Call it love in the time of corn dogs.
Romance, like the scent of mini-doughnuts, is always in the air at the Minnesota State Fair, where sparks are flying in more than just the nightly fireworks display.
From the concession stands (where lots of single young people work side by side for two intense weeks) to Ye Old Mill (a regular scene of passionate canoodling), you can bet that someone, somewhere at the fair is falling in love, popping the question or tying the knot.
Where else has a couple held a wedding ceremony on the Giant Slide? Or created crop art to propose marriage?
“It’s that ‘Brigadoon’ aspect,” said fair romancer Kristoffer Olson. “It’s only 12 days a year. It’s this entire city that pops up from nonexistence. The limited aspect is a very magical thing.”
Off the bench
Olson and Erinn Liebhard met at the fair as high schoolers in 4-H.
After college, they worked together on the fair’s 4-H Arts musical show. They shared their first kiss at the fair.
On a date in 2012 (at the fair, of course), Olson led Liebhard to the 4-H building, where the fair’s mascots, Fairchild and Fairborne, were sitting on a bench.
As Liebhard approached, the costumed gophers stood up, revealing the words “Erinn & Kris” inscribed on the bench. Olson dropped to his knee. That’s when Liebhard saw a plaque on the bench with the words, “Erinn Liebhard, Will you marry me? Love, Kristoffer Olson.”
Family and friends, already on the scene, toasted the couple with Champagne on a stick, fashioned by Olson’s father.
In 2015, the couple got married on the fairgrounds. Now they live within walking distance of the fair in St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood.
And, yes, they’ll be going this year.
“We always sit on the bench,” Olson said. “It’s our favorite place.”
In the air, in the dark
Rides — such as the Giant Slide, Ye Old Mill and the Skyride — seem to be popular places for proposals.
Skyride operator Don McClure said some swains call ahead to arrange a midair proposal in a particular car or during the nightly fireworks.
Jim Keenan, whose family has been running Ye Old Mill for four generations, said you often can tell when a rider has just popped the question in the century-old tunnel of love: The bride-to-be is in a hurry to get off the ride and see her new ring.
“For the last minute, she hasn’t been able to see it. It’s completely dark,” he said.
Say it with seeds
Bryan Kennedy got engaged to girlfriend Betsy Gilbertson at the State Fair in 2015, but not on a ride.
“I wanted to do some sort of gesture,” he said.
He knew Gilbertson didn’t want a blingy diamond ring. But because they had courted at the fair, he had Laura Melnick, a friend and champion seed artist, create an entry for the crop art competition.
Melnick used poppy, millet, lentil, clover and amaranth seeds to depict a diamond ring and the words, “Hey, Betsy — Here’s a ring you don’t have to wear. Will ya? — Bryan.”
She said yes to the seedy proposal.
Slide and the family lore
Rob Barona and Stacey Pittroff took a slippery slope to wedded bliss.
Her family started the Giant Slide, nearly 50 years ago. He worked nearby at Mike’s Burgers, his brother-in-law’s hamburger stand. For their first date, they took a walk up Machinery Hill.
Three years later, on the opening day of the 1996 fair, they climbed to the top of the Giant Slide with 14 attendants and a ring bearer for a wedding ceremony. Then they whooshed down the slide, as husband and wife.
There was a fairgrounds reception at the Pizza Palace. But no honeymoon. They were back at the fair the next day, working at the slide.
• Said Lacey Poppe, “Working at the fair, it’s a really intense time. It’s 12 days, working 12 hours.” On the last day of the fair in 2014, when Poppe’s stint with the State Fair Foundation was done, she and a co-worker had a last ride and a first kiss on the Skyride. Poppe doesn’t work at the fair anymore, but she has a fair souvenir: her former co-worker, now husband, Jesse Poppe. “The fair at night,” she said, “it’s magic.”
• In 1977, Brad Ribar was working for the fair’s sanitation department when he was introduced to Lori Peters, who worked at her family’s hot dog stand. That has resulted in a 33-year marriage and a new concession at the fair: The Ribars started the Corn Roast at the fair in 1985.
• Brad’s brother, Steve, who also worked at the fair, met and dated a woman who was working at his brother’s Corn Roast in 1987. The couple reconnected 27 years later. Their “pop-up wedding” was held on the first day of the fair in 2015. Steve and Traci Ribar now have their own custom bench at the fair, inscribed “You had me at corn.”
Country mouse Loren Olson and city mouse Laura Gerbas got together thanks to the fair.
She was a University of Minnesota animal science student who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. He was a bachelor dairy farmer from Hutchinson, Minn. They met in 1976 while Laura was working at the fair’s milkhouse and Loren was exhibiting cattle and bringing milk to her to be weighed.
“I never, ever expected to find a husband,” Laura said.
But “the more we visited, the more we hung around together, and that’s how it goes,” Loren said.
How it went was love, marriage and four kids for Loren, still a dairy farmer, and Laura, a doctor. Two of their daughters went on to win the Princess Kay of the Milky Way crown; a third daughter was a finalist.
For the Olsons, the fair retains its romance.
“We get on Como Avenue, and I can smell the wood shavings in the barn, and it just lights me up,” Loren said.
Fair officials say they know of about two or three weddings every year during the fair. But pop-up ceremonies also occur on the fairgrounds, under the radar of fair officials.
Last year, Kareem and Elizabeth Abdelrahman held their wedding reception at the Horton Pavilions on the last Saturday of the fair while people riding the SkyGlider shouted congratulations.
“We got a cotton candy bouquet for the bouquet toss,” Kareem said. “We like to say we had a quarter-million guests at our reception.”