State Fair

Sept. 8, 1909: Preemies at the fair

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

The Minnesota State Fair has featured many unusual attractions in its 150-year history: death-defying aerial acts, colliding locomotives, freak shows, live animal births, the Minnesota Iceman and premature babies in incubators. Wait … what? The Minneapolis Morning Tribune was there:

Tiny Baby Is Fair Marvel

Midget 11 Inches in Length, One
of Five Infants in

Five premature babies, “all of good birth,” as the lecturer assures his audiences, are already in the infant incubators of the state fair, and as a feature of universal human interest the incubator holds its own, for from the moment the doors of the cottage where the babies are housed opened to the public a goodly crowd of spectators has been maintained.

Eleven inches in length and weighing one and a half pounds sizes up the smallest infant, which is kept in the end incubator and gives the impression of a much larger creature, by reason of its wrappings. A large pink satin bow is tied conspicuously below its armpits, and matches with remarkable accuracy its tiny face and hands.

The children are fed by wet nurses by means of a tube. Special scales, special self-rocking baskets are among the newest scientific devices for saving the tots, and padded dressing tables make easy, for the nurses, the task of handling and clothing the under-sized babies. They are kept in high temperature and their baths, which are daily, are 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Gradually the temperature and feeding is brought to the normal.

These resourceful lads found a way to get into a sideshow at the fair in about 1910. (Photo courtesy

Sunday, Sept. 5, 1920: Two locomotives collide at fair

Friday, August 17th, 2007

The 1920 edition of the Great Minnesota Get-Together was a fair to remember. It featured 10 tons of butter, 80 acres of farm machinery, “9-foot-5″ Jan Van Albert, speeches by presidential candidates Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox, and Ruth Law’s Flying Circus. The main attraction on opening day was a “Gigantic Locomotive Collision” at the grandstand, with two 160,000-pound engines slamming into each other at 60 mph. The collision was the top story on A1 the next morning in the Sunday Tribune. The fair staged three more locomotive collisions, in 1921, 1933 and 1934.

  A Minnesota Historical Society photo shows the 1933 collision —
  or is it 1934? The caption on the back lists both years.

55,117 Defy Rain for Fair’s Opening

Locomotives Crash
on Schedule Time

Crowd Waits Three Hours for Spectacle That
Divides Honors With Wilson’s Flying Stunts
– Opening Day Is Record

A great big good-natured crowd of 55,117 people, intent upon watching two engines meet at top speed for the first time in their experience, disregarded a steady drizzle descending unceasingly from an overcast sky yesterday, and gave emphatic impetus to hopes of State Fair officials to make this year’s attendance break the world record set by the Minnesota State Fair last year.

The first day crowd in 1919 was only 30,631, little more than half yesterday’s attendance, despite the unkind treatment of the weather man.

Crowd Out For Good Time.

The crowd was remarkably good-natured in the face of adversity. They were out for a good time, and were determined to have it, even if their best clothes did get soaked. For three hours in the afternoon, a solid mass of humanity sat in the sold-out grandstand, unprotected from the merciless drizzle.

Thrills a-plenty rewarded the afternoon crowd for its three hours’ wait in the dripping granstands, when Ruth Law’s flying circus, featuring Al Wilson, and the engine collision, occurred exactly on schedule time late in the afternoon.

Collision Missed by None.

Visitors who had preferred inspection of the exhibits in Fair buildings to the full program of circus features and races offered on the grandstand track could not resist the chance to see the rail collision. Without question this unique feature was the crowd-pulling event of the day.

Steaming slowly up and down the brief stretch of track, the engines, piloted by W.D. Carrington and Harry Tatum of Inver Grove, made several preliminary test trips.

Then, with a shill blast of their whistles, the engines concentrated the crowd’s attention on the last trip they were to make. Carrington opened wide the throttle of engine “573,” she started forward, almost immediately gaining her maximum speed. He jumped quickly, but not quite quickly enough. Landing heavily in the adjacent mudbank, he turned three complete somersaults, and struck his ankle against a boulder, spraining it.

Tatum Swings to Safety.

Meanwhile, Tatum had started No. 478 more slowly. But as he saw the other engine tearing down the track, he threw the throttle wide, and swung to safety. The two engines, rushing inevitably toward each other, met almost squarely in the center of the track. Ther was a terrific explosion and “478” crashed clean through the front of “573,” and halted dead.

Then the fun began. Determined to get a close view, grandstand, bleacher and Machinery Hill crowds decided at one and the same moment ot reach the scene of the collision. Wire fences, wooden barriers, policeman with wildly waving arms were no barriers whatever. Within two minutes the racetrack, the central oval, and the fields beyond the enginetrack, were black with people. Up and [d]own the track and over the adjoining fields the people ranged, hunting bits of wreckage for souvenirs. Soon there was little left that was not too heavy to carry away.

Al Wilson’s Feats Win Thrills.

The collision, although it was listed as the central attraction of the day, was not so successful in rousing thrills as the unparalleled feat of “Al” Wilson, the intrepid acrobat, with Ruth Law’s flying circus. This professional daredevil, half a mile in the air, stood on the top of a plane made slippery by the rain, poised part of the time on one leg, and when the second plane approached over his head, he seized it’s wing by one hand, and swung gracefully over.

The rain-soaked plane, however, very nearly ended Wilson’s two-year career. While the planes were jockeying for position the first time they flew over the stands, Wilson temporarily lost his balance on top of the slippery plane and fell flat.

Minneapolis Pilot Participates.

Added daring was given to Wilson’s act yesterday through the fact that the lower plane, from which he swung, was driven by Ray Miller, a Minneapolis pilot who had never practiced the feat. Ray Goldsworthy, who ordinarily pilots the lower plane, was caught in a heavy rainstorm near Mason City, Iowa, and got here too late for the show.

Style Show Deferred.

Parts of the program deferred until Monday through first-day accidents invariably disappointed large crowds gathered.

Cream of the crop: An elaborate State Fair butter sculpture from about 1920. (Photo courtesy

Governor Cox has signified his intention of visiting the Fine Arts galleries tomorrow when he speaks before the grandstand.

Two Lost Boys Sought.

Police and hospital officials had little to do the first day of the Fair. Two lost boys, Robert Owens, Cathay, N.D., 14 years old, and George Esert, Gladstone, Minn., 12 years old, were reported to the police, and had not been found late last night. Not even a severe fainting spell was reported to the emergency hospital.

At the last minute, the night show was called off on account of rain. The announcement was deferred, because the Fair management hoped that it would be possible to stage the fireworks spectacle for the benefit of those out-of-town people who could not stay over until Monday evening.

Today, “Music Day,” will be a quiet Sunday of the Fair. No entertainment program of any kind has been arranged, and the Midway shows will not be open. There will be band concerts a-plenty, and the exhibition buildings will all be thrown open. The program arranged will be entirely educational.

Tuesday, Aug. 26, 1947: Aerialist dies in fall at fair

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

More than 18,000 spectators at the State Fair grandstand were on the edge of their seats. High above the grandstand turf, Lloyd Rellim rode a bicycle back and forth across a narrow bar at one end of a 30-foot-long metal frame. Another performer twirled on rings and a trapeze bar at the other.

Llloyd Rellim
Lloyd Rellim

Near the end of the performance, the frame jerked as it was being lowered for Rellim’s dismount. He lost his balance and fell 75 feet to the ground. Grace Rellim, who was operating the rigging, let out a scream and ran to her husband’s side.

“In typical ‘the show must go on’ fashion,” wrote Minneapolis Star reporter Willmar Thorkelson, “the orchestra struck up a tune and some acrobats started performing. But nobody watched them. We were looking at the bottom of the twin towers where we saw people with flashlights. In a couple of minutes there was an ambulance. As it took Rellim away, its siren drowned out the orchestra.”

The Minneapolis Tribune’s initial account, displayed on Page One under an all-caps banner headline, reported that the Rellims’ two children – Joyce, 11, and Neil, 5 – had witnessed the fatal fall. Neither of them had, it turns out. The sidebar below is a fly-on-the-wall account of their next few hours. Joyce Rellim, now Joyce Kuhlman, agreed to an interview last week. You’ll find that update at the end of this entry.


Mother to Tell Son Dad Is Dead

Minneapolis Tribune Staff Writer

Today Mrs. Lloyd Rellim is going to have the hardest job of her life. She must tell her son, Neil, 5½, that his father is dead.

Rellim crashed to his death from a 75-foot perch at the Minnesota State fair Monday night.

His daughter, Joyce, 11, burst into uncontrollable tears after the accident, but hours later Neil still did not realize what had happened.

Rellim's rigging
Lloyd Rellim’s rigging was built at a New Orleans shipbuilding company after World War II ended. A 30-foot-long rectangular frame was affixed to 70-foot pole. Rellim, astride a bicycle, performed at one end of the frame; Ruth McCrea worked the rings and trapeze on the other. (Minneapolis Star photo)

Mrs. Ruth McCrea, who accompanied Rellim to his act, took the two children into her trailer just behind the grandstand, while their mother went to Ancker hospital.

Mrs. McCrea’s face was drawn with shock at the sight she could not forget – of Rellim’s body toppling past her to smash into the sod. It was drawn, too, with the strain of trying to keep Neil from knowing what had happened.

Boy Sees Fireworks

Back of the open-air stage, it was dark, so that tinseled performers, singers, dancers and dwarfs stumbled over guy ropes as they came off stage.

On the other side there were bright lights. Bright lights, a roar of laughter from grandstands that less than an hour earlier had seen a man fall to his death. Lights, laughter and applause.

Backstage, Neil kept pleading with Mrs. McCrea. Finally, at the finale, he won his point. Like other little boys, Neil wanted to see the fireworks. And see them he did.

His tousled, yellow head bent back as rockets zoomed into the sky. His sister, sober-faced, hung in the background.

Rellim’s partner, Ruth McCrea, had completed her act on the other side of the platform when the accident occurred. “I’ll never go into the air again,” she said afterward. (Minneapolis Star photo)

“Hey, look, Jim,” he called to a friend. “Come here, look at Uncle Sam,” and he pointed to the fireworks.

There was a bang like an exploding arsenal, and a flash that lit up the whole fairgrounds. Neil didn’t wince – his eyes just grew a little bigger, a little rounder.

Once he said, “Mama went away. Why did she go? I wish she could see all this.” But a moment later, some new sight had caught his attention.

“I’d like to hold one of those rockets in my hand,” he said. And then, as huge globs of yellow fire dripped from the sky, he said, “Gee, I’d like to catch one of those.”

From the grandstands came the cries of other children, like Neil, and grownups, too. Backstage, the smoke of the fireworks filled the air and clung to the ground like fog. Biting, acrid smoke that made people’s eyes glisten as they watched the youngster.

Alone in World

“Everybody’s standing in front. I can’t see anything,” said Neil, and he ran out in front of everybody, out onto the field so that he stood silhouetted against the glare of the dying fireworks – a boy of 5½, standing alone.

The crowd left then, and as the performers hurried off to put away their tinsel and take off their grease paint a car from the sheriff’s office drove up. In it rode the woman who today is going to face the hardest job of her life.

AUGUST 2006 UPDATE: Joyce (Rellim) Kuhlman, now 70 years old, still lives in Payson, Ill., where she and her brother were raised. She remembers her father as a soft-spoken, artistic and mechanically minded man. “I remember setting on his lap at night listening to the radio, ‘Amos and Andy,’ curled up in his lap, me on one side and Neil on the other,” she said.

The Rellims spent a lot of time on the road in the 1940s. With his family in tow, Lloyd traveled to 42 states, Canada and Mexico to entertain audiences. “We had a truck that carried the rigging, and a trailer pulled by a car,” Joyce said. “It was a LaSalle. It was pretty good size. It was black and it had white sidewalls. … We had kind of a shoplike area in the truck, where he had his tools and stuff like that. He could make darn near anything.”

Born Lloyd Miller, her father legally changed his name to Rellim – “Miller” spelled backward – when he began performing an aerial act professionally in the late 1920s. He got his start in storybook fashion: “As a kid he ran away with the circus,” Joyce said. “He started out as a roustabout and decided that’s not what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a performer so he started training and created a high-wire act.” He and three partners worked most frequently with the Barnes-Carruthers Circus.

Rellim's children
Contrary to the Tribune’s initial report, Rellim’s children — Joyce, 11, and Neil, 5 — did not witness the accident. (Minneapolis Star photo)

When World War II began, he lost his partners to the draft. He gave up performing and found work at Higgins Shipbuilding in New Orleans. “They built battleships,” Joyce recalled. When the war ended, he offered to perform at the shipyard’s victory celebration if the company would build the rigging for a new act he envisioned.

The act was called “Blondin-Rellim Cycling in the Sky.” Rellim rode a bicycle across a bar at one end of a rectangular frame that pivoted up and down atop a 70-foot pole. A trapeze artist, Ruth McCrea, performed on rings and a trapeze bar on the opposite end of the frame, about 30 feet away. Rellim’s wife, Grace, operated the motorized rigging. “There was no other act like it before or since. He made $100 each time he went up,” Joyce said.

To mount the frame, Rellim and McCrea first climbed a ladder and stood on a platform near the top of the pole. “That was the culprit,” Joyce said. “There was a hook that caught on the platform and threw him off.” Up until a short time before the accident, he had used a safety belt in case of a fall. “But he thought he had perfected the act and was no longer using it,” she said. “He never worked with a net.”

Joyce, then 11, was in a grandstand dressing room when she learned of the accident. “Some other show kids came and told me my dad had fallen,” she said, but she thought they were joking. “When the adults came and wouldn’t let me go outside I knew something was wrong.” Neil hadn’t seen the accident, either. “I guess he was down in the dressing room too,” she said. She doesn’t recall seeing any reporters or photographers.

After the accident, the family returned to Payson to rebuild their lives. Within a year, a Motorola radio factory opened in nearby Quincy, and Grace Rellim got a job there, eventually working as an inspector. Said Joyce: “That’s what put us kids through school. She made 90 cents an hour, which was good money at that time.”

Her brother doesn’t recall anything about the accident; he was a few months shy of 6 at the time. Now 65, he lives in Quincy, about 10 miles from Joyce’s house. He served in the Navy and later worked a truck mechanic. He became an over-the-road driver, Joyce said, when “he got tired of slinging wrenches.” He’s now retired.

Their mother, Grace, now 91, also lives nearby. I wasn’t able to locate Ruth McCrea, who would now be about 89 years old.

Joyce married a farmer. “When my husband decided to quit farming,” she said, “I went to work for construction companies. I was office manager for three construction companies.” Eventually, she grew weary of getting laid off and took a job at the unemployment office, finding other people jobs. She and her husband, now retired, make and sell scale-model trucks.

Lloyd Rellim is buried in Quincy’s Greenmount Cemetery. He was first laid to rest in a poorly maintained cemetery in Marion, Ill., his hometown. But, at his widow’s request, he was reburied in Quincy within days. “My mother couldn’t stand the thought of that old cemetery and the shape it was in,” Joyce said. Etched in the granite marker is a picture of his final act, “Cycling in the Sky.”