The Minnesota State Fair kicked off with big crowds, big traffic jams and big milestones Thursday.

The lines of cars inching toward the fairgrounds backed up onto interstates as Minnesotans rushed to the fair ahead of potential storms on Friday and a protest that could gridlock fair traffic Saturday.

For those who really wanted to beat the rush, the trick was to arrive at the gates early. Really early.

Minneapolis resident Brian Motiaytis took his place in line at 1:20 a.m., guaranteeing he’d be the first fairgoer through the Snelling Avenue gates, just as he had been for the past several years. “I’m a morning person,” said Motiaytis, who estimates he spends 10 hours a day, every day, at the fair during its 12-day run. “This year I was really antsy. I needed to get here just in case somebody got in front of me.”

These are the high holy days for fans of deep-fried foods on sticks. The Great Minnesota Get-Together kicked off officially at 6 a.m., when the fairground gates swung wide to admit the crowds that had been waiting before sunrise — a group that included Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and the newly crowned State Fair dairy princess and her court.

“I couldn’t sleep last night. It was like Christmas Eve,” said Seth Johnson, who came in from St. Louis Park and snagged a spot near the front of the line.

From small city to big city

Early risers find most of the rides and fairground attractions still shuttered, but they get to enjoy the advantages of ample parking, sparse crowds and pristine restrooms. Many, like Motiaytis, take advantage of the early morning peace to meet friends for coffee and breakfast.

“I just hang out. It’s a nice place to be,” he said. “It’s a small city that becomes a large city.”

At 10 a.m., another longtime fairgoer, Gov. Mark Dayton, arrived to mark the 100th anniversary of Ye Old Mill. The governor hopped aboard one of the flat-bottomed wooden boats that have ferried generations of Minnesotans around the ride’s watery tunnels.

Dayton, who was joined on the ride by the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, proclaimed Thursday Ye Old Mill Day in Minnesota to celebrate the ride’s first century.

He shared a bit of fair history of his own, like the time his younger sister got lost at the fair, and his fear at the time that she’d been trampled by a giant hog. Later in life, as a father, he proved his daring to his young sons by going on a bungee ride.

At a fair where the new food options include such things as wine-fried kalettes and dessert nachos, Dayton said his own favorite fair foods are the fresh-cut french fries and chocolate malts.

Ginger Johnson of Apple Valley times her vacations around the fair every year. Some of her co-workers think she’s crazy, she said, but here in the growing line of fair early birds, she knows better.

“I’m not crazy,” she said with a laugh. “Look at all the other people who are here too.”

For Johnson — who boarded a bus at 3 a.m. to snag a spot near the front of the entry line — staking out the first day of the fair is a beloved family tradition.

“I grew up in Wisconsin and my dad got us out of school every year to come” to the Minnesota State Fair, said Johnson, who still hasn’t visited the Wisconsin State Fair. “When he passed away, I just come to do things that he would like … It feels like home.”


Reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.