Two days before the start of the Minnesota State Fair, Lee and Bev Bahr arrived at the fairgrounds at 4 a.m., preparing their homey Lunch Box diner for the hordes. The Bahrs, both 85, have turned management of the Lunch Box over to the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, but on Tuesday they were there before first light to make sure everything was in place.
It’s hard to break old habits, especially ones that go back 55 years.
Lee, who had been in the insurance business, had tried to retire early. “After a week I said to Bev, ‘This is not going to work.’ ”
As luck would have it, a friend mentioned over a bridge game that he had to sell his stall at the fair.
“I said, ‘I’ll buy it,’ ” Lee recalled. “I felt a sharp pain underneath the table when she [Bev] kicked me.”
That was in 1962. Since then, the Bahrs, from Spicer, Minn., have moved around and expanded, bringing four generations into the family fair business. Lee and Bev’s son, Phil Bahr, runs the Lunch Box. Tim Bahr has Italian Junction not far away, and daughter Vickie Bahr Vogt owns the Mexican Hat.
“Last year we had 27 family members working here,” Lee said. “Obviously, it has been very good for us financially over the years. But we still come to just be here, do little odd jobs and see a lot of old friends.”
The Bahrs sat under umbrellas in lawn chairs behind the diner, and the group grew as Vickie, and then Tim, stopped by, as well as a couple of neighbors.
“This is the only time we take a vacation to work,” Vickie said.
As the fair began to wake up, semitrailer trucks rolled by loaded with produce sentenced to the deep fryer. The constant whine of power drills sounded like giant mechanical mosquitoes. The folks at Oof-da Tacos (of course) down the block were unloading the stuff of which Oof-das are made. Even though food stalls were closed, there was the faint smell of grease in the air down Dan Patch Avenue, as if lingering from another year, or perhaps another era.
Over at the Merchandise Mart, Callister’s Christmas shop had a jump on everyone, with a dizzying array of decorations for the discerning holiday celebrant. There was the “I love Mac and Cheese” ornament, for those hoping that the special night will be both holy and decadently delicious. There was a “Bucket of Beers” ornament, because nothing screams “Christmas” like late August on a beastly hot Midway, and if the State Fair is on, then next comes Christmas and, shortly thereafter, Cancun.
This is where it all comes together, the State Fair, where it all makes sense in some crazy way.
I stopped for a minute near Spaghetti Eddie’s Pizza and Pasta to watch workers returning for the season’s group hug. Families, whether biological or fraternal, come back at the end of a summer to enjoy the bounty and the company of millions.
Back at the Lunch Box, Lexa Bahr was waiting tables. She’s the daughter of Phil and granddaughter of Lee and Bev. The Lunch Box opens a week early to feed workers prepping for the fair. Two guys already covered with grime from a morning’s work called out: “Two of the biggest cups of coffee you got.” They then ordered large portions of the biscuits with sausage gravy, a fair favorite.
Although Lexa is only 25, she is already a seasoned veteran of the fair. She was born 25 years ago on Aug. 1, and attended her first State Fair weeks later.
“I was in a bassinet in the back of the stand when I was three weeks old,” Lexa said.
Bev said having their kids and grandkids virtually grow up at the fair has taught them about people, life and business.
“If they can see over the counter, we put them to work,” she said. “When Tim was 6, he stood on Coke crates to do the dishes. It’s taught our kids that the money comes in, but you don’t get to keep it all.”
Lee, the patriarch, sat back in his lawn chair, assessing the Bahr State Fair legacy. With 25 years already under her belt, Lexa could take over some day.
As Lexa checked the coffee pot and eyeballed the pastries, I asked her if she was ready for Thursday’s opening.
“I think so,” she said. “I do know I’m excited.”