Here are some fair, but sticky, questions about our glorious fair

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2011 - 8:02 PM

Every year we write about the State Fair as if its pleasures and peculiarities are known to all. Rather presumptuous, no?

People have moved to our glorious state since last year, and this carnival of carbs and cow-gawking might be a complete mystery. They see the ads, note the endless lines of cars queuing for a spot on someone's lawn, see people walking out with stuffed animals the size of sumo wrestlers and wonder what the heck is going on. What is this thing? For all you folks new to Minnesota, we're here to explain. This is your State Fair Primer.

Q. Is attendance mandatory?

A. Yes. A copy of your ticket must be filed with your state income tax return. (It's deductible.) If you received a free ticket, this must be reported as income.

Q. Is it automatically funny to add "on a stick" after everything? What am I missing?

A. Yes, it is funny. For example: Patrick Henry's stirring quote of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death on a Stick" becomes vastly amusing with that simple addition, doesn't it? (Death on a Stick is available at Han's Haus of Morbid Globs, located by the barns.) Year after year, it just gets funnier, and people keenly anticipate the new "stick" catch-phrases that will appear at the next fair. This year's innovations include the Central Corridor Completion Schedule on a Stick, available at the transportation exhibit, and the Vaguely Worded Political Agenda on a Stick, available at all politicians' booths.

The only example of serious use was "legislator on a stick," a reference to the impaling of the entire Senate in 1907 on Machinery Hill.

Q. Hey, why do they call it Machinery Hill? It's flat as can be.

A. In previous years, machinery was heaped into a great pile -- reapers, tractors, combines, plows and so on. In 1957, there was a contest to see who could clamber up the metal mountain to win a $1,000 prize; many believe this was directly responsible for the great tetanus vaccine shortage of 1958.

Nowadays, the "Hill" consists of a fellow standing on a mound passing out brochures about Chinese agricultural equipment. It's not the same.

Q. Why are people walking around with yardsticks?

A. It's a fine tradition that goes back to 1897, when men patrolled the fair with swords to keep the peace. If they saw a group of young men harassing the ladies, perhaps by whistling lewd melodies from a disreputable comic opera, they would strike ruffians on their flanks with the flat of the blade and say, "Get on with you now, you randy jasper," and disperse them. The tradition ended in 1917, when all metal was diverted to World War I and replaced with wooden yardsticks.

They are also used for food you wouldn't touch with a 10-foot-pole but might consider touching with a 3-foot one.

Q. Was the fair ever canceled?

A. Yes, in 1946, because of the polio scare, and in 1979, due to general existential malaise. We just weren't in the mood.

Q. All that delicious produce in the horticulture building! Is it free?

A. Yes; by all means, help yourself.

Q. What's the difference between Tom Thumb donuts and Tiny Tim donuts? Tom Thumb was a circus performer noted for his minuscule size; Tiny Tim is a beloved character in a Dickens story who suffered from an unspecified disability. What does this have to do with miniaturized circular pastries?

A. The double Ts in both names alludes to Thaddeus Thornton, inventor of the mini-donut. Some say there are no differences in the product, but each has its partisans. In 1943, violent clashes between pro-Tim and pro-Thumb gangs raged for two nights, spilling out of the fairgrounds, burning down six blocks in Falcon Heights.

Q. Why do they carve Princess Kay of the Milky Way in butter?

A. Because marble doesn't spread on toast very well. Even when it's a warm day.

Q. What do they do with the fair when it's closed?

A. The grandstand is disassembled at the end of every fair and put into storage to prevent wear and tear. In 1964, they lost the instructions and had to use old photos as a guide. They did a good job, but it faced the wrong way. This was the year the Beatles played. Or so they said. No one could see them.

We hope this helps! Welcome to your State Fair and stop by the Star Tribune booth for more information. Ask them about the secret tunnel system. They'll say it doesn't exist. Be persistent.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush.

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