Eighty years ago, a center for year-round fun was repurposed for the World War II wartime effort. The original Minnesota State Fair Hippodrome and nearby structures that housed livestock at fair time were transformed in 1943. The buildings were used for the manufacture of airplane propellers, led by the A.O. Smith Corporation of Milwaukee. About 50 acres of fair property were taken by the U.S. government, fenced off from the rest of the fairgrounds.
Minnesota State Fair livestock and poultry shows were suspended. Some shows were moved. An example is the 1944 4-H horse show, which was moved to Watonwan County and held in conjunction with the county fair there.
The war effort was the curtain call for the original Hippodrome. It was built in 1906 to house livestock judging and horse shows. Starting in 1909, it did wintertime duty as an ice rink. State fair histories say that the Hippodrome was considered to be the world’s largest indoor ice rink, at 270 by 119 feet.
“The Hipp” was a popular place for open skating, as well as hockey games. It even had its own skating club and also hosted the St. Paul Skating Club. The Hippodrome was where Ice Follies founders Roy Shipstad, Oscar Johnson, and Eddie Shipstad got their start in 1936.
The hulking structure also hosted boxing matches and University of Minnesota football practices during inclement weather.
Those days of fun would be in the past. “The Hippodrome Goes to War” was a headline in the July 10, 1943 Minneapolis Daily Times. That structure, as well as the nearby livestock pavilion, horse barn, poultry building, swine/sheep building and arcade, were taken over and interconnected to become a huge factory.
“In the old Hippodrome on the Minnesota State Fairground where the equine kings and queens were parades in the northwest’s outstanding horse shows; where brilliant hockey stars of a past era scorched the ice; where speed and figure skating champions were reared, the wheels of Uncle Sam’s gigantic war effort will soon be grinding, turning out propeller parts to help carry the fight for freedom against the Axis,” stated the article.
The article described the Hippodrome’s past glory days as an entertainment venue. Workers tore out the seats, livestock stalls and dressing rooms, leaving only the huge structure’s shell. Wartime production equipment was moved in. The work continued through the 1943 and 1944 fairs.
A.O. Smith, like many manufacturers, shifted to wartime production in the 1940s. Its facilities made bomb casings, aircraft propellers, undercarriages, torpedoes and air tanks. By 1945, the company had built 4.5 million bombs, 16,750 sets of landing gear, and 46,700 propeller blades. They also built nose frames for the B-25 bomber, water heaters, jeep frames, and components for the atomic bomb project, according to a company history.
No fair was held in 1945, the same year that World War II ended. The 1946 fair was canceled due to the polio epidemic.
After World War II ended, property was deeded back to the state fair. But fair officials determined that the “Old Hipp” would have to be replaced as it was structurally unsound.
Again the newspapers extolled the old structure’s virtues. One writer even described it as the birthplace of U.S. hockey, although that claim seems far-fetched.
There was excitement for a new structure, for year-round sports use. Consider that in those days, the Twin Cities had few large-scale entertainment venues. A new Hippodrome was eagerly awaited. It opened in time for the 1951 fair.
The name “hippodrome” went away in 1975. Installation of a new ice rink brought a new name – the Coliseum. Skating would remain until 2014, when the old equipment was removed and not replaced.
The facility name was changed to the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum in 2006. Lee Warner was a member of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society Board of Managers and the vice president of the Agricultural Society from 1919 to 1944.
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