Art Blakey first worked at the fair as a teenager, in 1951, when a neighbor got him a job as a busboy in the white-linen Executive Dining Hall. He went on to serve in the Air Force and become a deputy sheriff in Ramsey County. He started working part time on the fair's police force in 1970.
"I haven't missed a fair since," said Blakey, 77, who became the fair's chief of police in the 1980s.
Blakey retired from the Sheriff's Office in 2003, but continues his fair duties each year. As with many fair long-timers, working the fair runs in Blakey's family; his daughter works for him on the police force, and his son and grandson have spent time behind the counter in the french fry and cookie stands.
Blakey heads about 200 officers, coming from all over Minnesota and into Wisconsin, whose job it is to patrol the fair's more than 300 acres and its visitors (usually upwards of 1.7 million over the fair's run). Most years, crime is limited to petty thefts, shoplifting, the occasional fight.
"We kind of pride ourselves in running a nice, safe fairgrounds," he said. "Every day before the fair starts, we always take a deep breath and hope nothing happens."
Once, he picked up a teenager who'd had too much to drink. He contacted the kid's father, who was distraught. "There goes your hockey scholarship," the dad told his son. Blakey made a deal: If the man took his son home and issued his own consequences, Blakey would let the kid off without charges. Years later the son, now a grown man, stopped by and told Blakey he had gone on to get that scholarship and graduate from college.
"You kind of turned my life around," he told Blakey.
Another time, the fair held a "Senior's Day," drawing busloads of older visitors. A group from Willmar was getting ready to leave but couldn't find one of their members. Blakey took the gentleman's description and stayed calm, figuring that once the fair closed for the day they'd be able to locate the man.
Sure enough, they found him "in the pig barn, sleeping with the pigs," Blakey recalled. "He had been a pig farmer. He found his way down there and thought he'd stay the night."
How long has Art Blakey been working at the Minnesota State Fair? Put it this way: He can remember the days before food came on sticks.
Jim Peters remembers that when he first stood behind the counter at his family's fairground concessions stand, hot dogs sold for 10 cents apiece.
Cindi Shore can recall a time when you could drive onto the fairgrounds and park your car on a fair street -- right on Dan Patch Avenue, if you could find a spot (although back then, she notes, it was Commonwealth Avenue).
And Ken Wagner has some fond memories -- and wild stories -- of the nights when the beer gardens and Midway attractions had no set closing time and would continue operating into the wee hours, "as long as they had a person they could spin on a ride or take money from."
Blakey, Peters, Shore and Wagner are among the State Fair's longest-serving employees (Wagner retired this year, after more than 42 years). It's not necessarily easy work; the days can be long, and in some cases the jobs begin months before the Great Minnesota Get-Together opens its 12-day run. It's intense, often exhausting, and maybe even, as one long-timer said, "a little crazy."
But they love it.
"After the fair is done," said Jan Bankey, a relative newcomer with a mere two decades of fair experience, "you kind of sit down and say, 'We had another good year.'
Katy Read • 612-673-4583