Some people just can't get enough of the Minnesota State Fair. Marlene Rollefstad hasn't missed one in 50 years, which is impressive considering she turned 50 on Feb. 2.
Rollefstad attended her first fair in 1960, in her mother Bev's womb. "Does it count if I couldn't see anything?" she asks. I say, heck yeah.
Since then, Rollefstad has seen the fair from the vantage point of a stroller, then a little red wagon pulled by her father, Doug, and then on foot, sometimes walking 17 hours in a day to get it all in.
She's endured heatstroke and a 20-minute hail pounding. She's been stuck on the Skyride "more than once."
And let me tell you, you haven't seen the State Fair until you've seen it with someone like Rollefstad. First, she doesn't need a map, taking us effortlessly across the sprawling grounds from the Pet Center to the Education Building to the DNR Fish Pond to the piglets in the Miracle of Birth Center without getting turned around once.
Dressed in a baby blue sun hat, a bright green 2011 State Fair T-shirt and comfortable white tennies, Rollefstad is a walking lesson in the fair's subtle shifts.
Her grandpa, Archie, started attending the fair with his brothers to watch the car races. Bev started going in 1952, then with Doug in 1960.
Rollefstad remembers when the Pet Center was tiny and cramped, when bathrooms were sparse and rustic, and when folks spent hours ogling the farm machinery. Much of that space is now taken up by car dealerships. "People are really gravitating toward the new cars," she guesses.
She's caught all the best free shows over the years: The circus and the divers, the Lumberjacks, BMX, Ron and Raven. "One year, they had shelter dogs catching Frisbees," she said. "That was the best."
She knows fair food, too. Think every pronto pup stand is the same? Not if you're a pronto-pup aficionado like Rollefstad. The best of the bunch, she says, is on the corner of Cooper and Randall. She'll take two, please.
The best cheese curds and calamari? In the Food Building. Best mini-donuts? Near Ye Old Mill. Best honey nut ice cream? In the Agriculture-Horticulture building. Best lemonade? Ye Olde Shoppe.
The pork shops are too salty, but she'd like to try the sweet corn ice cream. She wouldn't dare eat a spiced-up, chocolate-covered jalapeno pepper, but she did try the alligator.
Her verdict? "Gross."
Speaking of food, it should be noted that Rollefstad's chewy coconut bars once garnered 94 of 100 points by fair judges.
We pass the legendary Epiphany Diner, which will close after this summer. Rollefstad's family ate there for years. These days, she says, people want to walk and eat everything-under-the-sun-on-a-stick, instead of sitting down to a big meal.
Rollefstad grew up in Brooklyn Center and lives in Crystal. School was hard, so after graduating from Anoka High School, she went to work, first in a factory, then in a security business. For 12 years, she's worked for RidgePointe, an independent living community for seniors where, she's "never felt so much love."
She accompanied about 16 seniors to the fair on Day One, but they only stayed for about six hours, which doesn't begin to rate as a real day at the fair to Rollefstad.
Rollefstad usually gets to the fairgrounds around 7 a.m. to park and get to the Pet Center by its opening time of 8:30.
Rollefstad, who was married briefly, has a great big rescue cat named Pollyanna, but she loves animals of all kinds and sizes. After petting Gairloch Collies and Havanese in the Pet Center, we head to the Miracle of Birth Center where Rollefstad hopes to hold a baby pig. Just don't make her watch a birth. "No! Don't look!" she says.
Mary Olson, a Miracle of Birth staffer, is delighted to meet Rollefstad, who has made the fair a tradition for 50 years. People like Rollefstad, Olson says into a microphone to the throng of visitors, are what the State Fair is all about.
She gently holds up a newborn piglet for Rollefstad to pet. Rollefstad waves to the crowd, glowing.
I left Rollefstad just after lunch, wiped out. She called me at 8:30 p.m. She'd stayed at the fair for 12 hours, and it was hard to miss the joy in her voice when she said, "I still have it!"
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 firstname.lastname@example.org