For James and Danielle Keller of Hastings, the opening day of the Great Minnesota Get-Together is like a holiday boldly marked on the family calendar every year.
They take the day off and bring their three daughters, the 12-year-old and the 10-year-old twins, to the State Fair to continue a time-honored tradition they both recall from their own childhoods.
“It’s about nostalgia,” James Keller said. “That’s what keeps us coming back.”
Though attendance tallies won’t be available until Friday, sunny skies and temperatures pushing 80 drew a steady crowd for the fair’s first day Thursday, with about 250 fairgoers already gathered at the gate for the 6 a.m. opening.
Long lines of cars stretched from each entrance, and by 11 a.m. no spots were left in fairground parking lots. A half-hour later, all 22 park-and-ride lots also were full.
Layland Watson of Stillwater parked at Rosedale and took an Uber to the fairgrounds early Thursday, hoping to beat the afternoon crowds.
“We like to get in and out before it gets crazy,” he said.
By 11 a.m., Watson’s 10-year-old daughter, Shaeffer, and her friend were already dizzy from the spinning and swirling rides along the Mighty Midway.
“I feel like I’m going to fall over,” Shaeffer said as she walked off a ride and collapsed onto a stuffed Husky as tall as she is. Brother Brodie, 15, had won the dog at a game lifting a bottle with a fishing pole. He’d been working to master the game for a couple of years.
“It’s been my Number One fair goal to win a huge prize,” he said. “I just hope it fits in the Uber home.”
As lunchtime neared, the mélange of sweet and frying food smells hung in the air and lines at popular food stands stretched several dozen people long. An order of cheese curds was a priority for 9-year-old Mia Jacobson, but her sister, 7-year-old Aubrey, was more eager to hang out at the Miracle of Birth Center where they watched newborn piglets just a few minutes old.
“This is just the perfect way to end the summer,” said the girls’ mom, Angela Jacobson, as the two pulled her toward more baby animals.
After a decade of summers without a visit to the State Fair, Burleigh and Jean Weber, ages 77 and 65 respectively, were back this year. The couple, former Twin Cities residents who now live in Naples, Fla., made a quick stop for sweet corn and then were off to a State Fair classic, Ye Old Mill.
The tunnel-of-love ride was built in 1915 and operated by the Keenan family for more than a century. In January, the fair bought the historic attraction.
Despite the change in ownership, Jean Weber noticed only minor updates to the scenes along the way.
“It was my mom’s favorite at the fair,” she said. “She would have been 100 this year and I think it’s about the same as when she first saw it.”
Burleigh said that after so many summers away, there was comfort in walking the fairgrounds and recognizing the old staples.
One constant, he said, were the crowds: couples holding hands, families pushing strollers, teens juggling enormous stuffed animals with fried foods on a stick.
“Just like everyone, we are glad to come back,” Burleigh said. The fair, he said, was “just as busy and popular as it always was.”
For many opening day attendees, the appeal of coming on Thursday was being a part of the event’s initial energy surge. Barbara Holbrook of Arden Hills said she had learned there’s too much to see in just one day, especially when accompanied by a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old.
“I’ll be back [Friday] to see the rest,” Holbrook said.
The Kellers said the enthusiasm was almost palpable as they beelined through the crowds to the Space Tower, a ride that gave them an aerial view of the fairgrounds from 330 feet up.
“The neat thing is that [the fair] is for everybody,” James Keller said. “You can find every slice of Minnesota life represented here.”