LITCHFIELD, Minn. – In just a couple of weeks, the annual celebration of excess that’s the Minnesota State Fair will be underway.
But there’s a different kind of fair being held all over Minnesota right now, one that’s smaller, sweeter — and, in its own way, bigger.
While some 2 million Minnesotans attend the State Fair each year, more than 2.6 million flock to 90 county fairs throughout the summer months.
Many of the attractions are the same: food, games, farm animals and carnival rides. But the vibe in the counties is more relaxed, less harried.
At the Meeker County Fair in this town some 65 miles west of the Twin Cities, parking is free. Just pull into the grassy field across the road from the fairgrounds, surrounded by waving rows of ripening cornstalks.
Lions Club volunteers manning the tiny, battered ticket booth sell admission for $5 and remind fairgoers of the $500 prize drawing at 10 p.m. The four-day fair, which ends Sunday, will draw about 15,000 people in a county with a population of 23,000.
In the nearby barns, roosters crow, goats bleat and kids frolic in a giant, shallow bin of corn, looking like a golden wading pool.
Unlike the State Fair, where the massive sea of humanity can feel oppressive, the county fair offers time and space to see and be seen.
“It’s kind of like a reunion,” said Lisa Holmquist of Grove City. “It’s just fun to see everyone and reconnect.”
“Mom, she’s pooping!” cried 12-year-old Sloan Stahnke, holding the halter on Bonie, her Hereford Angus cow, outside the livestock show ring. It’s Sloan’s fourth year in the 4-H show, and her careful grooming of Bonie is about to be upset by the forces of nature.
Deb Stahnke leaps into action, grabbing a rake and cleaning up the steaming mess.
“Sorry, I have to be a 4-H mom,” she said with a grin.
All day long, 4-Hers in dress shirts, jeans and boots troop in and out of the barns, carrying or leading or shoving their chickens, goats, cows and horses, as parents perch on the bleachers to watch the judging.
The animals are the foundation of the county fairs, said Ray Erspamer, president of the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs.
“We’re agricultural societies — that’s how we’re formed,” he said, noting that some county fairs predate Minnesota’s statehood. “That’s the basis of the fair. That’s what it was started for and that’s what it’s about.”
Little-known fact, according to Erspamer: Under Minnesota law, county fair associations have the right to levy taxes.
“There is no fair in Minnesota that levies taxes, but [the law] is still there,” he said.
In the poultry barn, judge Mike Linn moves briskly down the line of caged brown chickens, lifting each bird for a quick examination — checking for split wings and broken toenails — before naming the winners and handing out ribbons. The grand champion is 19-year-old Gregory Gathje of Eden Valley — a multitalented fellow who also won ribbons for growing carrots and beets.
“It feels pretty good,” he said afterward, the ribbon dangling from the back pocket of his jeans. “Makes me smile at the end of the day.”
Winning third place for her chicken was 10-year-old Lailauni Peterson of Paynesville, who was in her first 4-H competition.
“I’m good and excited!” she said with a big smile. But her day was far from over. Later that evening, she was working at the 4-H food stand, running dinner orders from the kitchen to the front counter.
Dane Lewis of Litchfield served ice cream cones ($2) and milkshakes ($3) at the Meeker County Dairy Association booth just outside the barn, where the kids show up after their competition to either celebrate or drown their sorrows.
“You can tell right away who won and lost,” he said. “I know most of ’em, so you can see it.”
‘The local thing to do’
At 6 p.m., the carnival opens and quickly fills with parents, kids and teens.
Older kids scream on the Rock-O-Plane while youngsters try their luck at Let’s Go Fishing: “A Prize Every Time.”
Steve Gretsch, owner of KLFD-AM, is broadcasting from a covered porch in the middle of the food vendors.
“It’s the local thing to do, and when you’re a local station, you have to do the local stuff,” he said. Gretsch chats with fairgoers, occasionally snagging one for an interview, and brings his sponsors in to talk about their businesses on the air.
He’s even sold the naming rights to his booth, noting with a chuckle that he’s broadcasting from “the Center Bank Studio in the Grandview Building.”
At the grandstand, the ATV Big Air Tour from Wabasso, Minn., is underway, with thrill riders performing stunts as they shoot their four-wheelers and dirt bikes off a jump that catapults them 40 feet high.
The grandstand is full, with 700 or 800 people cheering as heavy-metal rock blares.
Arnie Gruenes, a fair board member from Eden Valley, is happy with the fair’s first day.
“It’s a good environment,” he said, stamping the hands of spectators entering the grandstand, “with good entertainment, things for the kids to do, to support programs and make friends.”