If you close your eyes and I mention “The Minnesota State Fair,” my guess is your senses are immediately overwhelmed with sensory images of sight and smell, both good... and bad.
But, mostly good, right?
Day 1, everything is fresh and new. Grass is green and the sidewalks clean, ready for 12-days of non-stop action at the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Twelve days later, everything (including the people who have worked the fair's entire run) look significantly worse for wear and tear.
Originally started as a way to celebrate harvest season, the Minnesota State Fair is now BIG business, with agriculture slowly giving way to money-making ventures of all kinds. Every new participant who is granted a space dreams of becoming the next Sweet Martha.
I don’t have many memories of the fair as a small child, other than my mom complaining that no matter where we parked she always had to walk through Machinery Hill, the area dedicated to showing off the latest and greatest in farm equipment. Suffice to say my parents (transplanted New Yorkers) were not farm folk.
I also remember my mom telling the kids we couldn’t afford to go the state fair every year, so stop asking. My parents were products of the great depression and while I never went to bed hungry, for them to take five kids to the fair, even in the 1960s and early 70s, was simply out of the question.
As my brothers and sisters aged and moved on there was one brilliant exception when I was about 9 or 10. My dad took a rare day off from 3M and my parents took just me and my brother Kevin to the State Fair during the day, and then a Twins game afterwards.
Who were these people? I thought I had been abducted by benevolent kidnappers.
Things changed for me the summer before 5th grade. My best friend at the time was Chris Cunningham, and Chris asked me if I wanted to go to the fair with him. I assumed I would be going along with the entire Cunningham family but when I got picked-up early the next morning, Mr. Cunningham was dressed for work. As he dropped us off he told us where to meet him later and when, Then he was gone.
You could say, the worm turned for me that day.
Chris had obviously spent a lot more time at the fair than I had, and he schooled me about the various ins-and-outs of the fairgrounds. Let’s just say that I was a quick study and to have the run of the place (along with thousands of other unsupervised kids) was intoxicating. I had money in my pocket, food, rides and attractions literally all around me... and zero adult supervision.
I had found heaven on earth.
That day I figured out that not only could you go to the State Fair every year, if you budgeted correctly you could go MORE THAN ONCE! And other than the ride there and back, your parents were no longer required.
The cast of characters would change but I gradually spent more time at the fair each year, peaking in high school when one of my friends (who I won’t identify) was hired by his neighbor to dispense beer at a vendor that I also won’t identify.
We were 16-years old. I vividly remember walking up to the window and sliding my friend a $10 bill. He took it, gave me a pitcher of 3.2 beer and returned a $5 bill and five ones. I flipped him a $2 tip, and off I went.
Over the next two years this process played out again and again. To this day I can’t walk past the place without smiling, and the thought of actually paying for a beer is still a little painful.
On the night I met the woman who would be my wife we bonded over our mutual love of the State Fair. It was a love we shared with her parents until their passing, and of course with our daughters, who grew-up not only expecting to go to the fair every year but to park on-site at no charge.
My Go-To game on the Mighty Midway was Whack a Mole. If my kids were going to get a stuffed animal that’s where it was gonna come from.
As an employee of KARE-11 I not only got to go to the fair multiple times every year, but back in the 90’s was even able to fly there by helicopter. Paul Magers rode in the front with legendary chopper pilot Max Messmer, but still.... no complaints here!
I always enjoyed representing KARE at the fair. One year, the great Joan Steffend decided we should crash WCCO’s set so we did. Belinda, Joan and I walked right in, wearing our matching red KARE-11 polo shirts, sauntered up on their set and sat down like we were going to do the news. OK, I might have been eating a pork chop on a stick at the time, but other than that we seemed perfectly legit.
Over the years the fair has changed. It’s definitely become more crowded and more expensive, but I still love it and I still look forward to it. For me the trip to Falcon Heights isn’t complete without at least one bag of Tom Thumb donuts, a chocolate malt from the dairy building, an El Sol beef and bean burrito, Andouille sausage from Sausage by Cynthia and the afore-mentioned Sweet Martha’s cookies. Wash it down with a Grain Belt Blu from the West End Market and things couldn't get much better.
Now, if I could only figure out how to get my friend a job working there selling beer…