Today marks the anniversary of the very first Winter Show, which was held in Valley City March 8-11, 1938. A 1938 editorial in the Valley City Times-Record described it as an educational, non-profit event to “bring together the best in the state in livestock, farm crops, manufactured products, Homemakers, 4-H Clubs and Future Farmers of America exhibits combined with high-class entertainment.” It is now the Dakotas’ longest running agricultural show.
The founders chose the month of March, because farmers and ranchers were less busy but were also planning ahead for spring planting. They also had the winter to better prepare the livestock they wanted to exhibit or sell.
A 1937 membership drive gathered together about 125 farmers and businessmen who were urged to buy memberships at $10 apiece. Storeowner Herman Stern bought five and called on fellow downtown merchants to match whatever came from other sources. His move raised $4,000.
That was just the first hurdle, though. In 1948, M. J. Connolly, the Show’s first secretary, described what happened that first year: “...there was a time several weeks before the show opening when the directors did not know if they would have any livestock. Several officials threw up their hands at the lack of response by livestock breeders to the letters of invitation, (but) veteran county agent, T. X. Calnan...got on the long distance telephone. When Tom finally hung up...Barnes County had a toll bill of more than $100, but,” he wrote, “Tom had the promise of leading livestock men of the state that they would exhibit.”
The exhibitions included 84 head of cattle from 21 herds, including Holsteins, Guernseys, Brown Swiss, Jerseys, Hereford, Angus, Shorthorns and Milking Shorthorns. There were also 30 horses and 35 hogs exhibited. In the ring, 31 bulls, 18 breeder sows and 12 sheep sold for about $5,000.
By the time the show was over, it boasted a net profit of $1,500. One of the expenses was $100 for liability insurance, which turned out to be well worth the cost... during one event, a bull got loose and jumped into the bleachers – and those bleachers didn’t turn out to be too sturdy.
Entertainment turned out to be top notch, including the likes of Minnie Pearl, the Hoosier Hotshots, Grandpa Jones and Guy Lombardo. Peggy Lee, one of the state’s most successful musicians, came home to perform in 1950, and despite the cold March weather, a parade took place down Central Avenue, with Peggy waving to friends and fans from an open convertible. She also awarded the purple ribbons to the junior futurity winners, telling them that when she was in 4-H as a child, her project was a Guernsey calf.
Governor Langer officially opened that first Winter Show by saying, “(This) is something which belongs not only to Valley City and this county, but to North Dakota as a whole, and the people throughout the state will become increasingly proud of this event.”
He was right. Because the decision was made to grow slowly and carefully, the Winter Show has ended up a hugely successful annual event. The only year that had less than usual activity was 1945, when restrictions due to World War II caused the planners to cancel all exhibits except the livestock sales. But the Show itself isn’t the only thing to improve over the years; in 1956, Nelson Crow, publisher of livestock journals in Los Angeles and Denver, wrote, “The North Dakota Winter Show has become one of the nation’s widely recognized livestock events, because... the state’s breeders and stockmen continually come out with better and better animals.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm