the fair

I don’t remember much from my very first trip to the Minnesota State Fair:  watching my dad’s cousin, the trumpeter Larry Brakke, playing at a bandstand; the gold metal Minnesota bookmark my parents bought me (which I still have); and seeing Luverne from the east as we returned home.  I think I started first grade the next day.

Twenty years later, I worked the fair for Luverne Truck Equipment, selling chrome bumpers and running boards.  “Sales” and “truck equipment” don’t figure into the rest of my biography; it’s probably not surprising that I didn’t write too many purchase orders.

For decades, Sue and I have been making annual visits to the fair, part of the throng there for “the celebration, the revelry, the making of memories, the marking of seasons,” as one article put it.   Almost a quarter of a million of us showed up yesterday.

The people are of all ages, including infants being at their first fair and nonagenarians wondering if it will be their last.  There’s quite a cross section of economic and social groups among the attendees, and certainly more diversity than there used to be.

If you spend time people watching, it’s not hard to see the clustering of styles and behaviors among families and groups of friends.  Their attitudes and interests are on display in the way they dress, how they interact, and where they spend their time on the grounds.  If you think about it, there are few places like the fair where people with such disparate interests share a common destination.

It seems that every year I notice a family or two with a familiar makeup:  aging parents with a middle-aged son or daughter who is mentally or physically disabled.  I think about the incredible dedication those parents have displayed throughout their lives, and hope that there will be others who will share such love after they are gone — and make the trip to the fair too.  (This morning I happened to see this short video, which makes the point better than I ever could.)

The range of activities and events at the fair is truly remarkable, but it was founded to promote agriculture in the state.  I can’t go there without pondering the roots of my dad’s family; in a couple of years the farm his grandfather homesteaded will be recognized for being in the family for one hundred and fifty years.

Every year into old age, my aunt Edith would cram as many entries as possible into her car and drive to all of the county fairs within a wide radius, continuing a passion that began when she and my dad were kids.  My cousins grew up with that spirit — exhibiting, demonstrating, riding, showing animals — with the culmination of that activity being the state fair.  I can’t see the 4-H building without thinking about them.

We always go through the barns.  Sue needs to spend some time with the goats, since it’s a highlight of her year.  And we occasionally watch a competition.  This year, we walked through one of the buildings as the judge was finalizing his ranking of some heifers.  His introductory remarks before awarding the ribbons included comments about how the animals can show differently on different days and in different arenas, and how where you finish on any one of those days matters less than how you’ve prepared.  At that moment, it was a life lesson that I needed to hear once again.

Over time, the fair has become less about the production of food and more about the consumption of it.  Surveys of fairgoers indicate “the food” is the most important reason for attending by far, and articles by outsiders usually end up focusing on the array and sheer number of edible offerings.

Some people don’t think you’ve done your fair duty if you don’t eat A, B, C, and on and on, sometimes in that specific order.  We don’t take that approach.  In fact, we realized after leaving this year that everything we ate was new to us.

We went old school, actually sitting down at real tables at a couple of food venues, including one of only two church dining halls still in existence.  At one time, there were more than fifty.  The plates and coffee cups were just like you would expect to find at a funeral lunch in a church basement.  More memories.

As usual, we took in the crop art exhibit and the fine arts show.  And, while we don’t ever spend much time walking around the hundreds of merchandise booths, we did make the obligatory stop to watch the woman hawking the mandoline vegetable sliders.  (Sue said she felt like getting in line even though she already had one.)

Every day at two o’clock, there is a parade at the fair.  This year, there were three marching bands among the giant animal statues and other entries.  The first was from Edgerton, a small town near Luverne that my dad loved and which I visited for the first time in years just a couple of weeks ago.  Then there was the band from the University of Minnesota (where my parents met and I graduated); Sue and I got so caught up in the energy of the band that we marched along with it for a couple of blocks and then cut over to see it again further on down the route.  Finally there was the Gold Star Marching Band of North Dakota State University, representing the school that means so much to so many members of my mom’s family.  (Go Bison!)  An emotional triad for me.

Over the years, we’ve seen some great musical groups perform at venues around the fair.  This year there was Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience (their version of “Saints” was a bit different than Larry Brakke’s dixieland one, but I still want to be in that number) and the Minneapolis group Humbird, which unbeknownst to us includes the son of friends we hadn’t seen in awhile.

What a day.  I’m already looking forward to next year.

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