Hours before the 2019 Great Minnesota Get-Together opened its gates for a 12-day run, Nikki Hines hustled across the fairgrounds making her final checks.
“I’ve seen her every day this week,” said Nate Janousek, who runs the Hangar, the food and craft beer establishment that popped up on the north end of the fairgrounds last year. “Nikki has to do everything. She’s like superwoman.”
Wednesday night was the last chance for Hines — the new supervisor of food and beverages at the Minnesota State Fair — to touch base with the nearly 300 concession vendors who sell everything from chocolate-drizzled bacon to alligator on a stick.
Come Thursday morning, the first of an expected 2 million people will begin making their way through the fairground gates in Falcon Heights. Many will come for the food and the rides; others will come for the animals or exhibits or to grab a few freebies. For some, the dozen-day stretch before Labor Day is the most wonderful time of the year.
“That first day of the fair, it is like Christmas morning,” Hines said. “You’re just so excited. Everything is so fresh and clean and ready to go.”
As opening day approached, a quiet anticipation filled the grounds, punctuated by the sound of workers drilling and piecing together carnival rides and sheep bleating from their new temporary homes.
The streets that would soon be filled with a sea of people were still largely passable as crews rushed to finalize preparations for the chaos to come.
For Jeff Beaver, who’s been driving to the fair from North Carolina for 19 years now, that meant unwrapping thousands of Snickers bars. His yellow-topped booth on a street corner sells deep-fried candy bars on a stick.
“If you’re not ready at this fair, you’ll be in trouble,” he said.
For Hines, it meant checking in one last time with each concessionaire to make sure everybody was in the right spot and set up with utilities — the finishing touches on months of work booking and licensing vendors.
Though this is Hines’ first year as the fair’s food and beverage supervisor — she succeeds Dennis Larson, who retired last year after more than two decades at the helm — she is no newbie to the fair’s behind-the-scenes activity, having worked there for 24 years.
She’s one of many familiar faces who return each year to make sure things run smoothly. Another is Jim Ertl, who helps run the Miracle of Birth Center.
For Ertl, some of the last stages of fair prep involved setting up pens and putting out hay before the livestock was set to arrive. The work can be tiring, but it doesn’t get old.
Besides, Ertl added, he likes to tire himself out before opening day.
“I just can’t sleep the night before,” he said.
Hoping for ribbons
Over at the 4-H building, crews darted around pinning tags to the hundreds of projects submitted by youth across the state.
Colorful quilts and carefully crafted wooden tables were displayed near hand-painted canvasses and a refurbished pickup truck. The projects had been winners at the county level. A win at the State Fair would bring a special end to the summer.
“Everyone always wants to win first. I’d love to get a champion ribbon at the state level,” said Kate McKenzie, 17, a 4-H ambassador whose pointillist portrait of Jack Sparrow will be judged in the fine arts field. “But at the same time, I’ve realized I broadened my skill set and learned so many lessons throughout the year. I kind of already got what I was hoping for.”
Ellen Harth, a 20-year-old from Hinckley, spent Wednesday clipping and trimming the hoofs of her yearling calf, Madison. She’ll show the brown dairy cow before judges Saturday.
“The State Fair has always been one of my favorite shows,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of friends and memories here over the years.”
Traditions old and new
The days before the fair are a reunion of sorts for those who come back year after year to work. The relationships that form over time are special, said John Abdo, who with his brothers runs Gopher State Ice, which distributes ice to fair vendors.
The high school and college-aged boys who work for him form tight bonds despite seeing one another for only a few weeks each summer.
“It’s very fraternal,” Abdo said as three boys hefted one last bag of ice into a white pickup before zipping off to deliver a load.
Many vendors and exhibits have been regulars for decades.
The Giant Slide, for instance, is marking its 50th anniversary this year. Carmel Dyer-Pittroff, whose husband, Fred, owns the slide, also runs the Australian battered potato stand. The Australia native, whose crew hits four fairs each year, said she keeps coming back to the Minnesota State Fair because it’s “No. 1 in the country. There’s nothing like it.”
Over the next 12 days, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans will have a chance to taste all of them.
By the time it ends, the vendors and organizers will be exhausted, Abdo said.
“But it’s worth it,” he added. “Otherwise we wouldn’t keep coming back.”