When the last Mini Donut was sold and the fairgrounds emptied, the young men working at Janet Desmond’s concession stand would often head out for some beers. It was often well past midnight by the time they returned to the area where Desmond and her husband were camped.
“We always had to knock on the window of the trailer where they slept and tell them we were home,” recalled Rod Beltz. “We were like her sons.”
Desmond, of Burnsville, died this month at age 97.
“Jan Desmond is the original Mini Donut,” said Bob Everett, another of Desmond’s longtime workers who traveled the state and county fair circuit for Tom Thumb Mini Donuts. “She was selling them 10 cents for 10 in a bag.”
That was what the donuts fetched when she began peddling them in the early 1950s. Desmond, who ran a bakery in Minneapolis, was looking for something to sell in the hot summer months when demand for cakes and large doughnuts slackened. The miniatures were made to order for county and state fairs.
Behind the scenes, the business provided young men summer work for more than a half-century.
Desmond lived in Everett’s neighborhood, and he remembers her knocking on his door one day in 1968 with a job offer.
“The next thing you know, we’re going to all the fairs,” he recalled.
Tom Thumb Mini Donuts were a hit at county fairs in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa and a regular at the Minnesota State Fair. Part of the appeal is that customers could watch the donuts being made in machines.
Desmond was born in Chicago in 1916 and lived with her grandmother, Everett said. She told of having a bullet lodged in her chest after being shot accidentally as a teenager by another youth.
Tragedy struck again in 1960 when her first husband, Charles Hansen, died while working under the donut trailer when it collapsed.
Two years later Janet married John Desmond, and together they expanded the business.
Some of the young men they hired stayed with the business for years.
“That’s the first job I ever had and the only job I’ve ever had,” Everett said.
Beltz recalls a relationship with Janet and John Desmond that was “pretty tight, like a family.”
“She didn’t have her own children, so everybody she hired who worked for more than one season she kind of adopted as children,” he said. “She’d sometimes tell them what they should buy and not buy with their earnings from donuts.”
The relationship endured over decades. In 2004 Desmond turned her business over to Beltz and Everett.
“She gave it to us,” Everett said. “We put in 36 years with her, and she didn’t have any children. She wanted us to continue it.”