Minnesota State Fair: The people's choice

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2014 - 1:22 PM

Who gets to say what’s best about the fair? You do.

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The Minnesota State Fair opened Thursday, August 22 last year on a perfect day, weather-wise.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com,

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On an afternoon last August, when the heat index pushed past 100 degrees, Pam Simon walked around the quieter-than-usual streets of the Minnesota State Fair feeling sorry for the businesspeople sweltering in their booths and peddling their wares to relatively sparse crowds.

Simon, the fair’s concession and exhibit manager, stopped to chat with a vendor. She confessed her worries that the heat was keeping business down — but the unfazed vendor told Simon to cheer up.

“Look at all these people,” he said. “I’ve never seen such happy people enjoying themselves!”

The moral of the story? Even in blistering heat, Minnesotans love their fair. And indeed, when the heat let up in the fair’s final days, attendance broke two daily records.

“The loyalty from our guests is unbelievable,” Simon said.

That sense of connection that Minnesotans have to their annual end-of-summer festival is what inspired Simon to launch the People’s Choice Awards two years ago.

The fair had long presented awards to exhibitors and vendors, but for years the winners were chosen by fair staffers. Simon wanted to make the awards even more meaningful.

“I really want the people of Minnesota to choose these people,” Simon said. “It’s the people’s fair, not ours. We’re just here to help put it on.”

So starting when the fair opens Thursday and continuing through Aug. 25, ballots will be available in information booths throughout the fairgrounds (next to bright blue ballot boxes), Fairgoers can nominate their favorite fair experiences in five categories: best product or service, best food or beverage, best attraction, best value, and best customer service. Winners will receive their awards on Aug. 28.

The list of winners from the past two years is like a microcosm of the fair itself: a mix of tradition and novelty. They range from beloved fair institutions (the Giant Slide, All You Can Drink Milk, the Hamline Church Dining Hall) to newer innovations (Sole Shine Henna Art’s henna tattoos, Carl’s Gizmo Sandwiches, ZRS Fossils and Gifts, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Eco Experience).

Here are their stories.

Henna Art by Sole Shine

Women around the world celebrate special occasions by getting intricately patterned henna tattoos, and Minnesota is no different. Here, they do it to celebrate the special occasion known as the State Fair.

As the owner of Henna Art by Sole Shine, Deena Drewes has been providing henna tattoos for about 15 years, at juried art shows and other events as well as at the fair.

Henna is a plant-based dye with a “rich history of use in ceremony and rituals,” Drewes said. When first applied it’s orange, then darkens to a subtle auburn. (Drewes warns against places that use “black henna,” which she said contains a chemical dye rather than natural henna and could be toxic.) The design remains on the skin, on average, for about two weeks.

The Oakdale-based Drewes got into the business after stumbling across a book with a cover picture of a woman’s hand adorned with a design resembling the images she likes to doodle on paper. The book came with a kit; she took it home and practiced and decided to offer the service at a small art fair. It was an immediate success. “My booth was like a bee hive. From that moment on I realized I’ve got something good here.”

The business grew from there. When she found out that the State Fair did not have a henna-art booth, she applied and was offered a spot in a part of the fair for teenagers.

“Teenage girls have been paying my mortgage for 15 years,” Drewes said. “I love every single one of them.”

And vice versa. Teens flock to the her booths (she now has two on the fairgrounds) for more than just the body art, Drewes said. “We’re like therapists, we’re like hairstylists, people pour out their hearts to us. Being able to touch the lives of so many people and give them something that looks beautiful and they see themselves as looking beautiful now — that’s the kind of stuff that really fulfills me.”

Carl's Gizmo Sandwiches

Though popular in Iowa, loose-meat sandwiches — made of ground beef but not molded into a patty, more like a sauceless sloppy Joe — have never built a big fan base in Minnesota. But the success of Carl’s Gizmo Sandwiches suggests they’re poised for a breakout.

Carl Cardamon began selling loose-meat sandwiches at the Iowa State Fair right after World War II. One day in the late ‘70s, Cardamon was struck with an inspiration. He mixed Italian sausage with the ground beef, added special sauce and mozzarella cheese, put it on a toasted Italian roll and called it the Gizmo. It was a hit at the Iowa fair, but didn’t make its debut at the Minnesota State Fair until Cardamon’s daughter, Carla Wood, opened a stand in the early 2000s.

Business was slow at first. People seemed confused by the deviation from the patty format. So Wood handed out Gizmo samples to radio and TV broadcasters — including celebrity foodie Andrew Zimmern — who helped promote the concoction. “It was by word of mouth that people started liking it,” recalled Wood, who is also a clerk in the Iowa Legislature. “We have some really loyal customers up there, and quite the following.

“I think the most I’ve sold is 17 Gizmos at once. People will bring a box in and just tell me to load it up.

The Giant Slide

In 1967, Fred Pittroff had spent more than a decade working at fairs around California, selling food on sticks and the like, when he invented the structure that would become a beloved tradition at fairs across the country, including Minnesota’s.

Inspired by a large slide built by the father-in-law of a friend, Pittroff built a bigger one and set it up at a couple of fairs in California. They were such a hit he built 42 of them, installing them at fairs all around the United States, Canada and even Japan and Australia. Most he sold right away, but Pittroff operated 10 slides himself for a while. Now, at 76, he’s down to two, in Wisconsin and Minnesota — “the best-run fair in America, by far,” said Pittroff, who has worked at fairs since the early ’50s.

“The slide is the most popular ride at the fair at every fair in the country every year,” he said. “More people ride the slide than any other ride on the fairgrounds on all the fairs.”

Attracting some 200,000 a year, the slide is a bargain — at $2.50, “it’s the cheapest ride out there,” Pittroff said — and a tradition that gets passed down through generations. “I’m riding grandparents with grandkids now.”

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