Attendance continued to plunge Wednesday at the hot and dusty Minnesota State Fairgrounds, forcing anxious vendors faced with drastically depressed sales to send workers home early.

At the Texas Steak Out stand, vendor Stephanie Janousek called the heat wave "pretty brutal," referring less to the sweat factor than to sales that were hardly sizzling — only about half of what they should have been so far.

"We'll make money, but you can't fight the weather," she said. "You can't blame people [for not coming]. All you can do is adjust how you operate."

Janousek, of New Braunfels, Texas, said she's happy to be operating at "the greatest state fair in the country," but she has been closing early since Monday and sending workers home.

Around the corner, David Eckert, manager at Fresh French Fries, had only two fryers operating during the lunch hour, with six idle. He'd usually have workers serving at six windows, he said, but Wednesday he had limited that to two. Eight people were working — about one-third the normal staff.

Owner Dan Wozniak had brought in misters to cool people waiting to buy fries, but the benefits had been only marginal.

"People don't want to buy anything to eat," Wozniak said. "They only buy water."

True, said Dawn Hansen, who was running the tiny Spring Grove Soda Pop stand, where even pop sales were down despite the heat. Pop is "refreshing, but it's sweet," she said. "It's not water."

"It's disappointing, but what are you going to do?" she said. "You can't change the weather."

State Fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette said that although Minneapolis public schools reopened for the year Monday (those without air conditioning are closing again Thursday and Friday), "it would be silly to think the heat wasn't the main cause" of the attendance drop.

Through Wednesday, when the high hit 92 in the Twin Cities, this has been the second-warmest of the more than 125 annual late-summer State Fairs, based on daily highs. Heat indexes Sunday through Tuesday broke triple digits, topping out at 107 Tuesday.

Attendance Thursday through Saturday ran 7 percent ahead of the same period last year, but for Sunday through Tuesday, it was down more than 22 percent.

Tuesday's attendance, at 94,076, was the lowest for any single day in the last six fairs — since the day in 2008 when 2.12 inches of rain fell.

Wednesday's attendance figures won't be available until Thursday.

At the Spring Grove Soda Pop, worker Tyler Dudley wondered whether smartphones with weather apps and other news coverage may have amplified the sense of foreboding around the predicted fair-time warmth, making would-be fairgoers reconsider their plans.

Cooling towels hot items

Temperatures and the heat index were both down a little on Wednesday, but on the midway, the Skyflyer was the only ride running with a full load of passengers at midday.

"If I had a choice in the matter, I'd definitely not be here," said operator Julian Peavy, who had been wearing a white towel French Foreign Legion-style under his ball cap since Monday.

Nearby, ticket taker Danny Ybarra fanned himself as he awaited customers at the entrance to the Haunted House.

How was business?

"It's dead," he said.

At least one vendor has found the heat a boost to business. Leslie Prowal, manager at Mr. Cooley Towel in the grandstand, said sales of the synthetic-fiber towels, advertised to cool the skin when soaked in water, were "booming."

Generally, fair operators are looking forward to thicker crowds in coming days as the temperatures drop and people realize the fair is about to end. Prefair ticket sales were particularly strong this year, Schuette said, and she expects many of those buyers will show up.

The predicted high temperature for Monday, the fair's final day, is 75, which is actually 2 degrees below normal. The National Weather Service's excessive heat warning, in place for several days across southern Minnesota, was set to expire at midnight Wednesday.

"We were waiting four days to come," fairgoer Tom Voegeli of Stillwater said Wednesday along the midway. "We decided to bite the bullet and come out today. It's not too bad, actually. This weekend, I think people will be barely able to walk down the street."

On Underwood Avenue, Don Schoenborn was optimistic as well, even after a week of tough selling.

His product? Outdoor furnaces.

"We keep telling people, 'Fall's coming,' '' he said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646