The State Fair's Heritage Square’s last hurrah before fair’s overhaul has stalwarts asking what’s next.
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.
The new Heritage Square will include a spiffed-up museum of fair history. The train cars will remain. You just might not be able to go inside.
The newspaper museum
Ancient clanking machines still turn out freshly printed sheets at the Minnesota Newspaper Museum, but this might be its last year.
“We have to be out of here by Oct. 1,” spokesperson Michelle Leonard said. “The fair told us they value this place as an exhibit, but not necessarily at Heritage Square.”
Heritage Square is not a moment of Minnesota history frozen with care and staged by experts. It’s a comfortable jumble, the way they thought “heritage” ought to be displayed in the ’70s.
Perhaps in 50 years, the transit hub will look careworn and dated, and they’ll replace it with an exact replica of Heritage Square as it stands today.
The kid who balked at the throne of Voltara might bring her kids and show them the heritage she remembers.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858
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