One of the qualities Minnesotans love in their State Fair is its changelessness. Sheep are always sheared in the barn adjacent to exotically plumed chickens. Butter sculptures of princesses are always twirling in the Dairy Building. Impressive needlework always awaits inspection at Creative Activities.
But to the experienced eye, each year's fair also displays signs of the times. We saw these markers of 2009 on our State Fair stroll:
• Even on Tuesday, traditionally an attendance low point in the fair's 12-day cycle, the Education Building was jammed. It's a reflection of the economy, said Nancy Alfton, who organizes the MnSCU booth each year. Just as recession is driving up enrollment this fall at the state's colleges, it's also appears to be inspiring more interest in the colleges' fair exhibits, she said.
Members of the video-game generation huddled around the MnSCU demonstration of Second Life, an academically adaptable game technology. It allows professors to put their students into virtual settings to enhance their study of art, architecture, music, language, political debate and much more.
"We've got a few instructors playing around with this on each campus," said Landon Pirius, interim dean of students at Inver Hills Community College. The fair buzz suggests that teaching through technology is on the verge of a surge that might enhance learning and save money to boot.
• The question most asked at the Golden Gophers ticket counter at the University of Minnesota's booth was one that produced a disappointing answer: Are tickets available for football games at the new TCF Stadium on campus? Answer: No. The home season that begins on Sept. 12 is a sellout.
Interest in the new stadium was not in short supply, and it appeared to spill over into other quarters. At the Minnesota Vikings exhibit in the hall dubbed Fan Central, some 1,500 people had signed up in the fair's first five days to join an e-mail campaign for a new home at the existing Metrodome site for the Minnesota Vikings.
Hawker Joe Dorn had his pitch down pat: "What's it going to do for our state? It'll give us 13,500 construction jobs during its building; once the stadium is complete, it'll add 4,000 more full- and part-time jobs, and help a lot of small businesses right there in the city." Dorn added that he's a volunteer, not a Vikings employee. Memo to Zygi Wilf: This guy belongs on your payroll.
• Unusually long lines formed wherever there was a prospect of obtaining something useful for free. Word of free tote bags bearing University of St. Thomas logos created a queue that blocked traffic on Cosgrove Street. The chance to spin a dial and win free T-shirts bearing Wal-Mart logos was a bigger attraction outside the grandstand than anything being hawked inside.
Minnesota Cooks promoted locavore cuisine at Carousel Park for the seventh straight year. Eating local is all the rage -- but the prospect of free samples and free recipe calendars likely did a lot to fill the benches in this penny-pinching year.
• The frequent whine of ambulance sirens and the number of wheelchairs in the crowd served to remind that Minnesota's population is aging. Combine that with a summer of health care policy debate in Washington, and it was no surprise to hear that health reform is the topic fairgoers mention most often at DFL and GOP booths, and at the stands rented by U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar.
But talking about health care is one thing, and taking care of one's health is evidently another. An attempt by a pair of University of Minnesota health scientists to attract an early-afternoon crowd with a discussion of ways to avoid pandemic flu was a bust. And, as always, the longest line at the Food Building was at the deep-fried cheese curd counter.