Why do Minnesotans who already have a perfectly good yardstick at home continue to pick up a new one at the State Fair every year?

"'Cause they're free," said Josh DeBoer, 16, of Minnetonka. Josh, his siblings and his mom also have a unique use for the neon-colored sticks: They hold them up to find each other easily in the crowds.

Easily the most identifiable of the freebie icons at the fair, the yardstick is but a drop in the bucket (another popular giveaway at the Home Depot booth) of the thousands of free trinkets used to entice fairgoers. Pencils, wristbands, tattoos, keychains, fans, candy, coupons and magnets are among them.

Dollars & Sense went in search of the best ones, but some of the freebies come at a cost. The most popular ones are doled out at limited times in limited quantities.

Sheila Schmidt spent 30 minutes in line before St. Thomas University started its afternoon distribution of purple cloth tote bags. Schmidt, a former Minnesotan now living in Orlando, already has 40 assorted cloth bags from around the country at home, but she was standing in line for a bag for her husband, a St. Thomas alum. If you want one of the more coveted freebies, such as a cloth tote, a backpack or a bucket, plan on getting in line 15 to 30 minutes before posted distribution times.

At last check, the yardsticks weren't in short supply, but Blue Flame gives away about 3,000 per day. Don't delay, unless you, like many of us, already have a stash of them at home.

Yardstick (MN Blue Flame Gas Assn., on Nelson St., between Dan Patch and Carnes). They're almost as popular as the sturdier, square models, but those cost $1 with a purchase at Northern Tool (southwest corner of Randall and Underwood).

Five-gallon orange paint bucket (Home Depot on Cosgrove St. across from the Education Building). The same buckets costs about $3 at the store. Ken Stuhlfeier of Blaine uses his when fishing, gardening and working with cement, but admitted, "It's a pain to carry around." Very popular.

Tree seedling (Minnesota Forest Industries, Education Building). Pam Frecentese of Stillwater and her daughters, Tori and Gracie, get seedlings to plant every year, but fairgoers must take a quiz on Minnesota forestry first. "It's the same quiz every year and all the answers are true," Frecentese confided.

Tote bag (WCCO Radio on Carnes). Many vendors distribute totes, but freebie-freaks prefer the reusable cloth bags. Hard-cores such as Tami Buldra of Hudson, Wis., say the coupons inside are just as important. She likes WCCO's cloth bag but also the mystery ticket in some of the bags that's good for free rides at Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America.

Backpacks (University of Minnesota on Cooper and Dan Patch or KARE-11 on Nelson between Carnes and Judson). Both of these bags are in huge demand and will probably require lining up at the designated giveaway times a couple of times a day. The U's bag is more attractive but the KARE bag is vented on one side.

Chip clips (Minnesota Lottery, corner of Nelson and Judson). Keep potato chips crisp with a chip clip. Elbow your way through the hordes of spendthrifts dropping $10 for a lottery ticket on a stick and grab the freebie instead.

Fans (Education Building). As welcome as a cool breeze, a fan is a must on a hot day at the fair. On cooler days it shoos flies from your caramel apple. Several institutions were giving these away in the Education Building, including the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, but they're flimsy. The Gladstone's Window & Door Store fan in the Star Tribune plastic bag giveaway is heftier.

Posters of the "Glee" cast, "The Simpsons," Joe Mauer and Adrian Peterson (KMSP Fox 9 on south side of Dan Patch, east of the grandstand ramp). Spin a wheel to determine your freebie but ask for your first choice even if the wheel doesn't land on it.

Gold'n Plump coupons (Underwood and Wright). If you like Gold' n Plump Everyday Easy chicken patties, there were plenty of coupons for $1 off last week (Dec. 31 expiration). Coupon item might change.

Butter-flavored lip balm (Star Tribune, Carnes near the grandstand ramp). Last year's flavor was bacon but tasted like maple syrup. This year's flavor smells like popcorn butter.

Free parking. If you plan to park at the fair, nearly everyone has a secret spot to park free, but most keep it secret. I'll share mine. I've only tried this before 10 a.m. on a weekday, but I always find a spot and it takes only five to 10 minutes to walk to the gate. Take the Snelling exit from I-94 and stay in the right lane when approaching the Como exit. Take the first right after the bridge, before Nelson Cheese Factory, onto Breda Av. Take another quick right onto E. Snelling Service Dr. past the lot on your left. Take a left on Brewster St. and look for free spots along the street or keep driving along Pascal St. or Jessamine Av.

Go to www.mnstatefair.org/general_info/brochure_rack.html for a list of freebies, cheapies and sign-up-to-wins.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/blogs/dealspotter.