Fans ask: Will Heritage Square return?

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 5:27 PM

The State Fair's Heritage Square’s last hurrah before fair’s overhaul has stalwarts asking what’s next.

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Visitors to Tony’s Trading Center in Heritage Square checked out the mounted animals. That corner of the fair will be less sleepy next year.

Photo: Photos by ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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If the State Fair is about tradition, one of those traditions is tearing down previous traditions.

Outside Heritage Square stands a sign announcing the bright new version en route next year: a transit depot for the park-and-ride buses and a spiffed-up historical area.

Given that “transit” in Heritage Square now means rusting tractors that haven’t moved an inch since the Ford administration, some wonder how much of the past will remain. Or should.

The square is not big; on horseback you could trot through town in two minutes. It’s not fancy, either — a dusty mishmash of shops and exhibits. To some it’s a backwater treasure, a piece of the fair whose resistance to change seems part of its charter: You don’t update history. It’s supposed to be somewhat tumbledown.

“I like it because it’s not a zoo,” said one middle-age attendee. Granted, but a place where you can be alone is probably not what the fair regards as the best use of space. Hence, the decision that Heritage Square is due an overhaul.

The square has several components: a stage with rootsy music; a collection of pioneer-era buildings that showed what life was like (hard, scratchy); a museum of fair memorabilia crammed floor-to-ceiling, and a shopping area that looks like a “Gunsmoke”-era main drag, if Dodge City sold cannolis.

This shopping area seems most out of step with the modern fair. Hand-painted signs instead of shiny, backlit marquees. Taxidermy, not microfiber mops. A bookstore, for heaven’s sake. What’s their future?

John Campisi, the bookstore’s owner, says they’ll apply for a spot in the new design. “They’ve asked us to, and we’re going to hope they invite us back. We’re hoping we’re down in this area and not the grandstand.”

Why not? “We just don’t feel that would be the right place,” he says. “We fit well here. You have to be able to walk in, touch the wares.”

A few yards away, village smithy David Mariette is banging away on an anvil in a dim, close, hot room. A droning box fan is the only sign you’re not in a small-town blacksmith shop in 1888.

He’s been blacksmithing at Heritage Square for 15 years. Since the transit hub probably won’t include horses in need of shoeing, he’s wondering about his role in the redesigned site as well.

“From my standpoint, everything is up in the air. All I know is what everyone else knows — what they read in the paper and see on the map outside the gate.”

What stays, what goes?

The map doesn’t show much. It’s a concept, not the final design. Surely, there’ll be a place for the train cars at a transit hub, even if they don’t go anywhere. But what will be inside?

Right now the train cars hold a jumble of memorabilia from the Shipstad and Johnson Ice Capades, including the actual skates of forgotten performers hanging from the ceiling. Doubtful anyone makes a beeline for those year after year.

Another car holds flotsam from old fairs — a Tilt-a-Whirl sign, an inexplicable collection of ceramic figurines and the electric chair in which Voltara once sat to amuse the rubes. They flipped the switch, Voltara twitched, the machinery crackled — but still she lived!

“Is that real?” said a little girl, drawing back in alarm. They electrocute people at the fair? Her dad laughed and said, “That’s where they put kids who didn’t behave.” Mom shot dad a look and called the child’s attention to the blinking red light bulb below the seat. “It’s all fake,” she reassured her. “I don’t know why they have that.”

Well, because “entertainment” at the fair once included a woman who sat in Old Sparky on the quarter-hour and pretended to get a million volts.

  • related content

  • Marina Leigh Mortoglou snapped some photos of herself and some of the mounted animals at Tony’s Trading Center at Heritage Square at the State Fair.

  • Members of the Barbary Coast Dixieland Show Band performed on the Heritage Center Stage, one of the components of the current Heritage Square.

  • One Heritage Square visitor said of the old place: “I like it because it’s not a zoo.” That will change next year when a transit hub is part of the space. Detailed plans for the area haven’t yet been revealed.

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