The Twins’ season is toast. Trump and Clinton campaign noise is just ramping up. And months after losing its Prince, Minnesota is still in a funk.
Given the bleak run, the state could use a hug. Or at least a Pronto Pup.
“We can all use a little State Fair right now,” said Minnesota State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer.
The 2016 Minnesota State Fair opens Thursday, offering the state some respite-on-a-stick.
The fair is a nostalgic retreat to a place where butter is sculpted, livestock is within easy patting range, and all-the-milk-you-can-drink is a legitimate beverage choice. It’s been there through wars — world and civil — recessions and depressions and the enormous swarms of grasshoppers that invaded its grounds in 1875.
“It’s about bringing everybody together in a very special place where you can meet your neighbors and learn from them,” said Hammer, who grew up in the neighborhoods next to the fairgrounds and never left.
“We’re looking forward to bringing people together to move forward.”
About 2 million people will cycle through the fair during its 12-day run. On the busiest days, the population inside its borders will be close to that of the city of St. Paul.
A city within a city, the State Fair employs 2,700 people, generates $48 million in revenue and runs through 55,000 pounds of Mouth Trap cheese curds, 26,000 gallons of milk, 70 tons of Pronto Pup batter and 4 million individual mini doughnuts each year.
According to fair officials, if all the foot-long hot dogs sold at the fair were laid end-to-end, they’d stretch 35 miles. You’d need 25 acres of farmland to grow enough corn to keep the Corn Roast booth in business each year and 400 pounds of butter to coat all of those cobs.
And then, after a week and a half of greasy, gleeful cacophony, it ends — just like summer.
“There’s just something about this place,” said Hammer, looking around the grounds where the fair has been held since 1885.
First time for gate screeners
To be sure, the world just outside the 320-acre fairgrounds seems a bit gloomier this year. Global terror attacks, civil unrest across the country and the fatal shooting of a black motorist by a police officer during a traffic stop just outside the fairgrounds in July have made the summer seem sadder and scarier.
Just last week, fair officials announced that screeners will be at the gates for the first time this year, checking bags for weapons and other prohibited items.
Still, the fair is working to adapt.
This Friday will be Prince Day in honor of the Minnesota music legend who died in April.
“Unite. Come together. Wear purple,” the fair’s website urges visitors still mourning the megastar.
From 5 p.m. on, the fair will host Prince tribute bands, a Prince dance party, a Prince-themed laser show, lavender lighting on all fair buildings, and “Unite in Purple” glow bracelets and button giveaways at the gates.
The world changes and the fair changes with it. But for most fairgoers, the main appeal of the nation’s second-largest State Fair is the things that stay the same year after year — the food on sticks, the crowds, the 4-H exhibits and the butter sculptures of dairy queens.
“We have people who come every single day,” Hammer said. As one elderly visitor once told him, “ ‘Every time I walk in here, I’m 12 years old.’ ”
Last week, as Hammer announced the heightened security measures, workers touched up the paint at Ye Old Mill, prepping the ride for its 101st year. The Hamline Church Dining Hall, which has been operating at the fairgrounds since 1897, will open its 119th year by introducing a new flavor of ice cream: Chocolate Agate Crunch, a geology-inspired blend of Izzy’s chocolate Caramelia ice cream with cookie crumbles, a caramel swirl and edible chocolate rocks.
A great old ride
At the Skyride, owner Don McClure is getting the gondola ride ready for its 52nd year of ferrying customers from one side of the fairgrounds to the other.
“It’s a great old ride,” said McClure, who grew up attending the fair and bought his own piece of it 13 years ago. McClure also owns the Buck Hill ski resort and has spent more than $1 million updating the Swiss-made ride, which employs a staff of 50 during the fair.
“It runs like a top,” he said.
And so it will go.
In just a few days, there will be 20,000 animals on exhibit, 8,000 entries in the creative arts competition and 2,996 baked goods on display. Judges will sample 106 banana bread entries alone, and another 209 plates of potentially blue-ribbon chocolate chip cookies.
On busy days, the crowds coming to take a peek, get a whiff and hop on a ride or two will top a quarter of a million people.
Just getting to this point has taken months of work and planning.
Vying for ribbons
Katie Benson, crowned Minnesota’s Poultry Princess at last year’s fair, when an avian flu outbreak led to a bird ban, has spent months preparing her flock of bantam chickens for poultry’s return this year. This is the event that 4-Hers like her work toward all year.
“I absolutely love it. It’s my favorite time of the year,” said Benson, 17, who has been raising chickens since she was 7 and showing them since she was in the third grade.
While opening day is still four days away, the fairgrounds already are alive with work crews hammering and sawing and judges working their way down long tables covered with corn cobs or crocheted afghans, looking for the standouts that will earn the ribbons.
Last year, Kristine Paul of Lake St. Croix Beach brought home a third-place ribbon in the handcrafted polymer clay competition. Last week, she waited in a long line of people dropping off entries at the Creative Activities building, surrounded by competitors carrying the quilts, dioramas and crafts they created over the past year.
“I guess I like competitions,” said Paul, who is entering two more works in the same category this year — a mirror covered with bright butterflies and a glittering mermaid.
Having a little skin in the game makes the fair more fun, Paul said. When the gates open on Thursday, Paul and other crafters will be waiting, anxious to see where the ribbons landed.
“I’ll come in earlier,” she said, “to see if I’ve won.”
The Great Minnesota Get-Together runs through Labor Day.