Minnesota DNR's under-celebrated State Fair building

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2014 - 8:40 AM

The Minnesota DNR’s 80-year-old State Fair building is a comprehensive resource for outdoor education and entertainment. If only more people would stop by ...

hide

A mural illustrating the work of the Minnesota DNR went up on the side of its State Fair building in 2012.

Photo: Photos provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

A visitor from, say, Mars or Florida could walk into the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources building at the State Fair knowing nothing about Minnesota’s natural environment, and walk out with a basic education on what’s happening in the state’s forests, prairie and waters.

“You’d at least have a good idea of the pressing issues,” said Renee Vail, DNR manager in charge of the State Fair project. “If nothing else, if you go away with one or two pieces of information, we’ll have succeeded.”

Touring the cavernous, log-cabin-style building, fairgoers can watch fish swim in aquariums representing five different natural habitats, including one that lets trout jump upstream. They can examine taxidermied animals posed in settings representing the state’s various biomes (coniferous forest, deciduous forest, prairie) while listening to wildlife sounds and learning which creatures make their homes where — and why it’s important to preserve space for them. They can get the latest on threats posed by aquatic and terrestrial invasive species like zebra mussels, silver carp, buckthorn and garlic mustard.

Outside, strolling around the one-block grounds surrounding the building, visitors can check out a fish pond stocked with 45 species of native fish, a duck-filled wetlands exhibit and gardens planted with native Minnesota flowers, including one area designed to attract butterflies. They can climb an old fire tower, tour a small cabin like the ones offered in some state parks, and hear experts give presentations on fish and birds. They can listen to live bands playing on the outdoor stage or browse the moose memorabilia being sold at a stand to raise money for research on dwindling moose populations. They can watch boat builders constructing a canoe or admire a sculpture comprised entirely of trash pulled from Minnesota rivers.

They can do those things, that is, if they know the place is there.

Cloaked in shade and obscured by crowds and ponds and plantings, the brown DNR building doesn’t exactly leap out amid the fair’s bright and shiny landscape. The exhibits attract half a million visitors a year, but Vail as points out, that’s barely over a quarter of fair attendees.“Some people I talk to,” she said, “don’t even know it exists.”

The building celebrates its 80th birthday this year. Much has changed since its construction, for $73,000, in 1934. Early photos show the building set back in a spacious and nearly empty yard, sparsely adorned with a spring-fed fountain and formal garden. Those features are long gone, replaced by the fish pond, also spring-fed, and by the gardens and trees and other features that now fill the space.

The building itself retains the quaint Up North look that characterized structures built, as this one was, by the Civilian Conservation Corps. But it’s showing its age, Vail said.

“It’s been on the list to get painted for ages,” she said (State Fair staff maintain the building’s exterior). “The wood on the outside is so dry that if you put something in it, chunks come out.”

Vail would like to raise money to upgrade the 40-year-old fish pond to make it look more natural, with river rocks lining the bottom, an island, a tree to provide shade for the fish. She’d like to put in a see-through fence to replace the vertical logs that surround it now, which block sightlines for small fairgoers. But there are no funds designated for the project.

As it is, the exhibit scrapes by on a shoestring budget, Vail said. Among the sources of revenue are coins thrown into wishing wells inside the building, which bring in a few thousand dollars that go toward maintaining the building and grounds. She hires crews from the county’s Sentence to Serve program — and puts in some elbow grease of her own — to clean up the place in preparation for the fair. Bands playing on the outdoor stage must be willing to work for free in exchange for the public exposure. Even Vail’s time is stretched; she coordinates the DNR’s volunteer programs in addition to managing the fair project, a year-round job.

Nature for the everyday Joe

Vail would like to spiff up the place and draw in more visitors, because the fair exhibit lets the DNR reach a lot of people at once.

“It’s a good way to get our message across,” she said.

Though the department’s work may already be familiar to folks who buy hunting or fishing licenses or frequent state parks, the exhibits are designed to pique the interest of those with a more casual relationship to the outdoors: people who like to bike or canoe or ski, people who like walking down to the lake to listen to the frogs or watching birds flickering around the feeder, people who like knowing that when traveling in certain parts of the state they have at least a chance of glimpsing a moose or hearing the howl of a wolf.

“We try to appeal to families, to the everyday Joe,” Vail said. “We’re trying to get people to connect again to nature and the outdoors — not stuck inside and stuck on a screen.”

 Katy Read • 612-673-4583

 





 

  • related content

  • The DNR building as it looked in the early 1950s.

  • An aerial view of the DNR building in the 1940s. The spring-fed fountain and the formal garden features are long gone.

  • The fish pond outside the DNR building is stocked with about 45 species of fish.

  • The indoor fish exhibit, renovated in 2013, features five large aquariums of Minnesota fish. Photo by DNR staff photographer Deborah Rose.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Houston 23 FINAL
Pittsburgh 30
San Diego 10/23/14 7:25 PM
Denver
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Atlanta
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Arizona
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Cleveland
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Pittsburgh
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Chicago 98 FINAL
Cleveland 107
New Orleans 88 FINAL
Washington 84
Milwaukee 120 FINAL
New York 107
Philadelphia 88 FINAL
Brooklyn 99
Charlotte 114 FINAL
Atlanta 117
Sacramento 99 FINAL
San Antonio 106
Memphis 103 FINAL
Dallas 108
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Arkansas State 7:00 PM
Louisiana
Connecticut 10/23/14 6:00 PM
(18) East Carolina
Miami-Florida 10/23/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
So Florida 10/24/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Troy 10/24/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
BYU 10/24/14 8:00 PM
Boise State
(6) Oregon 10/24/14 9:00 PM
California
North Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Rice
UAB 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Arkansas
Rutgers 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
Maryland 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Wisconsin
Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
Minnesota 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Memphis 10/25/14 11:00 AM
SMU
North Carolina 10/25/14 11:30 AM
Virginia
San Jose St 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Navy
Northern Ill 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
(25) UCLA 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Akron 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Massachusetts 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Toledo
Ohio U 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Western Mich
Ga Southern 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Kent State 10/25/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Oregon State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Stanford
Fla Atlantic 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(23) Marshall
Louisiana Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(1) Miss State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Kentucky
Georgia Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Pittsburgh
(22) West Virginia 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(10) TCU
Michigan 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Boston College 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Central Mich 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Vanderbilt 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Missouri
Old Dominion 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Western Ky
UNLV 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Utah State
Temple 10/25/14 4:00 PM
UCF
(15) Arizona 10/25/14 5:00 PM
Washington St
Texas-El Paso 10/25/14 6:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Wyoming 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Colorado State
Syracuse 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(21) Clemson
Texas State 10/25/14 6:00 PM
ULM
(3) Ole Miss 10/25/14 6:15 PM
(24) LSU
(4) Alabama 10/25/14 6:30 PM
Tennessee
So Carolina 10/25/14 6:30 PM
(5) Auburn
(13) Ohio State 10/25/14 7:00 PM
Penn State
(20) USC 10/25/14 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 10/25/14 9:45 PM
Washington
Nevada 10/25/14 10:59 PM
Hawaii
Montreal 10/24/14 5:30 PM
Ottawa
Saskatchewan 10/24/14 8:30 PM
Calgary
Hamilton 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Winnipeg
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close