Tag Archives: art

The History of Handicrafts in the Great Minnesota Get-Together and How Changing Attitudes Have Shaped the Fair 

This intricate model stage coach made of metal and fabric was entered into the State Fair Craft Show in 1971. According to the ribbon still attached to one side, it won 4th place. An adhesive label on the same side indicates this is a model of a Concord Stage Coach “first manufactured in Concord New Hampshire in 1827.” 

 The model was donated by Carl G. Anderson just after it showed in the State Fair, in 1971. Anderson noted on his HHM donation form that “Concord Stage Coaches were first manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire in 1827 and shipped to the west by sailing vessels from Portsmouth, New Hampshire down the south Atlantic, around the tip of South America, up the Pacific Ocean to San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.  These were the finest coaches made in America.  They are still in use in western movies and the drivers today are as good as the drivers in the early days of the west.” 

 The Minnesota State Fair traces its roots to before the state itself. Territorial Fairs were held in Minnesota as early as 1854, and crafts have been a mainstay ever since then. The ancestor to the modern Creative Activities Department was the Women’s Work and Welfare Department. The early fair was largely targeted towards men, and this department arose as a place for women to congregate, socialize, and keep an eye on their children. Competitions in this department were dominated by quilts and other needlecraft, but baking and canning also became popular in the lead-up to the twentieth century. 

 The Women’s Work and Welfare Department (sometimes shortened to “Women’s Department”), as well as most of the fair, maintained a rural character before the twentieth century. The list of competitions was populated by practices like “darning and repair of napkins” and the making of log-cabin quilts, which by the 1890s were old and outdated. In 1902, Clara M. Luther was appointed superintendent of the department. She revised the competitions to introduce art forms popular in the growing urban landscape but were still absent from the state fair. These included things like basketry and miniature models, crafts more associated with professional arts and art schools. 

 With the modernization of the competitions at the turn of the century, another change was brought to the state fair. The shift away from the crafts of older generations meant that the individuals competing were now simply hobbyists in their craft. In the nineteenth century fairs, women submitting their artwork were often making quilts and clothing for their family already, as home-made objects were more of a necessity before the industrialization of the 1900s and 1910s. Creations on display were no longer fancified items of necessity, but pieces of art made by hobbyists in leisure-time. 

 These changes greatly impacted the overall “crafts show” of the state fair. By the 1920s, the State Fair Arts and Crafts Show was displaying very professional works of art. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, jewelry, metal and wood works were becoming more refined as the fair became urbanized and the organizers borrowed artwork from major museums like the Walker Art Center. 

 The 1910s through 1930s saw a dramatic increase in the number of men participating in Women’s Department competitions. Men submitting items were often those with a lot of free time on their hands: firemen, prison inmates, and the injured of WWI. The presence of men in this department increased over the decades and it became clear that this department was far from exclusively for women. The name of the department officially changed to the Home Activities Department in 1952. 

 The name of the department changed once again in 1971 to the Creative Activities Department, which remains the name today. While many things have changed about the nature of creative activities, some things have stayed the same. Canning, for example, is a time-honored tradition that you can still see at the fair this year. Other entries—a pocket watch chain made of hair, for example—have seen a sharp decline in popularity.  

 Why some practices still endure has everything to do with tradition. To this day, some of the most popular items on display have been with the fair from the very beginning. Attitudes on hobbies have changed creative activities too, and many trends and ideas have come and gone. The Creative Activities Department represents a microcosm of the State Fair itself. Both are monuments to traditions that connect us to our past while at the same time continually changing to reflect our present.  

 Author Bio: 

Paul Schneider-Krumpus is a recent high school graduate and will be studying history at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities this fall. He does research and photography for Hennepin History Museum. 

Sources and Further Reading: 


Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair by Karal Ann Marling 

Minnesota State Fair: An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky 

Minnesota State Fair, The History and Heritage of 100 Years by Ray P. Speer and Harry J. Frost 

Voices of Norway

This banner, made for the Norse Male Chorus in 1886, showcases stunning embroidery in shades of yellow, gold, green, and ivory, on a backing of ivory cotton. The central design is a classical lyre surrounded by a circlet of oak leaves and acorns.

The origins and history of the Norse Male Chorus of Minneapolis has been a challenging and illusive quest. The common consensus is that the Norse Male Chorus of Minneapolis evolved into the Norwegian Glee Club of Minneapolis. The search will continue.

The story of the creator of this outstanding embroidery is, however, well documented. The work comes from the hands of Pauline Fjelde. Pauline Fjelde was born in Norway in 1861. Her artistic gift was evident as early as grammar school where she began to paint and draw. She perfected her embroidery skills, and distinctive style, working at home with her mother. Before coming to America, in the mid-1880s she taught needlework in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Upon her arrival in Minneapolis she began embroidering textiles for Mrs. Snodgrasse’s Art Rooms, located at 16-17 Sidle Block, in downtown Minneapolis. By 1893 Pauline and her sister, Thomane, branched out on their own. They opened a needlework studio where they specialized in design and embroidery of garments, parade banners, flags, and linens. In 1893 Pauline and Thomane were commissioned to embroider the first Minnesota state flag!

Author Bio

Jack Kabrud is the curator at Hennepin History Museum.

Mahala Fisk Pillsbury’s Inauguration Gown

On a cold day in January 1876, Mahala Fisk Pillsbury of Minneapolis, a prominent community member and philanthropist, took on a new title: Minnesota’s First Lady. Her husband of twenty years, businessman John Sargent Pillsbury, had just been elected for his first of three terms as Minnesota’s governor.

This gown, worn by Mrs. Pillsbury at one of her husband’s inaugurations, most likely that first one, came to Hennepin History Museum many decades later after being carefully packed away and preserved by family members as a memento of the occasion.


Mrs. Pillsbury. Hennepin History Museum collection. Chalk on paper.

A founding member and president of the Stevens Square home for elderly women and children, Mahala Fisk Pillsbury was a formidable force in the world of Minneapolis social services and public welfare. She was equally at home wearing a ballgown in her role as the governor’s wife or with her shirt sleeves rolled up as an active participant in the activities of the social services organizations that she founded.

You can see the gown now at Hennepin History Museum, where it is a centerpiece of Behind the Ballot Box, an exhibit exploring election on the 1st floor. The exhibit is open now through February 5.

Finding Family at HHM

We love stories like this!

Last week, Thomas P. came to HHM docent Shari Albers’ Fireside Chat about our historic Washburn Fair Oaks neighborhood and enjoyed the program so much he decided to become a member. He loves art and is a collector of various pieces by local artists. At the Chat he learned that the Portraits of the Past exhibit closing the next day, so he asked us if he could fill out his membership after he had a chance to see the gallery. As he walked through the gallery, he was surprised to see a portrait of his own great-uncle Jacob Gray! Thomas was thrilled to see his own family represented in the gallery and told us he is even more happy to become a new member.

Welcome, Thomas! We’re so happy to welcome you to the Hennepin History Museum family as a member and as a volunteer.



Bust of Thomas Chan by Helen Zesbaugh

Written by current HHM volunteer Mara Taft. Original research and article by Bruce N. Wright, and published in Hennepin History, Fall 2000.

Helen A. Zesbaugh, an artist and author associated with an art gallery in Minneapolis, created this stainless steel bust of Thomas Chan in 1931. Thomas Chan (pronounced “Kahn”) was a Minneapolis art and antique dealer who eventually opened a gallery on Nicollet Avenue in the 1940s. This bust is especially unusual because it was cast with stainless steel, which only became used commercially in about 1919. Stainless steel is one of the hardest metals to manipulate, and casting this bust would have required use of a sophisticated foundry due to its relatively high melting point (2,550° F).


Above: Helen Zesbaugh, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

Zesbaugh was related to a family-run art gallery and framing shop of the same name on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. She attended the University of Minnesota for Art Education from 1916 to 1920, and authored the study Children’s Drawings of the Human Figure, published in 1934 by the University of Chicago Press as part of her master’s thesis in education.  If she taught art or produced other types of art locally, there is little trace, save this striking bust.

The sculpture’s subject is also notable. Thomas Chan was an art and antique dealer whose influence on the local scene was felt from the 1920s until his death in 1966. Chan was born in 1895 and grew up in Alexandria, Minnesota. He graduated in 1916 from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota and worked briefly in a Minneapolis drug store while moonlighting for the Beard’s Art Gallery, still in existence downtown.

Chan left pharmacy for good when he began working for Dr. Mabel Ulrich at her bookshop and art gallery on Nicollet Avenue, and was eventually inspired to open his own art gallery, the Little Gallery. In 1947, Chan closed his shop and moved his operations to Lake Minnetonka, where he worked as gardener, antique dealer, and art impresario until his death.

This polished sculpture represents a nexus of personalities brought together by the colorful network of art and antique galleries that formed along Nicollet Avenue in the mid-20th century.

You can see it now at the museum, where it is part of Portraits of the Past: Highlights from the Hennepin History Museum Collection. Hurry, the exhibition’s final day is this Sunday, January 8!

Frances Cranmer Greenman

Hennepin History Museum has an extensive portrait collection. In some cases, it’s the subject who has the most fascinating story, other times it’s the artist, and in some cases, it’s both. In this case – a drawing of Emma Cranmer, done by Frances Cranmer Greenman in 1933- the stories of both artist and subject are woven together. For in this example, artist Frances Cranmer Greenman put charcoal to board to capture the likeness of her own mother, Emma Cranmer.

Frances Cranmer Greenman was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota in 1890, the daughter of  prominent South Dakota suffragette Emma Cranmer. Cranmer, an active and outspoken participant in the suffrage movement at both the national and local levels, traveled the nation to speak at public forums on behalf of women’s rights. Perhaps inspired by her mother’s travels, Frances Cranmer Greenman left home at the age of 15 to study art first in Wisconsin, and a year later, at age 16, at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. – a world away from her log cabin home in South Dakota.

After several years studying in Washington, Greenman returned to her native Midwest, where she settled down to build a career in Minneapolis. In 1915, she won a coveted award for a series of portraits exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair, and by the 1920s she had earned the reputation as one of the Twin Cities’ leading portrait artists. She later went on to teach at the Minneapolis School of Art, and to write an arts column for the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.

The portrait of Emma Cranmer can currently be seen in Portraits of the Past: Highlights from the Hennepin History Museum Collection, on exhibit through January 8, 2017.