The oven goes unused and the refrigerator is stocked only with water bottles in the McPhillips family’s temporary home during the Minnesota State Fair.
Why cook, when cheese curds, footlongs and a host of on-a-stick foods are available in their 320-acre backyard?
Though they live the rest of the year in Vadnais Heights, not 15 minutes from the Falcon Heights fairgrounds, this family of four relocates to a campground just outside the fair’s northeast gates for the entire 12 days.
“It’s like the fair never ends,” said Ben McPhillips, 41, who is in the third of four generations of McPhillipses to spend each and every night here.
Almost 2 million people attend the Minnesota State Fair each year. For an impassioned subset of those visitors, a single day isn’t enough. After everyone else goes home, fair campers stay the night so they can get up early and do it all over again. Aided by a place to sleep, shower and cool off, these round-the-clock fans have been returning for decades to this dusty patch of land separated from a candy-apple stand by a chain-link fence. Many of the overnighters are vendors and fair employees, who cram their RVs and motor homes into the 250 sites in the shadow of the water tower.
Then there are the fanatics: the couple who celebrate every wedding anniversary at the fair, where they honeymooned more than 50 years ago; the campers who bring an extra tent to house the stuffed animals they win on the Midway; the man who sleeps at the fair, then heads to work after a morning tour of the grounds.
“The people who stay the entire length, it’s part of their family tradition,” said Teri Blair, campground manager. “They have gatherings at their camper, invite guests and have cookouts. It’s their time during the year to gather.”
Campsites are a hotter ticket than the Dixie Chicks: sign-up begins June 1 and spots fill immediately, Blair said.
Sticking to a routine
McPhillips knows to call early, so he won’t miss a season. His father and grandmother started the family tradition of camping at the fair some 40 years ago. Now, he and his wife, Shane, bring their daughters, Savannah, 13, and Scarlett, 11.
They live in a white Jayco trailer with pink stripes down the middle — what they call the “Fair Trailer” — complete with three beds, a full kitchen and a screen door. The interior looks like something out of the “Golden Girls” set: beige carpet, mauve curtains and fabric-upholstered banquettes with blue and gray splashes circa 1985. For the run of the fair, this is home.
“It wouldn’t be summer without it,” Scarlett said.
The McPhillipses have routines to help distinguish one humid, hypersensory day from the next. Ben rises early to roam the fairgrounds before vendors open.
Shane and the girls sleep in, and then head beyond the gate for breakfast. Ben, who owns a family roofing business, might head out for work or run home to tend to the cats.
Midday, when it’s hot and crowded, everyone retreats to the trailer to relax in the air conditioning and freshen up before returning to the fair for evening activities and fireworks.
The benefit of so much time at the fair? The chance to try all the food, spread out over nearly two weeks. “You don’t necessarily overeat,” Ben said.
‘In your blood’
Traci and Chip Cramer, who have been tent-camping at the fair for the past 15 years, take a similar approach.
“If you come one day, you can’t do it all,” said Chip, of Bigfork, Minn. “That’s why people don’t like the fair.”
The Cramers bring a pop-up trailer that sleeps six, plus a massive Coleman tent for eight. Only a portion of the tent goes to human occupants, Traci said. After four nights, the tent is filled with giant stuffed animals they win on the Midway.
Donald Larson’s gold Pleasure-Way van — its auxiliary battery held on by duct tape — has room for little more than a bed, a microwave and a bookshelf for his dog-eared copies of the New Testament.
The vehicle has been through a lot: Larson rarely makes it home to Bovey, Minn. This summer, he has camped at the Wisconsin and Iowa state fairs and the Steele County Fair in Owatonna, Minn. After the Minnesota State Fair ends, he’ll head back to Iowa for a county fair and to Wisconsin for the World Dairy Expo.
Larson always had an interest in agriculture, but living on the Iron Range, “we can’t hardly get tomatoes ripened,” he said. The fairs have filled that void since he retired as an elementary schoolteacher in 1992. He spends most of his time at the poultry barns and dairy barns and does a daily ride on the SkyGlider.
Clarice Schmidt is something of a celebrity in the campground. A founding member of the State Fair Foundation and a 25-year State Fair Board member, she and her husband, Rodney, have been camping at the fair since they honeymooned here in 1963.
On their 50th wedding anniversary, members of the board encircled the Schmidts’ Winnebago on their golf carts and serenaded them with their horns. The couple marked their 53rd anniversary at the fair on Tuesday.
Potato farmers from Sabin, Minn., the Schmidts view the fair as the last gasp of downtime before the fall harvest.
Why share their anniversary with 2 million strangers?
“The fair,” Clarice said, “gets in your blood.”