‘Homely Girls and Pretty Babies’

When Anita Gaul of Marshall was looking for a title on the book she wrote about the history of the Murray County Fair, she wanted something catchy.

Gaul wrote the book “Homely Girls and Pretty Babies: The History of the Murray County Fair,” which has stories and anecdotes about the fair. It is available for $5 at the Murray County Extension Office, and copies will be at the Murray County Fair Aug. 13-18.

Gaul grew up on a farm near Chandler and has her master’s degree and doctorate in American history.

“When Christy Riley (Murray County community relations coordinator) contacted me and proposed it, I said ‘yes, let’s do it,'” Gaul said.

For the book, Gaul pored through a lot of the Murray County newspapers from 1878 to present day, looking for coverage on the county fair. She said she didn’t just stick to the newspaper in Slayton, she also looked what the Lake Wilson, Fulda and even Avoca newspapers had to say about the fair.

“At least it’s nice you can focus on the summer issues,” Gaul said.

There’s also a Murray County fair file at the Murray County Museum, Gaul said, and she also did a lot of research with the Minnesota Historical Society through interlibrary loan at the Southwest Minnesota State University library.

“I am (now) very good friends with the interlibrary loan librarians,” Gaul said.

The Murray County Fair board also had boxes of old records, and the University of Minnesota Extension office in Slayton had information on the county’s 4-H program.

“That’s what I do as a historian, look at old dusty things,” Gaul said.

Back in the late 1800s, Slayton and Currie fought over the location of the county seat. Gaul said she was surprised to learn that the two towns also fought over the site for the Murray County Fair.

So for 15 years, from 1884 to 1898, both Currie and Slayton had their own “Murray County fairs.”

“You could choose what Murray County Fair to go to,” Gaul said. In 1898, Currie’s fair died out; Slayton’s a year later. The county fair came back in 1912, Gaul said, and has been in Slayton all these years.

There were contests for the prettiest baby, the dirtiest man or the homeliest woman, Gaul said.

“In the 1800s, they loved these contests,” Gaul said.

The prizes for these contests ranged from six bars of soap for the winner of the dirtiest man and a box of cigars for the homeliest woman, Gaul said.

“That’s pretty insulting, I think,” Gaul said.

At first she was kind of appalled at the nature of the contests. But, Gaul said, it’s like the residents’ version of reality television.

“Maybe it’s sort of the same (thing),” she said.

Miss America came to the fair in 1950, and the newspaper back then noted that the men “stared at her as she walked around the grounds,” according to a news release. The release said the fish display didn’t make it to the fair one year because of an accident that destroyed it on the way.