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Time Passages: The Great Minnesota Get-Together

Rows of honey on display at the MN State Fair.

Rows of honey on display at the MN State Fair.

Unless you are a newcomer to Minnesota, odds are that practically everyone who lives in this state has at one time or another had the chance to visit the state fair held annually at this time of year.

It’s later this year because the last day of the fair falls on Labor Day on Sept. 7 which unofficially marks the end of summer.

The first Minnesota State Fair was held in 1859, a year after Minnesota was granted statehood at a location near downtown Minneapolis. You could say the state fair did a little traveling in those early years, as the site changed annually with stops in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Owatonna, Winona, Rochester and Red Wing.

In 1885 St. Paul won a competition with Minneapolis to permanently host the state fair at its current location in Falcon Heights, midway between the two cities on a 210-acre poor farm site that was donated by Ramsey County to the state Agricultural Society, which is the governing body of the event.

The fairgrounds eventually grew to 320 acres and has several historically significant structures on the grounds, which include the grandstand and coliseum, which are my favorites. The grandstand was the site of loud stock car races held on an oval track until 2002.

Many changes and attractions have been offered to fair visitors over the years, and the character of early fairs was dominated by agriculture and machinery exhibits.

While agriculture still plays a role at the fair, the shrinking Machinery Hill exhibit area has been replaced by outstate events like Farm Fest, which is held during the first week of August in Redwood County.

Meanwhile, other activities have expanded to include large-scale entertainment, livestock shows, art, science, midway rides, industrial and technical exhibits, education, government and, of course, all types of food – often on a stick. I’m still looking to find the “beer-on-a-stick” concession stand.

Since its inception, the fair has been held every year except for five times: in 1861 and 1862 during the Civil War and U.S.-Dakota Indian Conflict, in 1893 because of scheduling problems with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1945 due to WW II war-time shortages and in 1946 due to a polio epidemic.

As a former member of 4-H, my big years at the state fair were in the late ‘60s when I won a couple of purple ribbons. I’m one of the alumni who tried to get some sleep on the second floor dormitory bunk beds in the 4-H building that opened in 1939. 4-H doesn’t quite have the same impact at the fair these days, but the animal barns and arenas are still places to visit, although there won’t be any poultry exhibited this year due to the avian flu outbreak.

One day there was a bull who had a bad day at the fair in 2007 when it escaped its handler and charged several fairgoers before fatally charging and colliding with a fire hydrant.

The fair’s 12-day run began in 1975. Before that the fair was held for shorter durations:11 days from 1972-74, 10 days from 1939-1971, eight days from 1919-1938 and just six days from 1885-1918.

One of the iconic images when you enter the fair’s main entrance off Snelling Ave. is the original gopher mascot “Fairchild” which is dressed like an early carnival barker with a straw hat and striped jacket and cane.

The main entrance heads onto a road named Dan Patch Avenue after the famous Minnesota pacer horse who won every race he ran from 1900-1909 before he retired from the track. Ever wonder about the street names at the fairgrounds? They honor many of the people who helped get the fair started.

Of course no state fair is complete without the creation of a butter sculpture of the new Princess Kay of the Milky Way. And, the presence of politicians is practically everywhere you look.

One of the most famous dates in the fair’s history came on Sept. 2, 1901, when then-Vice President Teddy Roosevelt visited and first uttered the famous phrase: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt suddenly became my favorite president just 12 days later after President William McKinley was assassinated. Later, President Calvin Coolidge also visited the state fair in 1925 for the Norse-American Centennial.

As always, weather plays a big role in a Minnesota State Fair experience. Most of it centers around hot weather and storms.

The hottest day in the history of the fair was 104 degrees on Sept. 10, 1931. The hottest average temperature for the duration of any state fair also was 1931 with 92.6 degrees and no air-conditioned buildings to find relief.

The coolest state fair during a six-day run occurred from Sept. 5-10, 1898, with an average daily temperature of 64.2 degrees. The coolest fair morning in recent years was a chilly 36 degrees on Sept. 1, 1974.

The wettest fair was in 1977 with 9.48 inches, and the driest fair was 2003 with only .02 inches of rain.

Severe storms have struck too. I recall walking down the same street where a bolt of lightning struck a tree only minutes before and injured some fairgoers. Windstorms hit the fairgrounds a couple of weeks before the fair opened in 1940 and 2007, damaging trees, buildings, tents and equipment.

The state fair’s slogan is “The Great Minnesota Get-Together” and with good reason. It’s the largest state fair in the U.S. by average daily attendance. It’s the second-largest state fair trailing only the state fair of Texas. However, keep in mind the Texas fair runs twice as long as Minnesota’s.

In 2009, total attendance at Minnesota’s State Fair was 1,790,497 which equaled about 34 percent of the state’s population that year. In 2014 the highest daily attendance record in the history of the fair was set on Aug. 30 when 252,092 people visited the fair. Last year’s all-time attendance was 1,824,830.

Traffic and parking at the fair can get to be a headache most of the time, and it’s important to have a plan of action if you plan to drive there. Or be lucky like I was once when the guy who was renting parking spaces on his yard allowed me to park in his garage because the lawn was full of cars. I think the next time I’ll be taking the bus.

And so nearly every year we ask ourselves or someone we know the same question: “Are you going to the state fair?” For me it’s “yah sure, you betcha.” I’m on a mission to find that beer-on-a-stick concession stand.

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