As any good Minnesotan is aware, the Minnesota State Fair is in league of its own. It is the largest state fair by average daily attendance: in 2018 the attendance topped 2 million attendees for the first time ever. The Fair these days encompasses more than just its early goal of encouraging farming. They have expanded to include entertainment, exhibits, education, and inventive deep fried foods.
As a Minnesotan, I adore the State Fair. As a curious archivist, I often wonder how the collections that I manage in the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives intersect with things that I adore. A few years back, I delved into materials relating to the State Fair that were found in the caverns of the archives.
While the slogan of the Minnesota State Fair posits it as the Great Minnesota Get Together, the history of the Fair is a complicated yet familiar one of inclusion and exclusion common with many fairs throughout America. And while fairs are fun and beloved, these parts of American history should be examined with a critical eye. To name just a few issues as example, the State Fair included years of then-common fair entertainment including minstrel shows that banked on racist jokes, and “freak shows” which were exploitative and often cruel to people with disabilities. More recent examples include the conversations surrounding the lack of diversity of vendors and merchants allowed space within the Fair.
While I uncovered successful stories of Jewish vendors thriving at the Fair, I also wondered if the local Jewish community had encountered any barriers or blatant antisemitism. The answer, of course, was of course.
When examining the 1978 Annual Report of the Minnesota State Fair, I found mention of a meeting of the governing board in which Mort Ryweck, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, spoke. He raised a “strong objection to printed materials being distributed by an exhibitor in the Grandstand.” This objection was to Gerda Koch, doing business as Christian Research Inc., who was handing out antisemitic pamphlets at her booth under the guise of Christian outreach.
The meeting minutes note that board members, “would agree that the literature being sold and or handed out could be defined as defamatory and antisemitic in nature, but that from a legal point of view, there was very little the Society could do to limit or halt such distribution.” The Board thanked Ryweck and said they would monitor the booth.
The woman in question, Gerda Koch, was born in Wisconsin, lived in Minnesota, and was a substitute teacher who was worried about the rise of Communism and the involvement of Socialists in public schools. In 1958 she began an organization she called Christian Research, publishing a newsletter called Facts for Action where she discussed fears of Communists taking over America, and claimed that antisemitism was a word designed to destroy Christianity.
Koch eventually moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas but returned to the Minnesota State Fair each year. Christian Research is listed in State Fair Annual Reports as having a presence at the Fair from 1961 through to 1996.
In the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives we have various antisemitic pamphlets and hate literature, including a number of Koch’s publications. Her pamphlets are convoluted and hard to understand at times. As with much of hate literature, it can be difficult to follow the arguments and lines of supposed logic laid forth by the writer. What is not hard to understand is her bigotry towards Jews.
In 1979, the year after Mort Ryweck’s objections came to naught, the Jewish Community Relations Council for the first time had a booth at the Fair. The JCRC set up shop that year in the Grandstand, near Christian Research’s booth. Their location near Koch’s booth was intentional – in order to combat the racism and antisemitism that she spouted, the JCRC attempted to counter hate speech since the Fair would not shut it down.
That same year, an article in the Star Tribune covered Koch under the headline “Giving fairgoers the good word” while noting that she was at the Fair “to talk about the importance of being Caucasian, about how six million Jews were not killed by the Nazis, about why income tax is a violation of the laws of God.” Clearly Koch was getting some people’s attention, enough to cover her actions in the local newspaper.
The JCRC kept on fighting Koch through the years. A 1994 article from the American Jewish World once again mentions the presence of Gerda Koch: “Minnesota State Fair officials insist that the people who distribute Ku Klux Klan propaganda and racist literature at their booth have every right to be there. State Fair sales director Jim Sinclair explained that ‘just as the Jewish Community Relations Council has an exhibit here at the Fair, so does this organization. We don’t support or condemn either one of them.’”
Sinclair admitted that the Fair got about a half dozen complaints about the Christian Research booth every year, but he noted that he supported a person’s right to free speech. Christian Research would remain at the Fair until 1996, two years after Koch’s death.
The Jewish Community Relations Council continued their presence at the Fair for years, despite never successfully shutting Koch down. In 1994, they moved their booth from the Grandstand to the Education building. The booth ran thanks to Jewish volunteers, many of whom noted their positive experience with welcoming and kind Jews and non-Jews alike. The JCRC also reached out to “Christian friends” to help run the booth on Fridays and Saturdays during Shabbat.
In his call for Christian volunteers, Ryweck directly points to the so-called Christian bigotry being spread by Koch. He wrote “Would it be possible to recruit Christian volunteers to staff our booth on the aforementioned dates, the Jewish Sabbath, beginning on Friday evening through Saturday? One of the chief purposes of our booth is to serve as a corrective to the antisemitic hate propaganda of “Christian Research.” You could help us combat this bigotry which, unfortunately, has a twisted “Christian” base, and distributes many so-called “Christian” pieces at the Fair each year. More importantly, as was noted in a number of newspaper articles last year, the cooperation of Christian volunteers serves as a model of ecumenism in word and in deed.” In 1995, a tally notes that there were 121 volunteers, 37 of whom were not Jewish. [You can see the letter sent in July 1981 here.]
Eventually, perhaps due to lack of volunteer support or a perceived lack of need, the Jewish Community Relations Council ceased their booth presence at the Minnesota State Fair as far as I can tell sometime after 2007. Gerda Koch’s Christian Research had left in 1996. What remains is fragments of this history, found in the archives, telling just one small story of when hate came to the Minnesota State Fair.
Author Kate Dietrick is the Archivist for the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries.