Step Right Up!
For the 10 brief days of the Minnesota State Fair, the many become one
By James Lileks
Somewhere between The Mexican Hat and the Spamburger stand, I was stopped by a stout fellow who needed my help. “Where do you get those yardsticks?” he asked. He pointed to the flat green wand I was carrying.
I have to admit I was surprised, because he was about my age. Everyone my age knows where you get your complimentary State Fair yardsticks, right? Obviously not. Well, head down Dan Patch, go right at the lemonade stand, past the Pronto Pups and it’ll be on your right in the building where they tell you about the wonders of natural gas and utility maintenance. Sticks are in the back.
He thanked me and continued walking, away from the stick dispensary. Perhaps he’d get to it later. It was morning, after all. A whole day at the Minnesota State Fair lay ahead.
The Measure of a Good Time
Why do people want a yardstick? you ask. Because they’re free. Because a fellow likes to perambulate the fairgrounds with a good stick in hand. Because you might need to point with an authoritative object that commands attention. You might be called upon to measure something. For many years, there was a stand that sold a “Foot Long Hot Dog,” but at some point it changed to “About a Foot Long Hot Dog,” which suggests a tiresome legal challenge brought about by someone who needed to put this yardstick to use, goldurnit.
On the bus back from the Fair, lots of people have yardsticks. They may be attired in a complimentary rain poncho if the clouds had opened, and one of the booths had passed out thin plastic logo-stamped bags to wear. They may have a small paper crown from the Swine Barn, pink with tiny pigs’ ears. They might have an empty plastic bucket from Sweet Martha’s—once filled with fresh cookies, now taken home because a bucket like that, you can find some use for it.
But on the bus to the Fair on opening day, no one has a yardstick yet. But I have one. I need it. I do a show at my newspaper’s stand. The StarTribune has had a building at the foot of the grandstand ramp for decades, and there’s a small stage where the reporters and writers talk and interview people, do trivia contests. I buttonhole fairgoers, ask them easy Fair-lore questions and give away flavored lip balm as a prize. (The newspaper’s promotion department comes up with a new flavor every year, and people queue for a block just to get a tube.) I use the yardstick as a barker’s wand. Just to make sure I have one on the first day, I take last year’s stick, because the way the world is going these days, there might not be sticks at all. People have phone apps for measuring, you know. Decades of stick-provisioning tradition could end, just like that.
So I ride the bus to the Fair on opening day with yardstick in hand, and some people might wonder: Who brings a stick, when sticks are in abundance at our destination?
They might wonder, but they probably don’t. Everyone knows that everyone else has a Fair Idiosyncrasy. A thing they do, a thing they wear, a thing they bring. Or just a map in their heads of all the places they’ll go. Barns first, then Fine Arts. Fried pickle first, then beer, then the Space Tower. We all know what we’ll do, and we all know we’ll end up doing something else. We don’t quite know what, but it’s the Fair, and it is, for today, the whole wide world.
Fair of Plenty
Is your state fair a great state fair, as the song—from “State Fair,” of course—asserts? In Minnesota, we’re convinced of our superiority. Numerically, we’re not. Texas, as you might expect, has more people, but ours is absolutely packed. It’s not for introverts and agoraphobes. On a busy day you can see a mass of humanity stretching down Judson Avenue for block after block. You will bump into someone. You will get caught in a five-deep line at the curb because the parade is passing and no one can cross the street; you will be jostled as people strain to look at the drum majorettes preceding the small-town brass band, behind which a truck tows a massive scowling bovine graven idol, as if this is all some pagan ceremony with spangles and braid. (The cow is on hand to make us appreciate our beef industry, and no drum majorettes are actually sacrificed.)
You will be hungry and you will find sustenance in extraordinary forms. Every year dozens of new foods are announced with great delight, sounding like menu items in a Roman epicurean banquet: alligator meat. Poutine ice cream. Next year, perhaps, saffron-dusted lark’s thyroids. Every year they are ignored by the multitudes that content themselves with bacon-on-a-stick and corn dogs.
Ah, but which corn dog? There are two competing paradigms: Pronto Pup (The Meal Dun in a Bun since 1947) and the Poncho Dog. Each is a hot dog wrapped in a carapace of coating, smeared with ketchup and mustard, but people are tribal about their preferences. It’s like the debate over Tom Thumb mini-donuts and Tiny Tim mini-donuts: Each side has its arguments and convictions. Maybe some like the Dickens reference. Maybe some prefer the callback to General Tom Thumb, a 19th-century Barnum & Bailey performer. Passions run high, yet it’s not the sort of thing you couldn’t settle over a cup of farmer coffee at the Lutheran Diner. It’s made the right way, with eggshells in the grounds. Almost transparent. They leave the pot on the table so you can have all you want.
Or do they? Has that changed, and I haven’t noticed?
Some things never change, and we would riot if they did. Every year in the Agriculture-Horticulture building, there’s a room of crop art. Pictures made from multicolored seeds. It’s pointillism in organic form. It’s right next to examples from the world’s largest collection of seed sacks, which display the commercial art of rural America decades ago, curated by a fellow who’s been coming to the Fair for 75 years. He’s there every day, eager to tell you why that sack’s his fave. (It’s a rare “open-pollination corn” bag, from the days before hybrid seeds took over.) The same room has a half-hundred scarecrows assembled by outstate kids, clever pieces of sculpture that comment on current events or just rethink the classic form. Oh, and there’s all the prize-winning corn, so you can peer at the produce and nod and pretend you can tell the difference.
That’s one wing of one building. You could spend half a day at Ag-Hort. You could spend a full hour studying the prize-winning evergreens, drinking in the piney aroma, trying to figure out what makes one better than the other. You could watch bees behind glass in the Honey wing. You could just wander around inside of the 1947 Moderne room and feel like you’re in the arrival lounge at the Emerald City airport.
When you make it out of Ag-Hort, you might wander north to the Fine Arts pavilion. It restores your faith in our culture: room after room of remarkable art, all by locals, most of it representational. (If it’s abstract you want, go to the Spin-Art stand, where kids have been dribbling paint on rotating canvases since the ’60s, making their own Jackson Pollocks.) Up the street is the massive WPA-era 4-H building, where the kids from the farms pour in to set up their displays and dioramas. There are bunks for the farm kids upstairs, and you know that there are innumerable tales of hijinks and courtships between the lads and the gals.
This area used to be called Machinery Hill, for obvious reasons: The big implement companies showed off their tractors and combines and ploughs. All the names: John Deere, International Harvester, Massey Ferguson, Minneapolis-Moline. A city fella could walk around the big beasts and admire the brawn and power of these magnificent creatures, maybe imagine himself up there in the cabin of a thresher, bringing in the rye.
Now the only tractors are the antiques, brought to the Fair by collectors and preservationists. They’ll fire them up if you ask. The sound is wonderful: a wet brupbrupbrup that slaps your ear. The smell is wonderful: oily exhaust, the only farm perfume capable of smothering the pungent chicken-stink or the humid animal smell of the barn. You smell those old machines, and you wish you could bottle the scent and sell it. You’d make a million.
I think I’ve described about 14% of the Fair so far. I haven’t even touched on the Dog Castration building, or the attraction where butterflies alight on your shoulder, or the Marines recruitment center, or the little booth where an AM radio talker decries the state of politics to a crowd of six men with hats full of pins or the handwriting analysis “computer” under the grandstand that tells you if you’ll be lucky in love. Or the Old Mill, a tunnel-of-love that’s been running since 1915. Men have been firmly instructed to remove their hands in these dark humid passages since the Woodrow Wilson administration.
This is just one part of the Fairgrounds. On the other side to the south are redolent livestock arenas—haughty horses, busy pigs, sheep bleating protests as they’re sheared, neurotic poultry, saturnine rabbits. One barn is all calm cows, and come the late afternoon, in the warm summer light, you find the country kids curled up with a slumbering bossie, the loud big fans lulling all to Lethe.
Ten Days of Unity
Of course, there’s the midway. You have to have a midway. In the old days the rides were up on Machinery Hill, and the sin tents with their Little Egypt wannabes, ready to give the small-town lads and big-town clerks a flash of shin for a nickel, were down in the southwest area. Eventually everything was consolidated on the west side, an asphalt expanse where the rides and the game booths were set up. The last freak show was years ago, and it was a strange iteration. Their tent had thick canvas paintings in the classic style—Frog Boy! Electro Man! Two-Headed Girl! It was run by geeks and misfits and aged theater-kids who wanted to continue the freak show tradition. They wanted to delight and entertain and be post-ironic, but also let you know we’re all in on the joke. They lacked the mercenary spirit. They didn’t have the fundamental drive to skin the rubes, to part them from their coins, pack them in a tent, then disappoint them with such flagrant falsehoods no one would ever admit they’d been taken so easily.
The midway at noon is dull and bored with itself. The rides plough the air, mostly empty. The barkers call out to thin crowds. The flashing lights are pallid in the bright sun. The paintings on the rides look amateurish, the macabre statues on the funhouse silly and cheap. Best to wait for twilight, when night is nigh and all the lights pop on. If you were lucky, there was an afternoon shower, and the rides are reflected in pools in the uneven asphalt. Now the rides are urgent and reckless; now the barkers have a bit more appeal. Now the shadows give the paintings a lurid unreality. Now the citizens are giddy and young and brash, daring each other to climb in a cage and tumble in the dusk. Loud rock, the ding! of a game concluded, the roar of the diesels that power it all, the screams high up in the sky. There’s no spectacle so compact and immediate, and you think there’s no better way to decorate the night ...
... and then the fireworks erupt.
The grandstand show has ended. It was a music concert. In the old days people packed into the grandstand in the afternoon for various spectacles: car races, planes with wing-walkers, locomotive engines that smashed into each other head-on. Teddy Roosevelt made a speech at the grandstand, and rolled out the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” These days it’s mostly evening acts, and when they’re done, the fireworks go off. It’s a great way to end a summer night: the band’s last chord, the fire up above. The season feels triumphant and eternal.
It’s anything but, of course. The Fair ends on Labor Day. In our collective consciousness, that’s the dividing line between summer and fall, between vacation and school, between frolic and duty. When the last blossom dies in the sky, summer is over, and we know it. We board the last bus from Brigadoon and head back to September, the hospice of the summer. Maybe as the bus pulls away you look up at the gondola cars, and remember a date you had in 1984. You see a tired tot on the bus wearing Oink Barn ears and remember when you brought your child here 15 years before. You see an old couple a few rows back, and think: the Fair, that’s their thing. It’s been their thing for a long time. They came together, and then with the kids and now it’s just them again.
You see a few people who have neon-hued yardsticks. Because a fella needs a stick.
When I get home the stick goes in the same place as others from previous years, a spot in the laundry room on a ledge. In the depths of February, I will note the stack of sticks and think: We’re as far away from the Fair as possible. But the green days will roll around again and we will board the bus to the Fair, not thinking about the year that passed, only the day that lies ahead.
If you think that the Fair might be the last thing that binds us all together in these fractious times, a reminder: The times have always been so. The nature of the disputations change, yet somehow we all assemble in peace to gawk and laugh and engage in ambulatory gluttony. We would tire of it soon if it was always there. But for 10 days, we’re one folk.