ADVERTISEMENT

Wendy Jones at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds.

John Noltner, Special to the Star Tribune

All is fair in love if you love the fair

  • Article by: KATY READ
  • Star Tribune
  • August 21, 2011 - 9:19 AM

Technically speaking, Wendy Jones did not get married at the Minnesota State Fair; it was June, and the Great Minnesota Get-Together was a couple of months away. But she and her husband, Gary Miller, held the ceremony in a building on the fairgrounds, with catering and accessories chosen to evoke the spirit of that venerable institution -- pickle hats and all.

The St. Paul couple held their 2005 wedding in what was then known as the Progress Center, since renamed the Eco Experience Building. Guests were greeted on arrival by a pair of life-size fiberglass cows and an exhibit of old fair photographs -- a perk of Jones's job as head of museum education and programs for the Minnesota Historical Society, which keeps records of the fair's past.

Everyone received a wedding program mounted on a stick and a shopping bag containing pickle hats from the Gedney Booth in the Creative Activities Building and paper pig ears from the Swine Barn's Oink Booth ("because part of the fair experience is, you get a bag and just collect things," Jones explained). As the couple exchanged vows, onlookers were encouraged to don their porcine headwear.

The menu included corn dogs, pork chops, roasted corn and deep-fried cheese curds. In place of the usual tiered cake lay a spread of baked confections adorned with prize ribbons, like entries in the baked products competition. Some couples pose for an official wedding photo; Jones and Miller had accomplished seed artist Cathy Camper create their commemorative portrait in crop art, that beloved State Fair medium.

Said Jones, in what some might consider an understatement: "It was not a very traditional wedding." But, she added, "Everyone says to us it was the best wedding they'd ever been to."

All in all, it was a celebration befitting a couple who met in 2002 through a personals ad containing a reference to the fair, and whose early dates included half a dozen fair outings.

But Jones herself has an even more extensive relationship with the fair, which continues to this day. This year, she is coordinating the first ever audio historical tour of the fair for the Historical Society, in partnership with the State Fair Foundation. The tour, available via smart phone, regular mobile phone or computer, offers colorful aural snippets of fair history.

Jones and the state fair go way back. The Mankato native began attending in the mid-1970s, starting the year she wore a pioneer woman's orange gingham dress and bonnet to accompany her father as he displayed his handcrafted furniture in Heritage Square.

One memorable day, she ventured out on her own and found herself drawn into an odd exhibit featuring an embalmed whale named Little Irvy.

"You know how some things are grotesquely fascinating?" she said -- and thus began her enduring appreciation for the fair's "dark and seedy and disturbing" underbelly.

Jones also enjoys the fair's sunnier side. Visiting a few year later with friends, she savored the time-honored teenage rite of roaming the grounds unsupervised.

"It's kind of a safe place to exert your independence," she said. "Like the world in microcosm."

As an aficionado of quirky Americana, Jones is fascinated by many fair attractions: the butter sculptures, the handwriting-analysis machine, the demonstrations by the police K9 unit, the grandstand vendors that sell everything from comic books based on classic literature to artificial snow. One year she fell under the spell of grandstand peddlers demonstrating the "Nada Chair" (pronounced "not-a-chair"), a harness that forces its wearer to sit with perfect posture. She wound up buying two of the devices, which remained unused until, years later, she gave them away.

"That's the kind of thing that you get suckered into in the grandstand," she said, her obvious affection for fairground hucksters undimmed by her ill-considered purchase. "You say, 'Oh my god, I have to have a Nada Chair!'"

Jones loves the fair's mix of contrasting elements: the extraordinary and the mundane, the wholesome and the seamy, the slick and the rough-edged, the traditional and the forward-looking. She loves its food -- not only the usual corn dogs and cheese curds, but the wild-rice hamburgers, the walleye cakes, the sausages on sticks.

And she especially loves the fair's interactive, inclusive, home-made quality. That's what makes it so different, she said, from polished attractions like Disneyland and other entertainment sites designed to be passively absorbed.

"I love how very Minnesotan it is," she said. "It's all about people trying their hand at something and sharing it with people. Whether it's, 'I raised this goat' or 'I made this jam' or 'I created this 4-H display.' It's an organic, genuine experience. This sounds so cliched, but it really reflects real Minnesotans -- their passions, their stories -- for good or for bad."

Even Little Irvy might agree.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

© 2014 Star Tribune