On what would have been the first day of the State Fair, Jennifer Debrow buzzed about her Minneapolis backyard, grilling corn, readying ribbons and marveling over the size of a sunflower.
“That is monstrous!” she exclaimed.
After months of planning, weeks of crafting and a few hours of butter sculpting, the first family arrived for her State Fair at Home. The 6-year-old boy ran to the Mini Midway. His 4-year-old twin sisters cooed over the tiny Ye Old Mill, tucked in the garden. Their mother, Molly Sullivan, spotted the MPR booth — fashioned out of a shoe box, with a little radio inside.
“I love it!” she laughed.
Debrow, a “big fan” of the State Fair, had captured all her favorites. Smaller versions, maybe, but the only versions her guests would experience this year.
“It feels just like the State Fair,” Debrow said, tongs in hand. “There are some things to look at, some things to do. But it’s not like going to a theme park where it’s thrills. It’s more subtle. The arts, the vegetables.
“It’s all very slow fun.”
Sure, Debrow loves the State Fair food. But she also loves the fair’s history, its educational mission, its sense of community. Before going to the fair, she noted, “I never knew what a sugar beet looked like.”
So a drive-through food parade, offered this year by the State Fair, just wasn’t going to cut it.
Her 12-day, invite-only, socially distanced event, which kicked off Thursday, shows how far a few Minnesotans will go to grab hold of that State Fair feeling.
Some other devoted, creative fairgoers are crafting their own backyard versions, too. For six weeks, friends Pat Jensen and Jenny Chase have been collecting decorations, curd-flavored chapsticks and mini-donut flavored beer for a small, State Fair-themed party. They even bought a blowup version of Fairchild the gopher, the fair’s official mascot. “We think it’ll be the best thing next to the real thing,” Jensen said.
Earlier this month, Amy Loughrey, who has never missed a State Fair, held one with her family. (Her son, born in mid-August via C-section, attended when he was 10 days old.) Loughrey’s guitar-playing nephew headlined the “grandstand,” a tent. Next year, with any luck, the group will head back to the fairgrounds. But they’ll keep putting on their own fair, too. “We had so much fun putting it together,” Loughrey said.
Debrow is hosting families, one by one, each day the fair would be happening. For weeks, she’s accepted entries for her competitions, including kids’ art and baked goods. Friends submitted photos of their French macarons and focaccia. A co-worker entered a crop art portrait of Debrow herself, rendered in chia seeds.
A partner at Lathrop GPM, Debrow first experienced the fair when she moved to Minnesota in 1997. She and fellow clerks for the Minnesota Supreme Court went at night, mostly to the Midway. But now she prefers early morning. “I love the kids in the barns sleeping with their animals.”
The State Fair cannot be done in a single day, Debrow argues. Last year, she went six times. Her list of must-dos includes the Dairy Building and its butter sculptures and the classic, rickety Ye Old Mill. She also recommends a comparison: Which is heavier — the biggest boar or the biggest pumpkin?
The very day in May the State Fair was nixed, Debrow started planning.
“All my exhibits are going to be second-grade quality,” she warned. “I’m not Martha Stewart.” But, in the end, her fair exudes the same kind of homey, handmade vibe that the fair celebrates. It’s free, with Debrow suggesting a donation to the Minnesota State Fair Foundation.
When Sullivan got the invitation, she “couldn’t believe it.” Debrow is a “badass corporate lawyer,” Sullivan pointed out. “She is extremely intimidating as a professional. And then extremely approachable as a State Fair fan.”
Sullivan and her family signed up for pretty much every category. All three children created artworks, pieces that celebrate pipe cleaners and paint. They baked cookies and a double blueberry tart. Her husband, Sam Rockwell, somehow kept the kids from picking the biggest zucchini, so he could submit it.
They talked their kids through the fair they’d experience this year. There probably wouldn’t be tractors, they warned. No Giant Slide. Cotton candy, Maggie’s favorite, might be something she’d have to imagine, this year.
But on Thursday, they marveled at all that Debrow had managed to include.
An hour in, Teddy, 6, was munching on crinkle fries. Frankie was licking a snow cone, staining her chin, her dress and her shoes. And Maggie was grinning, pulling apart a puff of cotton candy.