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Collecting state fair memories

Shakopee collector has nearly 1,000 fair buttons

By Carlienne A. Frisch

What do you do when you have 450 different buttons—pinbacks from the Minnesota State Fair--and an equal amount of doubles? Sue Buetow’s answer is to keep collecting. She is eagerly anticipating the hunt for pinbacks at this year’s State Fair, and has attended Minnesota State Fairs for many years, adding to her collection annually.

Sue Buetow of Shakopee with some of the buttons from her Minnesota State Fair collection. Contributed photo

“It seemed like a long time between the 2019 and 2021 State Fair,” said Buetow, who lives in Shakopee. Missing out on State Fair activities last year, she made a pinback stating “COVID-19 killed the 2020 Minnesota State Fair” and wore it to the fair last year, getting smiles from onlookers. She is not alone in making pins, she said, noting that some of her fellow collectors also make unique pins.

“It seems there never was a time I wasn’t collecting,” Buetow said. “I collect buttons in general—also other pinbacks--and I went to the State Fair angle. The ones I collect must say ‘Minnesota State Fair.’ They are pretty much giveaways, including political campaign buttons.”

The hobby provided a change of pace during the more than 40 years Buetow worked in a family grocery store. Since her retirement, the thrill of the hunt keeps her busy comparing information with other collectors (most of whom she has met online) and searching at antique stores, thrift stores, garage sales, and on Ebay for additions to her collection. The thought of adding to her collection seldom leaves her. She explained, “It’s always in the back of collectors’ minds that we will find more pinbacks.”

Buetow attends the State Fair each year with a collector friend who lives in Chanhassen. (They have unofficially willed their state fair pinback collections to each other.) The two friends take different routes through the fair, keeping in touch by cell phone. Buetow said, “We’re like a couple of kids, calling each other to say, ‘Did you see this?’ We cannot cover every inch of the fair, so we do miss some pins. The State Fair has an information booth on the grounds, where we get a commemorative button from that year for free.

“One problem is that there is no book that tells you what to look for if you don’t understand what the button is all about,” Buetow said. “I’ve seriously thought about writing one, but are there really enough people out there who would be interested?”

Buetow’s Minnesota State Fair pinback collection includes not only political buttons and those from 4-H and farm organization booths, but also buttons commemorating the 100th anniversary of the grandstand, of the Fine Arts exhibit, etc. She said the most desirable buttons are those that designate “State Fair” and include the date. Some buttons are special because they commemorate the 100th anniversary of the cattle barn or 50 years of the milk stand.

Sue stores her buttons in sealed jars. Contributed photos

There were different Elvis Presley buttons over three years, as well as one special button for the performer known as Prince. Buetow said, “When you find one of those buttons, it’s a ‘woo-hoo’ moment.”

As committed as Buetow is in collecting Minnesota State Fair pinbacks, she has not limited herself in her collecting activities. Her other collections including Valley Fair pinbacks and pins from Wall Drug in South Dakota. She also collects rocks, agates, fossils—and more. She admitted, “I’m a lifelong collector and have way too many collections, but I would have to say that the State Fair buttons are my favorites. They do not take a lot of room, I scan them into the computer, print them out, and put that in a binder by year. I can take that printout with me anywhere to show the actual collection.” She also can carry this inventory record with her when shopping at antique or thrift stores.

“It’s like a dream to go to an antique store or flea market or garage sale and find a button you didn’t even know exists,” Buetow said, “but it’s easier to spot it if you’ve seen it at another person’s collection. Recently, I looked through 1,000 buttons at a flea market. I saw a pin—a 1981 Minnesota State Fair pin advertising Poppin Fresh Pie—and I kept looking and found a second one for a friend. I know everything of her collection.”

(Upper Left) These are some of the most rare State Fair buttons in Sue’s collection. They are also many of her favorites. (Upper Right) These are some of Sue’s oldest Minnesota State Fair buttons. (Lower Right) These buttons in Sue’s collection are Minnesota State Fair buttons that serve as little tributes to Elvis and Prince. (Lower Left) Another set of favorites in Sue’s collection are the Minnesota State Fair anniversary and birthday buttons. Contributed Photos

The pinbacks require some special care to keep them in optimal condition. Buetow explained, “Pinback buttons are very sensitive to moisture. It can get between the metal back and the plastic front, and then you can see brown spots on the front and a bit of tarnish in the back. One collector friend would rather have a damaged button than no button, but to me, condition is important. Of the buttons in my collection, 99 percent are in mint condition. I keep them in large fruit jars, unwrapped, with some silica. All are facing up. I keep photos in a binder, so I can turn to Page 2020 to see if I have a particular button.

“The jars are on a shelf in my living room, with all of the pinbacks from State Fair singalongs in one jar, other themes in specific jars. Some of the oldest are the 4-H buttons. I have one from 1922 and have no idea where I got it. My brother also collects pinback buttons, and I’ve sort of conned him out of all of his Minnesota State Fair buttons.”

Buetow isn’t sure in what year she actually began her collection of Minnesota State Fair pinbacks. She explained, “When you have 450, you rarely remember. I love my 4-H buttons—my oldest is from 1922—but I hope someday to have one for every year. I’m very open to selling or trading. My friends and I are always waiting to see what each year’s theme is for the State Fair. I’m always hoping to meet more collectors of Minnesota State Fair pinbacks—anyone interested in chatting or trading.”

To contact Buetow about pinback collecting, email her at

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