His name was Cowboy. He had dark curly hair, the bluest eyes, and strong, tanned arms from a summer of farming. He took me to the Minnesota State Fair.
We drove 100 miles in his vintage pickup named Bullwinkle from prairie farm country to see the 1970s pop band America in the Grandstand. It was a magical date for a recent small-town high school graduate. He even won me a giant teddy bear on the Midway.
That infatuation didn’t last much beyond the start of college, but it was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with the Minnesota State Fair.
More than 25 years later I bought a house just a few miles from the Fairgrounds. That meant I could indulge in the barns, butterheads, music, magic, and deep-fried deliciousness several times during the Fair’s 12-day run at the end of every summer. Proximity only deepened my infatuation.
It didn’t hurt that I got to cover the State Fair for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for many years.
Yes, I once had a flirtation with another State Fair. During a decade in Des Moines, Iowa, I allowed myself to be swept up in the charms of the Iowa State Fair. I have not strayed since and desperately hope all is forgiven.
And so, Minnesota State Fair, it is time to air my adoration in this: A Love Letter to the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
As the warmth of summer starts to dwindle, I do not fear the dark and cold months ahead, for I know you are near: my beloved State Fair. In the last 12 days of summer, I will return to our “Fair to Remember.” Allow me to count the ways.
Pronto Pup, pronto
Each year, I read with rapt fascination the list of new foods that will be skewered on a stick or dunked in bubbling oil. Each year I hear Fairgoers extol the buttery delights of roasted corn or sugary pillows of mini-donuts. But for me, there is but one target for Culinary Cupid: The Pronto Pup.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Kissed by a stripe of mustard painted on its golden skin, the Pup has no equal. Shall I compare thee to a corn dog? Nay. Don’t even go there. And those who deign to defile the Pup with ketchup have no place in this discussion. I shall greet them with a yellow-rimmed sneer.
Beyond the Pup, State Fair food clusters in a large part of my heart (you may be wrongly inclined to assume that is seasonal cholesterol buildup). I swear the food fragrances are like a magnet pulling from outside the entrance gates. Where else is there an entire permanent structure simply called the FOOD building? Inside, amid the dizzying selections, the winding waiting line for the Mouth Trap cheese curds is testament to the glories of gooey molten magnificence.
Slurping a thick malt from the Dairy Goodness Bar inside the Dairy Building would be enough to make my heart skip a beat all on its own. But this creamy confection comes with a floor show. It’s best enjoyed as part of the throng watching a young woman sit inside a rotating refrigerator case with a sculptor carving her likeness in butter. When Princess Kay of the Milky Way and her court sit for the sculpting, it’s pure State Fair magic.
All the animals
The Minnesota State Fair started in 1859 to showcase agriculture. There’s so much more now, but a trip through the barns to see all of the animals at their brushed and scrubbed and shiny best is still the heartbeat of the Fair.
The giant horses, the largest boar, the squirming baby critters in the Miracle of Birth barn always draw a crowd. The chickens and rabbits bring a smile, and who can resist the wooly sheep, most of which are wearing hooded jackets to keep their fleece clean for competition? And speaking of competition, the ag-related contests go beyond the animals competing in the show rings. There are rooster-crowing competitions, cow-milking matchups, and, of course, the always-wacky llama costume contest where the animals and their handlers are both sporting costumes. What’s not to love?
The glory days of massive farm equipment displays are gone from Machinery Hill, but I pause amid the John Deere lawn tractors for a brief moment with my hand over my heart. A trip to Machinery Hill with Dad when I was a teen was when I developed my first crush on the State Fair.
Dad and my uncle sold John Deere farm equipment in a small town on the western Minnesota prairie, and I once accompanied Dad to “dealer day” at the Fair. Truthfully, I don’t remember much about the green-and-yellow gathering on Machinery Hill. I’m pretty sure I spent much of that day standing in front of the KDWB radio booth, where all the cool kids gathered, hoping for a glimpse of AM-radio DJ heroes such as True Don Bleu (ask your grandparents, kids).
Chapel of love
My favorite place to feel the love for the Fair is the Agriculture Horticulture building, known among close friends and admirers as Ag-Hort. It’s celebrating 75 years this summer. The building with the lighted tower fans out in wings with displays of fragrant Christmas trees from Minnesota growers, prize-winning fruits and vegetables (including massive squash that look like they were dropped from a spaceship), craft beer, and crop art, where artists create marvelous, intricate, and often hilarious works from seeds. Yes, seeds.
The Ag-Hort center rotunda is decorated each year with amazing themed floral displays officially called the Minnesota State Florist Association’s “Floralpalooza.” It’s best enjoyed with an apple turnover or an apple freeze from the Minnesota growers display nearby.
It slices and dices
Every year there’s a new Gadget of Wonder, demonstrated by vendors in the exhibit areas of the Grandstand, the Creative Activities building, Ag-Hort, and the Home Improvement Building. I gotta find the demo by the person with the ShamWow-type towels that can soak up an entire bottle of soda pop. Or the newest device that slices and dices and creates tasty salsa. Or the ladder that morphs into several helpful shapes and structures. Or the mop that will dazzle your floors.
You inspire me
Oh, you crafters, knitters, quilters, and woodcarvers who enter State Fair competitions each year: How I love to see your fine stitches and intricate patterns in the Creative Arts Building. Though they make the slippers I’ve knitted seem so common, they inspire me. And passing into the food competition area of Creative Arts, all that is jellied, pickled, rolled, twisted, and frosted to perfection stirs up half-baked plans to get busy in the kitchen.
Another source of awe and inspiration is the Fine Arts Center, which has the largest juried art exhibition in Minnesota. More than 300 works are chosen each year from entries submitted by artists throughout the state. Though it’s not air-conditioned, the building feels like a cool, quiet oasis from late summer heat.
And the Eco Experience makes me want to do more to recycle, reuse, and reduce. There’s always some spectacular centerpiece exhibit, like a towering tornado of plastic bags in 2015 that illustrated how many of these polluting parcels are trashed every day.
Music is everywhere
The soundtrack for my infatuation with the Fair is a beautiful cacophony of tunes. There are fiddlers on the free stage on the West End, rock music blaring from the wild rides on the Midway, karaoke in a bar, or the beer garden. Nightly concerts from the Grandstand waft out over the grounds, and there’s always music coming from one of the free stages around the Fairgrounds.
I know my State Fair affection is special, but it is not mine alone. There’s a reason it’s called the “Great Minnesota GetTogether.” The Fair draws thousands of people to Falcon Heights every day, with total attendance topping 2 million in 2019.
That means, of course, spectacular people-watching of all ages, all sizes, from all around Minnesota and even from around the world. They arrive in strollers, scooters, sandals, matching T-shirts, barn boots, and tennis shoes to pack the streets and concourses, moving like one giant heartbeat.
I like to think one or two of them are falling in love with the Fair for the first time.
And, so, my beloved…
My family knows of my deep and abiding love for these dozen days. They promise they will one day put my name on a memorial bench on the Fairgrounds. My love and I will be together always. And I sure hope they place it close to a Pronto Pup stand.
If you go:
When: Thursday, Aug. 25, through Monday, Sept. 5
Where: Minnesota State Fairgrounds, 1265 Snelling Ave. N., Falcon Heights
Tickets: Adults (13-64), $17; seniors (65+), $15; kids (5-12), $15; 4 and younger, free. Pre-Fair discount gate admission available now for $14 online at mnstatefair.org or at select locations, including Cub Foods. Grandstand concert tickets available at mnstatefair.org. The lineup includes Zac Brown Band, Pitbull, REO Speedwagon, and Diana Ross.
Hours: Hours have changed for 2022. The Fair will be open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Aug. 25 through Sept. 4, and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Labor Day, Sept. 5.
New foods: Food editor Jason DeRusha has ranked the Fair’s new culinary experiences (without even having experienced them yet), and you can read the lineup here.