Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Minnesota State Fair - In our blood

Occasionally I'll write something on this blog that has little to do with South Lake Minnetonka community affairs. Today will be one such day.

While some people are addicted to the Minnesota State Fair, and others detest it, I'm somewhere in the middle, slightly closer to addicted than detesting. Growing up in a farm family, the fair was not only a major yearly event, but a rite of passage. It was a ceremonial end to a growing season and action-packed harvest (A harvest which, coincidentally, was responsible for our family's livelihood.) With the mental, physicial, and emotional drain that a yearly growing season and harvest brought to a farm family, it was only fitting that a trip to the fair was a perfect way to wrap up an intense summer. There were opportunities to preview new machinery, learn about better farming techniques, see exhibitors bring their best grains and animals from every corner of the state, and visit (or commiserate, if it was a bad year) with other farmers.

Now, as a city dweller, the fair has different meaning to me. It is more of a pilgrimage, a very temporary and focused one-day immersion in all the fair has to offer. The heavy farm overtones of my early years now only make up a portion of my fair experience. I find that I devote more time to looking at landscaping ideas, checking out what the messages du jour are from the various political parties, and trying to find that elusive "State Fair Special" on goods that I've been considering buying during the past year.

I spent a good part of yesterday at the fair. After getting home, I thought about why a state fair is still such a big deal to me and other Minnesotans in 2007. After all, I'm not a fan of crowds, shameless advertising, public restrooms, or food that makes my stomach upset, but the fair has ample dosages of all of those things. The path of least resistance would surely be to stay home and follow my weekend routine: a nice breakfast with a newspaper in hand, quiet family time, a walk, run, or bike ride, maybe some yardwork, catching up on mail, and the enjoyable dilemma of where to go for dinner. But with one August day each year, I choose to take the more exhausting path, the one that will virtually gaurantee I'll have to pay $10 for a bad parking spot, that I will spend no less than 1 of my valuable hours standing in lines, and that I fully realize I'll have indigestion even before I take my first bite of fair cuisine.

To me, the allure of the fair is that it doesn't change. Even those of us who sometimes grow impatient with the lack of adaptation to new concepts and ideas enjoy the day or two when we can go back to a place with complete familiarity. Even though I no longer go to the "all the milk you can drink" stand, I like seeing it still there. Even though it has been years since I've gone down the superslide, it is comforting to know that kids still get a thrill from it. And I've never tried a deep-fried candy bar on a stick, but to me the fair wouldn't be the fair without it. And it is great to see that in this day and age of agriculture becoming a smaller part of our workforce, and large farms taking over the landscape, each county of the state is still well-represented by local youth in competitions involving cattle, sheep, hogs, and grains .

The only thing that seems to change at the fair are the prices, and that should be expected. Otherwise, there is comfort in knowing that you'll see the same thing you saw last year, and you should fully expect to see it there again next year. To me, that is the allure of the State Fair.


  1. It's too bad the fair does change from year to year. Yes, there's familiarity in it. The cable cars, Ye Olde Mill, the giant slide, haunted houses and the space needle/tower (whatever it is called) are all attractions you can count on each year. I find the haunted house to be lame compared to some of the Halloween productions I have been to in recent years, but I don't mind a trip over the grounds on the cable cars and a trip up the needle. Last year I went with my nephew and rode the slide with him. That was my first time on the slide in years. (I haven't been in the mill in at least two decades.)

    But it does change, in small, subtle ways from year to year, and that's unfortunate. There's always something new, and that's exciting, but sometimes it comes at the expense of something familiar and beloved. How 'bout that carousel that people loved, absolutely loved, for its ordate decoration? (Whatever happened to it after it failed as an attraction in downtown St. Paul? I better go look it up when I get done here.) That was a fixture for decades, but not any more!

    The emphasis on agriculture diminshed when machinery hill was reduced. (Or was it completely eliminated?) I haven't seen it, but the northern Minnesota heritage display that's part of the northern grounds sounds pretty cool: a new cabin built on site each year, exhibitions of lumberjack skills, etc.

    I haven't been there, but that butterfly garden seems like a neat attraction. Sadly it came at the expense of the penny arcade. Is there another arcade on the grounds? As far as I know there still is, but the penny arcade had a few old pinball machines and games of yesteryear that I enjoyed revisiting from my youth. I was probably one of the few, although that's not the reason why the penny arcade was kicked out of the fair.

    Remember the annual Labor Day stock car race at the grandstand? It was a staple of the last day of the fair for decades. Gone.

    One of my favorite areas of the fairgrounds, an area a lot of people don't seem too familiar with, is the historical area adjacent to the midway. It has old rail cars full of artifacts. I know plenty of people find their way there, but I rarely hear anyone talk about that stuff. There are tons of great old photos that show how much the fair has changed. Instead of nightly concerts, many of which aren't particularly special or spectacular bookings, there use to be much more creative shows. Some were circus-like, featuring high wire acts. Some were odd spectacles, such as trains being crashed into each other or an airplane buzzing through a shed in the middle of the grounds. A lot of this stuff went by the wayside decades ago, and for obvious reasons, but it's not the same fair it was then in a few big ways.

    By the way, when was the last time you went to the petting zoo? Probably the year before it became the new broadcast home of KARE 11.

    When is the last time you had a glass of Rudy Boschwitz flavored milk?

    Yeah, there's a lot of familiarity in the fair, but some of my greatest memories are just that, memories. There ain't no reliving them nowadays.

  2. I made it to the fair for the first time in quite a while. I was wrong, sort of, about the penny arcade. It must have been two separate arcade operations that were joined together through a ramp, because although the room full of classic games/pinball has been replaced by the butterfly garden, another part of the arcade remains, and they have more classic games than Playland, which is mostly modern video games and games played for tickets to trade for cheap trinkets.

    But I did think of something else that has changed. Years ago you could take a train around the grounds. I don't know how many years those have been gone, but I have a friend who sold train tickets in the 1990s. I'm not surprised its gone, it had to be a hassle driving those things down streets clogged with people gorging themselves on deep fried food.