We're pleased to present an interview with Emma M. Emmerson, the state's oldest fairgoer. She is 160, spry as a cricket and walks unassisted thanks to a lifetime of good clean Minnesota living. And a motorized exoskeleton provided by the University of Minnesota's robotics division. She's attended every State Fair since the mid-19th century, and we thought we'd catch up with her and see how things have changed.
Q: So you were at the first fair, in 1859?
A: Oh, my stars, yes. I was born at the first fair, in the Cow Barn. Back then they called it the Barn of Cow, just to show you how things change. The Minneapolis Tribune wrote an article about it: "Shameful Event Amongst the Lowing Beasts," the headline said. Mother was fined for public birthing, and since we didn't have the money, they indentured me to the fair for six years, so we went back every August to work off the debt. Then my Paw, he was carried off by the Portuguese Flu. It was like the Spanish Flu except they spelled some of the words different on the death certificate. Mother moved us into Shank Hollow by the fairgrounds to live. That's what they called Falcon Heights back then.
Q: Has the fair changed much?
A: Oh, my stars, yes. Less in the way of retchin', for one thing; they used to sell horse meat under the name of Sanitary Hamburgers, and come sunset you couldn't sleep for all the menfolk yodelin' out supper. Now you have chairs in the air, floating along as pretty as can be, and ice cream with corn in it. We used to say, "Women will get the vote when they put corn in ice cream," because we didn't think either would happen. And now you got corn in ice cream around the time we might have a woman president. It's funny how it all works out.
Q: Do you remember when the Old Mill opened?
A: Oh, my stars, yes. It was a scandal. Young folks who were courting, they'd go off into that tunnel, and we all knew what went on there. For a few years there was a parson at the exit, and if the girl had the top three eyelets on her shoes loosened, they'd have to get married.
Q: Aside from the Old Mill, things must look different.
A: Oh, my stars, yes. The Poultry Barn burned down in '02, the Hog Barn burned down in '03, the Pig Barn burned down in '04 and the Barn of Cow, of course, burned down in '05. The Arson Investigation Office burned down in '06, and the whole fair burned in '07 through '09, but attendance still set records. Folks love a good fire. They rebuilt it all and that's the fair you see today. I remember when they delivered the Grandstand. ...
Q: Delivered it?"
A: Oh, my stars, yes. They bought it from Sears. Came on a train from Chicago, and the menfolk, they dragged it to the fairgrounds. Took 3 million gallons of bacon grease. Do you know who was at the head of the team, whipping the men to make them work harder? Teddy Roosevelt. Stripped to the waist, high as an eagle on absinthe and malt cider, diamond-studded nipple piercings flashing in the sunlight. Oh, it was a sight.
Q: Uh — OK. Let's go back to the postwar era. Do you remember what the fair was like then?
A: Oh, my stars, yes, but you have to remember that when you're my age, every era is both postwar and prewar. Do you have a particular war in mind?
Q: The Second World War.
A: Everyone was happy and looking for a good time, and that's when they built the Midway with all those rides. Oh, my stars, yes, we loved the rides. There was a Ferris wheel that took three days to revolve all the way. You'd have men climbing up the struts to sell sandwiches to people who hadn't packed a basket — we called them Strutmen, and they were a devilish lot, strong as apes and devil take the hindmost. They wore striped shirts and carried box lunches in their teeth. I married three of them. Eventually the Ferris wheels sped up so people wouldn't starve. Horrible thing, the cries from the people at the top after a day. They had to drink rain.
Q: Do you remember the Dayton's store under the Grandstand ramp?
A: Oh, my stars, yes. There was also a Powers store and a Donaldsons and a Golden Rule and a Woolworth's and a Kresge and a W. T. Grant. No, I'm thinking of downtown. But there was a Target under the ramp in '47. It confused people. They didn't know what it was, but they bought 12-roll packs of Charmin, anyway, because you probably are getting low. But that burned down in '48, and. ...
Q: Thank you for your time today.
A: My pleasure! You get to be my age, it's a joy to recollect what you remember, particularly if you're fictional. Oh, my stars, folk don't pay you no mind if you're fictional.