5 Minutes With - Jerry Hammer
For Jerry Hammer, the Minnesota State Fair is more than just a place to spend a few days at the end of the summer—it’s been an integral part of his life for more than five decades. From growing up a few blocks away from the fairgrounds to becoming the Fair’s general manager, Hammer has helped influence and grow “The Great Minnesota Get-Together.” Now, as he prepares to step down from his role, Hammer reflects on his favorite memories.
Q: What are some of your first memories of the Fair?
A: Growing up, I lived next to the State Fair. My brother and I were there all the time. We’d wash the dishes every night and each get a quarter. In those days, a slushie and a ride on the Ye Old Mill were each a dime or 15 cents. When you live next door to something like that, it just becomes a big part of your life.
Q: How did you start working at the Fair and what roles did you have?
A: As a 15-year-old, I was working 40 hours a week all summer in the greenhouse. I thought it was the best thing ever; it was close to home, and it was outside. I went to St. Thomas College, got a degree in journalism and spent a few months at a newspaper in southern Minnesota. I moved home to get married in the fall of 1977. My old boss at the greenhouse called the Fair’s manager and asked if I could work in the office. In pretty short order, I was back full time on the administrative team. That job quickly grew into communications, publicity and marketing. It transitioned over time to corporate sponsorships and senior staff work as a part of the management team. I did that for 18 years. In January 1997, I was appointed general manager, and I’m now in my 27th year.
Q: How have you seen the Fair grow and change through the years?
A: We’re fortunate that the organization itself is very different. It’s not a department of the government or stakeholders we must pay dividends to. That allows us to focus on what’s really important—serving our guests and making sure that the Fair is the best it can be. As long we’re taking care of people, then the financial part will take care of itself. That’s been a guiding principle of mine from the get-go. During my time, we’ve come up with a couple of different vehicles that allow us to do a lot to the fairgrounds. The first thing we did was renovate the grandstand. We also built the new international bazaar and put roofs on our livestock facilities. In 2014, we built the West End Market and put in the transit hub. We also started the State Fair Foundation, which supports facilities and educational programs, visitor amenities and landscape. As I get ready to transition out of my current role, I feel really good about where we are with the potential moving forward.
Q: How does the Fair support agricultural education?
A: When I was a kid, we learned very little in school about where the most fundamental building blocks of life come from, and there’s even less now. So it falls to fairs to help provide that education. What’s really gratifying for all of us is to see how popular the ag exhibits are, such as the barn areas, the livestock areas and the Ag-Hort building. As you walk around, you can talk to rock stars from the University of Minnesota in agronomy and crop sciences. There are so many people involved in ag, and there are so many different organizations that are all very well represented. You can’t go anywhere on the fairgrounds without seeing ag represented in some way.
Q: What makes the Minnesota State Fair special?
A: When you grow up with our State Fair, you think every state has a Fair just like ours. When I started working there, I realized how special it is. It is held as the gold standard, and it underscores our responsibility to make sure our Fair is as great as it can possibly be. People from Minnesota are very proud of the Fair, and they should be because it’s something special.
Q: What are your plans for retirement?
A: I’ll still be involved with the Fair in some way, providing help in any way I can. We have five grandkids, so we will spend more time with them. because it’s something special.