It didn't look like much from the outside, the little white box with the rocking chairs out front that was sitting at the Scott County Fair last week.

Inside, though, it was half farm kitchen, half state-of-the-art recording studio.

It was there to record fairgoers' memories of a long-standing rural institution: the fair itself.

But its more important function was to test out a whole new means of recording Minnesota history, via the voices and memories of ordinary folk.

"I am absolutely captivated by this," said Marla Calico, an official with the International Association of Fairs and Expositions who was in town to speak and swung by for a peek. "Fairs create memories, and people do have stories to tell."

On a counter nearby sat a book that in a way sets the stage for this new effort: it contains the transcribed memories of Scott County veterans of World War II.

Though the book was done recently, from 2006 to 2011, quite a few of the roughly 80 people interviewed no longer are in any position to tell their stories.

"A lot of the vets we talked to have passed away," said Kathy Klehr, who heads the county's historical society. "I keep an eye on the obituaries."

The new vehicle for this sort of thing has been christened the Scott County Mobile Oral History Recording Trailer, or "story trailer" for short.

Dave Minar

I remember winning a blue ribbon [showing a calf] and getting to the State Fair. I was just a little 10-year-old snotty-nosed kid and I qualified for the State Fair. That was pretty overwhelming for me. I don't remember a lot about the showing, I just remember the excitement...

"Everyone says, 'I don't have a story to tell,'" Klehr said. "But when you ask a specific question, it's like, 'Oh yeah!' and pretty soon they're telling their friends to come over, too."

Inmates of the state women's prison in Shakopee are sitting down voluntarily and spending countless hours transcribing the memories gathered from men and women such as Minar, 71, of New Prague, who became one of the state's leading organic farmers.

But the effort isn't just aimed at Scott County; it's for anyplace in the state.

"This is a pilot, to work the bugs out," Klehr said -- including bugs with the air conditioning, which wasn't working well on the hot first day of the fair. Once she dopes it all out, she'll be able to write a manual for folks who organize later sessions.

"You could do this at church festivals, 4H groups, company picnics, schools could do it, or high school reunions, family reunions. We've had calls already from senior centers and libraries."

Sarah Hafermann

My family was the superintendent of the rabbit barn for most of the time that I was in 4H, so we would be here from about 7 in the morning until about 10 o clock at night, every single day of the fair, so it got to be a long fair. We camped out a couple of times just for the fun of it. But it really gets to be, you live at the fair -- you shower, you eat, you everything at the fair (laughter).

Some memories go back half a century or more, others just a decade or two. And then sometimes Klehr finds herself capturing something that has just happened, as when she wound up opposite a carnival vendor who worked on the refurbishment of a 1939 vintage Ferris wheel that was just placed in operation for the first time with this summer's edition of the fair.

Dale Merriam

We christened that Ferris wheel with a quart of milk, which we consider Minnesota champagne. ... I had the honor of operating it for the first time, which was a big thrill for me.

The Scott County Fair has been around since the 1870s, but only fairly recently on the grounds it now occupies, across Hwy. 169 from the main part of Jordan.

At one time it took place in Shakopee, and at that time it was "like a local convention for farmers," said Kevin Bailey, who now heads the fair board. "People would gather and talk about breeding methods or new seed. Our attendees today are probably mostly from the 'burbs, from the type of dress we see, although most exhibitors are rural. So it becomes entertainment: demolition derby, bands. But we'd still like it to be a force for education, to bridge the gap between the two elements of the county. It's sort of unique to a place like Scott County to have a rural county fair so close to a large metropolitan area."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285