Minnesota State Fair: stranger than fiction

We’ve had fairs in Minnesota since before we were a state.

Early fairs hosted elaborate agricultural displays to entice people to move here to farm. They were also places for entertainment and learning. New technology for farming and households was shown in exhibits on Machinery Hill and in the Woman’s Building. The first grandstand hosted races and elaborate theatrical productions, and the nearby midway had the thrill rides of the era.

Frankly, not much has changed.

We all know the Minnesota State Fair is the biggest and the best, yet we’re in a continuous battle with Texas over that designation. Being located in a metro area makes both fairs huge (the Texas fair is in Dallas). Both fairs had record attendance in 2016. Texas has five times the population of Minnesota, and their fair lasts a full month. But on average, we get more visitors per day.

I’d say that makes us the biggest!

Minnesota State Fair

  • Lasts 12 days
  • 1,943,719 visitors for entire fair
  • Average of 161,977 people per day

Texas State Fair

  • Lasts 24 days
  • 2,408,032 visitors for entire fair
  • Average of 100,335 people per day

When I’m not at the fair I like reading fiction about it. Here are excerpts from three of of my favorites:

TOURIST MSF St Paul Stories

‘A Night at the Fair’ 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s coming-of-age story about boys at the Minnesota State Fair fair vying for attention of girls and taking rides in Ye Old Mill, published in the Saturday Evening Post, July 21, 1928

The two cities were separated only by a thin well-bridged river; their tails curling over the banks met and mingled, and at the juncture, under the jealous eye of each, lay, every fall, the State Fair. Because of this advantageous position, and because of the agricultural eminence of the state, the fair was one of the most magnificent in America. There were immense exhibits of grain, livestock and farming machinery; there were horse races and automobile races and, lately, aeroplanes that really left the ground; there was a tumultuous Midway with Coney Island thrillers to whirl you through space, and a whining, tinkling hoochie-coochie show. As a compromise between the serious and the trivial, a grand exhibition of fireworks, culminating in a representation of the Battle of Gettysburg, took place in the Grand Concourse every night.

TOURIST MSF Hot Dish

‘Hot Dish’ 

A novel by Connie Brockway about a former Princess Kay of the Milky Way-style runner-up who hunts down the former butter sculptor to help solve a mystery.

11:50 a.m., Monday, August 27, 1984

The Hippodrome, the Minnesota State Fairgrounds

 “… and that is how dairy products changed my life,” finished seventeen-year-old Miss Fawn Creek, Jennifer Hallesby. Behind her, Duddie Olson’s prizewinning 4-H milk cow, Portia, also representing Fawn Creek, mooed approvingly.

“Thank you, Miss Hallesby,” the emcee said. “Miss Delano?”

Jenn bobbed a little curtsy and was rewarded when the Minnesota Dairy Farmers’ Federation’s only female judge winked and mouthed the words, “Very nice.”

Jenn step-glided her way back to her plastic lawn chair among the other Buttercup finalists, no easy feat while navigating the minefield of mementos left by the nine blue-ribbon cows now stationed behind their respective princesses.

TOURIST MSF September Fair

‘September Fair’ 

In the fifth in a series of 12 murder-by-the-month mysteries set in Battle Lake, librarian/reporter Mira James heads to the Twin Cities to write about the town’s recently crowned Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy who ends up getting murdered while having her likeness carved in butter

On the first day of the fair, Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy, chosen out of some 80 county dairy princesses and then twelve finalists, posed as a larger-than-life likeness of her head was carved out of a block of butter inside of a glass-sided, rotating refrigerator. Every day after that, for eleven more days, the runners-up also were seated and immortalized in the special booth, but no butter carving was as grand as the first one of the fair. That’s what Ashley was telling herself as she shivered despite her parka and mittens.

The sculptor worked busily and with a total focus on her masterpiece. She had big shoes to fill. Linda Gerritt had sculpted every single Milkfed Mary head since the inception of the pageant, but she had broken her right arm the week before the fair, and her fill-in was under clear instructions to do everything as it had always been done. So, she used seven tools, not including her hands — knives, wires, other tricks of the trade. She began the sculpting with a serrated bread knife to get the general shape and followed with a ribbon tool to refine angles. Her philosophy of butter carving was not to force the art but rather to let the face within the dairy emerge of its own accord. Fortunately, butter was a forgiving medium. Too much off the nose, and all she had to do was scoop some off the floor and pat it back into place. Bangs not high enough? Take a little from the rear of the head and slap it on the front.

Have a great fair!


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