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Phyliss and Duane Urch are packing up the poultry on their farm west of Owatonna. Doug Bieniek is lugging a 500-pound marble block from Duluth that he carved into a fine arts entry. And just as their father and uncle began doing after World War II, brothers Bill and Jim Schneider have 200 pounds of popcorn kernels ready to cook behind their root beer stand west of the grandstand.
Yep, it's State Fair time.
The annual 12-day, end-of-summer ritual begins Thursday, blending heartfelt tradition, butter heads, people watching, large boars, deep fryers, midway barkers, cheap milk and giant slide and sky rides in its dizzying, only-in-Minnesota fashion.
"The fair is kind of like your grandma: Sure, she might smell a little funny, but she sure is fun to be around," said David Woodis, the superintendent of admissions who supervises 225 ticket rippers at a dozen gates.
Despite pricey gas, a sluggish economy and some swine flu concerns, Woodis is predicting a record 1.8 million fairgoers this go-around. While other Midwest fairs have been jolted by the drought, Minnesota has dodged that harsh reality. In fact, officials had to cut off applications for dairy goat exhibitors two days before the deadline because the barn had filled up.
The human crowds dipped in the past two years after a record 1,790,497 came for their corn on the cob in 2009. If fair honchos are worried about having their first three-year drop in attendance since 1991, they're not showing it.
"We're plateauing right now after 50 years of steady growth," said Jerry Hammer, who's grown from a neighborhood kid sneaking over gaps in the barbed-wire fence 40 years ago to general manager.
"A few thousand one way or the other doesn't mean anything," Hammer said. "If it fell off 100,000, then you're talking about something. But we've had some dips and no real spikes and we're on this plane where the last three years have been our highest ever."
All of which prompts the question: How do they attract more than 5 million people to the fairgrounds in a three-year span?
According to behind-the-scenes insiders such as Woodis and Schneider and outsiders who look at the fair and marvel, the place is simply one of those institutions that parlays deep loyalty and tradition to transcend the marketing pitfalls that trip up others.
"You can depend on the fair and it gets in your blood," said Dodie Woodis, a textbook manager at Bethel University.
She met her husband Dave, the fair's chief ticket ripper, at the all-the-milk-you-can-drink booth in 1980 and said "yes" to his cow-barn proposal five years later. Her late father, Leonard Harkness, was the 4-H Club director for 31 years and Dave's grandfather, Harry Larson, came down from the farm near St. Cloud and lived in the attic dorms when the grandstand opened in 1909. Two of the Woodis kids, Ben and Grace, staff the gates and their 13-year-old, Betsy, is itching to join them when she's 16.
"You just feel like your summer's not complete if you don't go to the fair," Dodie said.
112 years combined
This will be Duane Urch's 62nd State Fair. He missed one as a teen when his dairy cow didn't qualify for a 4-H trip.
"That long ago, everybody was too busy to get depressed," he said.
For his wife, Phyliss, this is her 50th consecutive fair. She'll show her poultry and organize the rooster crowing competition, which calls for a dozen volunteers to sit in front of cages counting the cock-a-doodle-doos for 30 minutes.
"Our top one was 62 crows," she said. "Kids used to have grandpa and grandma's farm to go visit, but now this is their only connection to that kind of thing, and I just love to see them come in the poultry barn with their wide eyes."
Randy Levy, a concert promoter for 40 years in Minnesota, draws 45,000 to his We Fest country music shindig near Detroit Lakes every summer. So he knows big events. And from his outsider-looking-in viewpoint, he's impressed with this year's State Fair lineup, which ranges from Kiss to Bonnie Raitt to Rascal Flatts.
"Any business that's been around and proven itself becomes a known institution," he said. "When the audience knows what kind of social experience to expect, odds are they'll keep coming back."
The role of the bus
Outside Milwaukee, the Wisconsin State Fair draws about 900,000 people in 11 days, just about half what Minnesota's fair expects to draw. Brian Bolan, the Wisconsin fair's agriculture and youth director, points to geography and transportation as key differences. While Minnesota's fair can attract Iowans and Wisconsinites, "when we look east and south, we see Lake Michigan and Chicago."
Then there are those buses.
"When we study Minnesota's success, we look at its transit program," Bolan said. "It's easy to get to there with lots filling with bus after bus after bus. That's impressive."
Tim Dybevik is the Minnesota State Fair's jack of all trades, managing the graphic design work and emceeing the talent show and daily parade.
"We're so fortunate to have this loyal fan base that views us as a beloved institution and they come, rich or poor, good times or bad," he said. "When gas hit $4 a few years ago, we thought: 'Oh God, this could be one of our worst years.'''
Instead, they set the record as people chose the fair over longer family road trips.
"When a movie cost $10 for two hours before concessions, and you can get in here for about the same price and let your inner farmer come out watching barn animals give birth before going on the giant slide and hitting the Midway, it's a great value," Dybevik said.
And it's all so steeped in family and tradition.
"I can't remember the last time I missed one," said Bieniek, the Duluth building contractor turned sculptor, whose marble bust of Lakota chief Red Cloud will be among the fine arts items on display.
Roughly 30 years ago, his wife, Bonita, made the fine art cut with a pencil drawing of him. His small bronze entry was rejected last year, making this year's triumph as sweet as a Martha's cookie. Nearly 2,500 artists submitted online entries. Some 650 were called in for in-person judging and Bieniek was among 340 artists to make it in the 2012 show.
"I'd come for the fine arts pavilion alone," he said. "But while I'm there, I'll take my sweetheart down to the arcade and try to win her a stuffed teddy bear."
Bill Schneider, the popcorn and root beer concessionaire, will be at his 50th straight fair since he started making change and running errands for his dad. Back then, popcorn cost a quarter (buttered) or 15 cents (plain). It's now $5 and $3.
And with bacon ice cream, walleye rolls and Ole's Cannolis in Heritage Square among this year's edible newcomers, Schneider admits it's getting harder to peddle popcorn.
"Everybody wants to be adventuresome and try the new products, so it's tougher on us old standbys," he said. "But I can't wait for all the people, all the excitement and that buzz. There's nothing like it."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767