Along the winding road of Dakota City Heritage Village, guests move back through time.
Tools clank inside the operating blacksmith shop. Red-hot nails hiss furiously as they’re dipped into a bucket of water.
Across the street, an old-fashioned barbershop welcomes customers and a train depot awaits passengers. American flags wave in nearly every window.
Carnival rides whiz and whir on the other side of the Dakota County Fairgrounds, but it’s difficult to hear them while on a stroll in this mock-up of an 1870s-era agricultural town — the original city of Farmington.
Twenty-two historic structures from the region were donated and meticulously moved to the fairgrounds to serve as a museum. Costumed volunteers lead tours and dole out trivia, educating visitors on what it was like to live and work in “yesteryear,” said Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik.
The village sets the Dakota County Fair apart from other county festivals, Slavik said, and helps drive about 120,000 people through the gates each year during its weeklong run. A small-town experience allows children more space to roam without fear, but still offers fan favorites like the demolition derby, tractor parade and fried food-on-a-stick.
“You have a real opportunity to see what you’d see at the Minnesota State Fair on a more local level,” said Slavik, one of 12 fair directors. “It’s more intimate because it’s not as crowded.”
Both the Dakota County and Carver County fairs end Sunday, with blue-ribbon winners heading to the Great Minnesota Get Together in St. Paul, which begins Aug. 24.
Parents often rely on county fairs as an affordable summer activity — typically charging $5 a person rather than the $14 entry fee charged at the State Fair. The smaller venues are also easier on young kids — especially toddlers.
“This is the perfect size,” said Brian Stout,of Farmington, who toted his 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter around the Dakota County Fairgrounds Tuesday.
Stout’s children hopped into a kiddie corvette, with big sister at the wheel. Free admission for the little ones meant the trio would likely hit the fair four times this year, Stout said.
Back at the village general store, Karin McComb greeted passersby with information about the 148-year-old building and its assorted stock of antique foods, donated quilts and wash basins. In her derby hat and hand-me-down broach, she evoked the historical illusion.
“You’ll see things your grandmother probably had — things that are easily 100 years old,” said McComb, 83, of Richfield. “It brings it all back to them.”
Down the street, Bill and Evaughn Anderson invite fairgoers inside the Dakota City Free Press newspaper offices to discuss the evolution of print newspapers. Guests are tasked with reading press plates — set upside down and backward — then treated to a demonstration on the Linotype machine.
“Thomas Edison called this the 8th Wonder of the World,” Bill Anderson said with a grin.
As a former Linotype operator at the Hawley Herald near Moorhead, Minn., Anderson developed a passion for traditional printmaking. But technology rendered that obsolete by the time he graduated from college in 1968. “I knew there was no future in this,” said Bill Anderson, 70, of Inver Grove Heights. He went on to study computers for 45 years.
Now, few people remain who know how to operate the machines of old. That’s why county fairs are such a treat, Evaughn Anderson said.
“You can get right up close,” she said. “It’s the perfect place to take your grandchildren.”