Looking back, my life was changed by the Minnesota State Fair. It opened my eyes, emptied my billfold, warmed my heart, put college on my radar, and brought the importance of education and people into my focus.
My uncle Jake and aunt Marie invited me to go with their family, beginning when I was 12. They had met on the Farm Campus (west of the State Fair Grounds), married, operated a dairy farm, had a son my age, and went to the State Fair every year for one day only.
They packed their car with food — to save money. Traffic on Snelling Avenue was bumper to bumper, a foretaste of future city driving in my life. Remembering our car’s exact parking spot was drilled into our heads — a mindful lesson I follow today in huge parking ramps.
Last minute money admonitions went over our young heads; that is, until the bite of overspending made its hole in my wallet — long before the fair day ended.
Orientation was easy. Main entrance gate, east; 4-H housing and Machinery Hill, north; Animal Barns and smells, south; noisy Midway rides and chance-games, west. Buildings around the edges held ribbon-tagged exhibits.
In the center streets were smaller buildings with all kinds of food beckoning, products for sale, and specialty booths for political parties, radio stations (no TV yet), humanitarian causes, and emergency help — every want filled except close-by and much-needed bathrooms and water fountains.
Inside the high grandstand were demonstration booths where smooth-talking salespersons sold kitchen equipment, vacuums, pianos, clocks, carpets, etc., on multiple floors. Above them all were wooden seats for afternoon events and nightly shows. Dust from the oval racetrack dirtied the afternoon air, and loud applause at night made me envious because we could not attend due to the long ride home.
Machinery Hill had great drawing power in those early days. Every major manufactutrer had a complete display of farm equipment, and miniature versions could be purchased for house toys and sand boxes.
We walked through row upon row of cows, pigs, horses, chickens, turkeys and close-at-hand bunks spaces for their farm owners. Live 4-H auctions drew crowds as did little piglets and their huge mothers. Horse shows in the Coliseum were too expensive for us, but we watched their riders line up outside and return after performances.
At appointed hours, we all arrived at the car for lunch, supper sandwiches, and the mid-evening ride home. We laughed, sang songs, made funny sounds on little mouthpieces we had bought until uncle Jake said, “Enough already!”
Aunt Marie sat very, very close to uncle Jake all those miles home, her left hand on his right thigh, touching it gently. I wondered if some girl would sit beside me like that someday and would I have money for us to take the Skyride across the Fair Grounds.
My cousin and I were fully asleep by the time our car passed through Faribault and Owatonna until a few miles shy of Albert Lea, where I sleep-walked into our farm home near Hollandale.
Years later my folks bought me a car so I — the first born — could come home right after high school classes and help with the farm work. Late in my senior year, I was invited to visit Bethel College (then located across the street from the State Fairgrounds entrance), and with parental support matriculated there. My “little” brother took over my farm duties.
When I needed a quiet place to study, away from my new college friends, I drove through the State Fair’s empty streets and vacant buildings to study in the University Farm Campus library. In so doing, I reflected on what made those earlier day-long visits to the State Fair so special.
I decided it was not the buildings, streets, foods, or entertainment, all of which provided sweet memories, but pointed to something larger in Minnesota life. It was the coming together of people from all over the state to share a part of themselves through exhibits, personal presence, and a relaxing break from their strong work ethic and daily routines.
The fair opened my eyes to big city life, college possibilities so close at hand, and a sense of “oneness” of a state working together for the common good.
Yes, after earning my BS at the University of Minnesota, I left Minnesota for a few years to see, explore, and work in the larger world, but I returned with my own family in 1971 because I was ready and eager to come back “home” — a place where my parents still lived and our children would receive a quality education, grow up, and make their own difference in this North Star state, if this was their choosing.
Yes, today’s State Fair has morphed somewhat as our economy has changed. For example, Machinery Hill now boasts cars from around the world instead of farm machinery, and every year new foods await one’s palate, and its thousands of visitors every day reflect the growing diversity of our state’s population.
In the mosaic of life, the Minnesota State Fair has continued to play a significant role in my life. Over the years, in visits to other state fairs, not one has ever exceeded or replaced its influence.
The theme — The Great Minnesota Get-Together — still rings true for me, despite competition from multiple professional sports teams, vacations to quiet Up North cabins, and travels afar. I’m most grateful for those early years on the farm, life-changing visits to the Minnesota State Fair, and my last 47 years here in the Twin Cities and its suburbs.