If caretaker Dennis Griebel followed a personal mission statement every day he set foot on the Brown County Fairgrounds in New Ulm he says it would go something like this: “I want the place to look nice and be successful.”
For the past 28 years it’s been mission accomplished for the 82-year-old man-of-all-trades who will be retiring from the position after he drains the water pipes and closes down the fair buildings one more time until next year when the Brown County Agricultural Society has a new replacement to do the job.
Griebel took the caretaker position in 1986 when his brother-in-law Jerome Schwab retired from the job. “He worked here before me, and he wanted to quit so he asked me if I’d be interested and that’s how I got here,” he recalled.
At the time Griebel was farming 700 acres near Lafayette and Winthrop, and in his last year as a farmer, he doubled up taking on the caretaker job too. “I started at a time when the fair board needed a lot of help to keep a dozen buildings in good condition and maintain the fairgrounds property,” he explained.
After he left the farm and moved to New Ulm he brought with him a sense of ownership to his new job as he sprayed weeds, cut the grass and painted buildings in the summer. At other times of the year he scheduled public auctions in the coliseum building and rented storage spaces for vehicles. He became proficient at ordering supplies, doing carpentry, electrical, mechanical and plumbing work. When he wasn’t repairing roofs, windows or doors, he collected the rental fees and kept records for the nearly 300 cars, motorhomes or boats stored in fairground buildings during the winter months.
Besides collecting the money for the off-season vehicle storage and auctions, Griebel did all of the other bookings for wedding receptions, anniversary parties or class reunions held at the fairgrounds entertainment hall.
Keeping up with mowing the grass around the fairgrounds perimeter was a time-consuming chore as well as it took five trips to go around the fence line or five miles of riding the mower each time. Before the new chain link fence was installed Griebel remembered many episodes with the old one and the bushes that surrounded it. “Before the fair became a free entry fair, people had all kinds of ways of trying to sneak in without paying at the gate,” he recalled.
“Once I was standing by the gate, and a carload of young people drove up,” said Griebel. “We didn’t know there were kids in the trunk until somebody shouted out from inside ‘Are we in already?’”
He recalled another time when they discovered kids getting into the fair through a hole in the fence. “A kid had cut a hole in the fence hidden by some bushes and was charging 25 cents per person to get in; otherwise, it was $2 at the gate.”
Then there was the time Griebel had to unhook a guy who tried to go over the fence but got caught on the top wire. “We escorted him out, and he said to me, ‘After I tore my coat you still couldn’t let me in free?’”
One year another fence jumper got caught on the top wire and fell to the ground breaking his arm. “Can you believe the fair had to pay for the doctor bill, and we had to cut the top wire off the fence to keep our insurance,” he stated.
Some nights he wouldn’t leave the fairgrounds until midnight or 2 a.m. Then he’d be back again in a few hours for another day at 5 a.m.
“Once I got three phone calls from the cops to come and catch a couple of roosters who escaped from the chicken barn. We found them sitting in a tree across the street from the fair crowing at five in the morning and waking everybody up,” he said.
Griebel mentioned he could write a book about all of the things he’s seen or people he’s met in his time as caretaker. Certainly there would be a chapter for the different challenges that come with making sure the facility operates well, not only during the fair but year around for all of the other events.
One of the more unusual moments that Griebel said could go in his book was the time a man lost an artificial leg at the fair. “They called me up and asked if we found it and then I helped the man put it back on,” he commented.
Griebel usually averages 600 phone calls a month for fairground activities, and when fair time arrives, he spends about 90 hours working to keep things going smoothly during the five-day run. One year he recalled working 119 hours during the week of the fair. He knows he’s gone through three blue-colored pickup trucks that he drives daily during the fair as well as year around for his caretaker duties.
“I had a ‘61, ‘83 and a ‘91 pickup with a white tool box in the back,” he said. “Everybody knows me by my pickup truck, and they all wave,” he grinned.
While Griebel is the man everyone looks for when something needs to be done during the fair each August, he knows the job can’t be accomplished without help from a good staff of assistants. “It can get a little hectic once in awhile when you have a couple of things happening all at once, like if a sound system isn’t working or there’s a problem at the restrooms,” he noted.
Being able to adapt and overcome problems in preparing for the fair or while it’s in session is important, as Griebel recalled a weather-related event in 1998 which caused considerable damage to property and almost canceled the event.
“It happened on July 20 during Heritagefest, which was the big city celebration at that time,” he recalled. “They had four big tents set up on the fairgrounds that were blown down in a windstorm that also tore the roof off of a fair building, blew out doors and windows in others and knocked over 13 trees.
“We put up a big blue tarp over the missing roof on the one buildings and had to remove all of the downed trees before the fair opened in early August, but we got it all done just in time,” he remembered.
One of the big changes he’s noticed at the fair is the security measures now in place when children are reported missing. “If we get a report of a lost child the fair goes into lock down at the gates until they are found, usually somewhere on the grounds,” he stated.
Barb Lux, fair board treasurer, commented that Griebel has been an invaluable asset in his tenure as caretaker. “No matter what the situation he’s never crabby, always appreciative and to think he’s still doing this at age 82 is remarkable…we’ll need two or three people to replace him.”
Lucy Gluth, president of the Brown County Fair Board, said Griebel has been a dedicated individual. “He kept the fairgrounds in good condition and going as if it was his own property.
“He just keeps plugging along…I think his motto is: I’ll fix it, then fix it again…don’t spend the money. So when he retires we’ll have to find someone who can be a fixer,” she said.
Now that the fair is over, Griebel says he’ll still be around the help out if needed and answer questions for the new caretaker.
“You’ll probably see me around again next year,” he noted. “I’ll really won’t be able to completely quit; they don’t want me to go,” he smiled.