restroom facilities, the administration building, the Bob Devaney Center (1970’s), and more. Horseracing has been a part of the Nebraska State Fair, intermittently, throughout its past. Fair attendance peaked in 1998 at 389,000. However, by 2003 the attendance at the fair had decreased drastically to 238,000, causing an economic slump for the fair. With the future of the fair on the line, voters rallied to pass Amendment 4, in 2004, which allocated 10% of the Nebraska Lottery proceeds to the fair annually. Attendance also increased over 30,000 from the previous year showing Nebraskans wanted their state fair to stick around. By 2005, the Nebraska State Fair received its first payment from the Nebraska Lottery. The funds were used to improved buildings and infrastructure, and to increase the quality of the entertainment and programming. This in turn led to an increase of attendance, each year over the next 5 years.
In 2007, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln unveiled plans to build Innovation Campus, a state-of-the-art research campus. Like the fair, the University had become landlocked by the growth of the city of Lincoln. Therefore, the natural, desired location for Innovation Campus was the Nebraska State Fair grounds. In 2008 the Nebraska State Legislature voted to move the State Fair to Grand Island, NE.
The Nebraska State Fair broke ground for the new fairgrounds in July 2009. The 2009 Horse Racing Season marked the end of the Nebraska State Fair’s involvement in Thoroughbred Horseracing. The last State Fair in the host city of Lincoln was held in August and September of 2009. Nebraskans showed up in hoards, to see the State Fair for the last time in Lincoln. Attendance spiked to 367,203. Following the 2009 Fair, staff began the process of sorting through 109 years of “stuff.” They held an auction in the fall of 2009 and shipped the remaining items in over 40 semi loads, 90 miles west, to Grand Island.
In just 13 months, from the groundbreaking in July 2009 to August 2010, the Nebraska State Fair constructed over 500,000 sq. ft. of new buildings, including 3 barns, 1 arena, and 2 exhibition buildings. In August 2010, the Nebraska State Fair opened for the first time in the new host city of Grand Island, NE. With the exception of the final year in Lincoln, attendance has been higher in Grand Island than in Lincoln.
Since the move to Grand Island, the Nebraska State Fair has continued to grow. In 2011, the fair expanded to the East, with the creation of the East Entertainment Area. In 2012, the fair’s soon-to-be new carnival midway provider, Wade Shows, Inc., installed the AirCare Sky Tram, which stretches 4 football fields from the Pinnacle Bank Expo Center to the Cattle Barn. The full Wade Shows, Inc. carnival midway joined the State Fair in 2013. Also that year, the Nebraska State Fair welcomed its 1 millionth visitor, since moving to Grand Island. At the beginning of 2013, the Fair began construction of the Nebraska Building.
In 2014, the Nebraska State Fair celebrated its 5th year in Grand Island, as well as the opening of the Nebraska Building. The building not only became the home of the Nebraska State Fair Administration Offices, but also allowed for the return of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to the State Fair. In addition, a new partnership was formed between the University of Nebraska – Lincoln Extension, Nebraska Department of Agriculture, and the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources to create a new exhibit about Nebraska Agriculture. The exhibit, Raising Nebraska: Your Food and the Families Who Grow It, is a showcase of how food moves from the farm to the fork.
The Nebraska State Fair has grown a lot since 1868 and to this day continues to showcase the people, talent and products of Nebraska. It also continues to be a time where we can celebrate Nebraska’s Pride. With a history older than the state itself, the Nebraska State Fair combines tradition with innovation to produce not only an educational but entertainment-filled event for the entire family.