Five-year-old Gretchen Hayes and her grandparents Tom and Beth Kachel of Lino Lakes clambered into a green gondola on the new, 156-foot-tall Ferris wheel at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday for a ride that offered a picture-perfect view of the Twin Cities.
“I liked when we got to go high,” Gretchen said, pointing skyward.
The Great Big Wheel, one of the largest touring Ferris wheels in North America, drew some of the longest lines on the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair. One by one, families, friends and couples ducked into one of its 36 gondolas and soared through the clear skies over a hip-to-shoulders crowd below.
The State Fair doesn’t release attendance numbers until the following day, but many fairgoers speculated that the crowd Thursday would be one for the record books.
“With a beautiful day like this, you know it’s going to be like, at capacity,” said Leland Cheng of Lakeville, who hoped to cap his fair experience by watching the headlining performance of Canadian rockers Nickelback.
“We get to experience first-day madness,” his wife, Sheila Jenkins, chimed in.
The gates to the fairgrounds opened early Thursday morning to those eager to get the first taste of this Minnesota staple. By 9:30 a.m., the parking spaces south of the grounds were full; the park-and-ride lots remained busy throughout the day, according to the fair’s transportation team.
Most here will tell you opening day is the best of the fair’s 12-day run. The grass is greener, the smells more vibrant and the vendors livelier.
And what a day it was. Scattered clouds Thursday morning dispersed, leaving only clear blue skies the rest of the day. Temperatures hovered in the low 70s and a slight breeze stirred, mocking the weekend forecast, which is calling for showers and thunderstorms.
Deb Clark, 60, sat on a bench with her husband, Randy, resting after a full day of taking their grandchildren on park rides.
“I don’t think we’re at peak yet,” she said. “By the end of the day, it’ll be person-to-person.”
Lines of people trailed out of the fair’s tried-and-true food booths, some waiting with anticipation for a bite of the Mouth Trap’s cheese curds while others gravitated toward Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies. Elsewhere, children ran through the exhibitions of shiny new trucks, tractors and trailers.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who posed for photos at the fair’s DFL tent, and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith declared Thursday the “Great Minnesota Get-Together Day.”
Sheriff's departments from across the state set up a booth to educate visitors about the state’s opioid epidemic. There were a record 153 opioid-related deaths in Hennepin County last year, a 59 percent increase from 2015, according to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
Aside from a few scattered candidate booths, the atmosphere Thursday was free of partisan politics.
From the massive crowds to the popular new attractions, the opening day of the fair was a feast for the senses.
Laura “Baller” Mahler, a member of the Minnesota RollerGirls roller derby crew, was at the fair’s opening day for the first time. She said her favorite attraction was the haunted house.
For some, their favorite fair sounds are the sputtering engines of the vintage tractors. For others, it’s the clip-clop of the horses as they make their way to the Coliseum for one of the many horse performances and competitions scheduled there.
But for most, it’s the chatter and laughter of those around them, a sign that the Great Minnesota Get-Together has begun.
“There’s just an excitement in the tone of people,” said Tom Kachel, an opening day regular. It’s the sound, he said, of life.