Faithful to the Minnesota State Fair

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2011 - 12:10 PM

For these Minnesotans, the fair has become a way of life, lived 12 days a year.

Like some sort of cosmic Krazy Glue, the Minnesota State Fair has an uncanny way of connecting things. Farmers and city slickers. The present to the past. Plaque to arteries.

Last year's end-of-summer ritual attracted 1,762,976 people to the fairgrounds -- the most in its 150-year history. Family tradition will pull many through the opening-day turnstiles Thursday. Both timeless and fleeting, the fair will lure others trying to grab what's left before another summer fades away.

Amid the crowds, you'll find four people who help explain the State Fair's enduring appeal: A teenager showcasing his sheep just as his great-great-grandfather did in 1918, a doctor whose freezer includes three ceremonial blocks of butter carved with her daughters' faces, a 72-year-old Minneapolis attorney whose tax write-off investment left him owning a Space Tower and a woman from Trinidad who's ready to start swapping her delicious sweet potato pie for some impaled pork chops.

"The days are long, but I look so forward to the fair," Caribbean vendor Sharon Richards-Noel said. "It's Minnesota, pure and simple -- one last chance to see all kinds of people do something with the kids before summer's over."

On the eve of the State Fair, 16-year-old Austin Evans will be up until midnight -- "if we're lucky" -- helping his grandfather and uncles load the trailer with straw, feed, currycombs, electric shears, brushes, blankets and, of course, their incessantly blurting prized Hampshire sheep yearlings.

He'll have no trouble waking up at 3 a.m. Thursday for the 200-mile drive from Pipestone, in the state's southwest corner, to get to the fair gates as they open around 7 a.m.

"The adrenaline will be pumping," he said.

When he first showed his Hampshires five years ago as a 4-H rookie, they weren't the only sheepish ones.

"That first year, I kind of stayed with the Pipestone people," he said. "I was kind of nervous. But after a few years, you get out and do different things. You're not as scared."

He'll live in the dorms above the sheep barn and reconnect with teenagers from Slayton and Rochester he's befriended over the years. When he's not pulling brushes through his sheep's wool to puff them up pretty, he'll dine on corn dogs, laugh at the contestants at the talent show and visit the Haunted House. "Just once," he said, "After that, you know everything."

He'll play poker endlessly and chuckle as city folk saunter by to gaze at his sheep.

"They're always asking how the 'goats' are," he said.

By the end of the fair, Evans predicts he'll have about 30 new numbers in his cell phone. The boy-girl ratio? "About 10-to-1 females," he said, a twinkle in his chestnut eyes. "The big 4-H dance on Saturday night, that's a gas."

His thumbs will be dancing on his cell phone keypad the whole time - "texting is pretty much the communication method at the fair," he said.

Somewhere, his great-great grandfather Jack Bobendrier is shrugging. He first showed sheep at the fair as World War I was ending 92 years ago. Jack's son, Peter, kept it up until four years ago, when he died at 96. Evans is the oldest of the 17 grandkids of Chuck Bobendrier (in photo at left), 66, who still handles all the lamb birthing every January, not to mention the final pre-judge shearing and snipping.

"It's pretty awesome to be able to keep this tradition going after all these years," Evans said.

Sharon Richards-Noel has baked and frozen 150 sweet potato pies. She's ordered 40 cases of chicken legs and wings, 700 jerk pork chops and gallons of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and her special lemonade. She'd collected the spices she'll need for her jerk sauce. And she's dropped 12 pounds.

"I'm serious," she said, in her sing-song Trinidad accent. "All year round, I go to the gym to lose 10 or 15 pounds before the fair so I'll be ready for the ice cream and the smoothies."

This will be Richards-Noel's seventh summer selling her West Indies Soul Food at the fair. Half the fun, she said, is trading her Caribbean delicacies for pork chops and honey-roasted cinnamon cashews.

"See this purse?" she asked. "Traded three of my chicken patties for it."

She wasn't always so savvy.

"My first year, I rolled in at 11 in the morning to serve lunch and everyone said, 'Where have you been? You have to open by 8." Now she has cheesy grits, breakfast patties and $2 Blue Mountain coffee for the early crowd.

Richards-Noel, 48, emigrated to St. Paul in 1980. "When I first came to the fair, I saw cheese curds, mini doughnuts and nasty stuff and wanted to introduce people to tastier, heathier foods," she said.

She applied three times and remembers when her son took the call from fair officials in 2004, saying she was in.

"I thought he was joking, and said, 'Yeah, right,' when I picked up the phone, but he said, 'Mom, I'm serious.'"

Her son, Emanual, died in car accident on Mother's Day that year a block from her St. Paul home. He was 20.

"I think about him often because we were so looking forward to working together at the fair," she said. "He'd be doing all the hard work I'm doing right now."

Her surviving son, Elijah, 17, will be at her side, as will volunteers from her church.

"I go out to my truck and take a three-hour nap late in the day once the fair starts because these will be long days," she said. "But I can't wait to see all the people, hear all that music and eat all that food."

Unlike many moms, Laura Olson won't be keeping the top of her daughters' wedding cakes in her freezer.

"There isn't any room," she said. "That's where I keep my butterheads."

Olson, 54, grew up on Chicago's South Side and fell in love with a bachelor dairy farmer she met as a college kid working in the milkhouse at the Minnesota State Fair in the 1970s. After a five-year courtship, rekindled every August at the fairgrounds, Laura married Loren Olson, and they raised four kids together on their 179-acre RayLor dairy farm south of Hutchinson.

Along the way, Olson went to nursing school and then medical school, becoming a family practice physician serving patients from newborns to 90-year-olds in and around Glencoe in central Minnesota.

Somewhere along the line, she became Minnesota's Dairy Queen -- literally. Two of her daughters displayed enough passion and knowledge of the dairy industry to win the annual Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition while a third daughter was a runner-up. As Minnesota custom dictates, that means Sarah, Elizabeth and Lana each posed for four hours in a 40-degree cooler as a sculptor captured their likenesses in 90-pound blocks of butter.

"When I'm old and in the nursing home, just give me a freezer with my butterheads and let me watch the coronation videos over and over," Olson said with a hearty laugh.

Her 35th straight State Fair will be bittersweet. Her daughter, Elizabeth, will give up the current dairy princess crown, and Sarah, the 2002 princess, is struggling after a tornado destroyed her family's farm in southwestern Minnesota earlier this summer.

When it comes to recognizable State Fair icons, nothing stands taller than the 330-foot Space Tower that takes families slowly up in its no-thrills, hotter-than-Hades spinning doughnut, gives them a 360-degree panoramic view for a few minutes before gently returning them to earth for $3 a head.

"I love it, my kids love it and my wife is scared of it," said Errol Kantor, 72, who's owned the attraction for nearly 30 years. "She's nervous someone will get hurt."

The Space Tower -- built in Germany in the early '60s -- is a reminder that nearly everything at the fair has a quirky and charming back story.

Kantor, a Minneapolis aviation attorney, changed accountants for one year in the early 1980s. The new accountant represented the guy who owned the Space Tower.

"He wanted to get rid of it, so I asked if I could claim a machinery deduction on my taxes if I bought it," Kantor said.

As a kid, he had hawked ice cream at the fair and dreamed of owning a concession. He told his wife, Gretchen, he'd fulfilled that dream.

"She figured I bought a hot-dog stand, not a Space Tower," he said. "I went back to my regular accountant the next year."

Gretchen took over the books, and together they started hiring the 25 kids to staff the ticket booth, wash the windows and take the tickets.

During a breakdown in the early years, they met a passerby named Larry Borud, who said he used to work there.

Not only has he been their chief maintenance man for more than 20 years, but Borud's daughter recently married one of the Kantors' sons. Errol and Gretchen are expecting their first grandchild this fall.

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