It’s time for the Minnesota State Fair. You know what that means.
It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be crowded. Everything downwind is going to smell like pork chops on a stick. Parking will be a nightmare and so will the line for all-you-can drink milk.
It’s going to be wonderful.
Close to 2 million people are expected to get together for the Great Minnesota Get-Together this year, circling back to ride the same rides, eat the same foods and pat the same livestock they do every year.
The fair is a place of cherished, unchanging traditions. So when something does change, it’s a big deal — like last year’s $15 million fairground face-lift that razed the old Heritage Square in favor of the new upscale West End Market and transit hub.
This year, it’s a bigger deal that some things have barely changed at all.
Ye Old Mill will celebrate its 100th anniversary at the fairgrounds this year. Art and agriculture enthusiasts will return for their 50th year of competitive crop art. There will be pumpkins the size of ponies. There will be huge, unwinnable stuffed animals on the Mighty Midway. There will be calves coming out of cows in the Miracle of Birth barn and princess heads coming out of butter blocks in the dairy barn. There will be buckets of Sweet Martha’s Cookies and scalding heaps of deep-fried cheese curds.
As long as there’s been a state of Minnesota, there’s been a Minnesota State Fair — longer, if you count the four years of territorial fairs before 1859. Generation after generation returns to the tree-shaded boulevards of the 130-year-old fairgrounds to ride century-old rides and see shows in the century-old grandstand.
Some things will be different this year: the bird flu outbreak canceled the poultry exhibits; Black Lives Matter is planning a fairgrounds protest, starting with a march down Snelling Avenue at 11 a.m. Saturday; the fair’s giving away 100 gallons of free sunscreen at the information booths this year; and there will be the usual slew of vendors trying to get visitors to give new foods like “wine-fried kalettes” or “barbecue pickle ice cream” a try.
“If you like pickles and you like barbecue and you like ice cream, you might like this,” said Robert Fulton, who will be churning out batches of this newfangled ice cream with an old-fashioned churn, powered by an antique John Deere engine, at the R & R Ice Cream booth at the corner of Underwood Street and Randall Avenue. The booth also offers stalwart flavors like vanilla and hand-squeezed lemonade — but everyone knows that trying nontraditional fair foods is one of the greatest fair traditions of all.
But the big news at the fair this year is old news.
For generations of Minnesotans, the century-old Ye Old Mill is the state fair. The quirky, creaky, iconic water ride is where grandparents and grandchildren can compare notes about their first childhood rides. It’s where couples meet and couples propose, and it’s where one couple plans to exchange vows this summer — floating through the dark tunnel with a minister and a hand-painted Bambi diorama as witnesses.
“It’s simplicity in a high-tech, gadget-driven world,” said Jim Keenan, trying to explain the nostalgic charm of this old wooden ride his family has operated for four generations. He and his father, John Keenan Sr., have been working for months to get the old ride patched, painted and spruced up for its centennial.
His great-grandfather, John H. Keenan, left vaudeville to open a string of amusement park rides across the Midwest. Only Ye Old Mill remains, still chugging along with its century-old engine and repurposed farm equipment parts.
“It’s basically a manure spreader,” said Jim Keenan, peering down into the conveyor belt apparatus that lifts the boats — modeled on flat-bottomed Louisiana shrimp boats — up past the mill wheel. The original engine still powers the ride.
“I like it because I’ve always known it,” said Keenan, who started helping out on the ride when he was 13. “But it seems to mean something to a lot of other people too.”
Whenever something changes on the ride — a tweak in one of the dioramas, new tree sculptures in the entry — they hear from patrons dismayed by even the tiniest change to their childhood icon.
State Fair Director Jerry Hammer hears the same unhappy murmurs when something changes. But even a temple to tradition like the State Fair has to adapt if it wants to appeal to the next generation of fairgoers.
“If you do nothing, if you’re merely content to be what you are, then you quickly become a museum,” said Hammer. “Museums are wonderful, but the fair’s got to be more than that.”
The Minnesota State Fair is where Teddy Roosevelt first laid out his “Big Stick” approach to foreign policy and where, in 1906, a racehorse named Dan Patch ran the mile faster than any other harness racer had before.
The horse now has a street named after him on the fairgrounds. The president does not.
“There’s nothing like the Minnesota State Fair in the world,” Hammer said. “It’s tradition and memories and I can’t think of any place like it. … The more time goes by, the more I like all of it.”
Farther down the fairgrounds, another State Fair icon is marking a milestone: For the fifth straight decade, agriculture and art meet in a gleeful collision of seeds and glue for the annual crop art competition. Every year, Minnesota — and only Minnesota — displays scores of two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of seedy beauty in the Agriculture Horticulture building: Everyone from Grumpy Cat to U.S. presidents lovingly rendered in lentils or corn or wild rice and other local crops and seeds.
State Fair crop manager Ron Kelsey curates the crop art competition, weeding out works that violate the contest rules — no weed seeds in the art, please. And no weed. Kelsey once rejected a piece that incorporated marijuana seeds. Although, now that Minnesota has legalized limited forms of medical marijuana and industrial hemp, Kelsey said he might have to revisit those rules.
The State Fair began as a way to lure people to Minnesota, not just with tradition but with innovation. Fair stalwart 4-H takes that idea to heart. Side by side with kids exhibiting livestock are newer 4-H clubs building rockets or dressing llamas in costumes.
In north Minneapolis, members of the new Hmong Mother Daughter 4-H club spin through the steps of a dance routine they choreographed, wearing bright orange and pink phoenix-themed costumes they sewed themselves. Other club members, who range in age from 9 to 16, put the finishing touches on T-shirts they made about the dangers of domestic violence and bullying, or showed off displays of Hmong needlework and photos from the group’s recent field trip to China.
Last year — the club’s first year at the State Fair — they came home with a blue ribbon.
As an organization, 4-H “can teach you a lot about citizenship and leadership,” said Jantheny Vue, 14.
“We get to try new things and learn new things,” said 4-Her Chantany Ly, 12. “When we are going to have our club [meetings] sometimes I’m so excited I can’t sleep.”
The Minnesota State Fair opens its gates at 6 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 27.