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The Minnesota State Fair: The Grandest Get-Together

It’s true, it’s here. Officially, I have received my first phone shot of food from this year’s State Fair – deep fried bacon cheddar mashed potatoes on a stick. Thanks, Chris. Yes. Heart attack in your hand. But it’s only once a year, so you can do it.

The Minnesota State Fair is one of the grandest in the country. It is something I grew up with. When I was a kid, we lived in the Midway area, which is just a bus ride away (without transfer) from the Fairgrounds. We could get into the Fair for like a dollar. My brother and I and his friends made it a point to go as often as possible. We moved away from there when I was about 8, so you can see how times have changed. We had the run of the neighborhood, and the Fairgrounds was just on the verge of it.

One year my dad helped a friend of his, who lived near the Fair, park cars on his lawn. Everyone around the Fair does this. If you believe in helping the small business entrepreneur, perhaps you too can pay someone five dollars to park your car on their lawn and thus help along the economic recovery. Or maybe it’s ten dollars now. After all, it does tear up the turf. We would hang out at his house all day, playing among a maze of cars, and towards the end of the day my dad would give us five or ten dollars or whatever the 1970s equivalent of enough money to have fun at the Fair was, and my brother and I would hike over to the Fair a block or two away. We’d cavort like kids in a candy store.

I love the Fair at night. All the buildings are rimmed in white lights, and the open beer garden, the one right by the Midway, beckons with its neon signs. The beer gardens are, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the Fair. When I was a kid, our dad only suffered through the Fair long enough to get from one beer garden to another. Oh, that’s not fair, maybe. He did try to win us stuff on the Midway. But in the old days, the beer garden closest to the Midway directly faced KiddieLand. So we could go on rides, and our dad could actually sit in the beer garden across the street and watch us. Brilliant. And the other beer garden, the one over towards Machinery Hill, I remember as a big cavern of coolness. Along at least two walls were large wooden bars and there was a stage in the back. It was dark, at least darker than outside, kind of that cozy barroom darkness, and they sold beer and maybe some bar pizza and that was about it. Now this beer garden is all trendy and hip, with celebrity guacamole chefs and fajitas, and all manner of mixed beverages. A couple years ago I had a beer margarita there. Slushy and good for a hot day, but only in moderation. It’s just not the same.

Now, for some inexplicable reason, probably to save the kiddies from the sight of all those neon signs, they have moved Kiddieland over by Machinery Hill. Which kind of spoils the extra Kiddieland-ness of Machinery Hill itself. Machinery Hill beckons back to the good old days of the Fair. It started, as most Fairs did, as an agriculture event. And so you can go now and climb on all makes and models of tractors – most with air conditioning. My farmer grandfather would be appalled. The Fair is still run by an agricultural society, and you can still see animals there, but they are not the main attraction any longer. The center of the Fairgrounds now is all thrill seeking, bungee jumping, and giant cups of French Fries. Which is not to say bad.

If you stroll the outline of the Fairgrounds, you get the real stuff, much like they advise you to shop the outskirts of your grocery store to avoid all the processed junk. On the east side, there are the produce buildings, horticulture, and creative arts. Seed art, anyone? On the south end, directly across from the haunted house, is the Dairy Building. Stand in line for a milk shake and watch them carve the heads of the dairy princesses in butter. The little princesses sit in a refrigerated booth in winter jackets while they’re being sculpted, and they get to keep the butter heads. Now there’s a souvenir.

The west side is the Coliseum, where all the animals are shown, and along the back side of it are stands that sell all manner of cowboy paraphernalia. Then the Midway, which bodes no explanation, and behind that is Heritage Square, with its newspaper museum and Fair museum, turkey legs and more beer. On the corner before you turn to Heritage Square (left), just across from the SkyRide, is a stand that sells cream puffs. Stop and buy one. The north side of the Fair is the Grandstand, which turned 100 last year, where Dan Patch broke all the records in 1906. It used to be thrills and spills, but now it’s mainly music outside and vendors inside. The best free music is at the Bandshell when the Talent Contest is underway. After the Grandstand you can take a left and go up to Machinery Hill, but like I said it’s been inundated with lots of other stuff and nonsense since the old days. Along this way you will find most of the political booths, so if you are of a mind, you might speak to a candidate.

The DNR building is worth a look, even though it’s not on the perimeter and even though it has now undergone a renovation to make it more humane. That is, they took out the cages with live critters and replaced them with a diorama of the stuffed critters in a facsimile of their natural habitat. Still, a nice place to get out of the sun. Next to that is the long open beer garden, which now faces a Thrill Park the likes of which you’ve never seen, if you’ve been under a rock for the past ten years. In front of the DNR building is the Spin Painting booth, without which no Fair visit is complete. But a little secret is the little convenience store behind the beer garden. If you are in need of anything, go down that alley that looks like a shipping lane and you will probably find it there.

The Fair is and always has been a place for people and groups to air their differences, see and be seen. It’s where Katie Poirier’s family handed out fliers searching for her after she was kidnapped. It’s where Teddy Roosevelt gave his ‘walk softly and carry a big stick’ speech two days before McKinley was shot. It’s where you can see Vegi-matics, ride the rapids and climb a fire tower. It’s where everyone is a kid again, and even though it is the last blast of summer, when you are at the Fair, it seems like summer is going to last forever.

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