Count twelve days back from Labor Day and you can always figure out the starting date of the Minnesota State Fair, the largest fair in the United States. Texans argue about that, of course, but I’ve seen both, and Minnesota’s is not only the biggest but also the best. Actually it wasn’t until I brought my child to the fair that I learned to see the fair properly. That was twenty-four years ago, and I now have two firm rules. First: travel the fair slowly and don’t try to see everything. Second: sitting on benches, eating, and watching people is acceptable fair-going! If you can accept these two guidelines, we can go together, at least in spirit!
First, let’s drive to the parking lot and take a bus shuttle. For me, that is where the fair stories start. Listen to everyone around you. We’ll be at the gate by 8 a.m.
First stop: coffee and hot chocolate! I head for the Farm Union Building, straight up from the Snelling entrance, stopping at the information booth to pick up a “Find Your Fabulous Fair Alphabet” game card. (If we collect two fair words for each letter of the alphabet, we can trade in the card for a blue ribbon!) Note: farm union! Enter the word “farm” on the game card by “F” and “union” on the line for “U.” (Be grateful. Words for the letter “u” are hard to come by.)
Now let’s head to the animal barns: Cows first, where we can sip coffee and watch Holsteins munch slowly, then on to the Poultry Building to hear the last morning cock-a-doodle-doos. Next is the Agriculture Building, where a glass of fresh-pressed apple cider is a must. Duck into the Small Vegetable Showcase room to see “the Longest Bean,” “the Largest Pumpkin,” and “the Very Best Zucchini.” Check on the day’s flower competition, which I hope is one of my favorites: Gladiola Day, or the Miniature Bouquet arrangements, or Peony Day. This building also showcases Minnesota’s seed art exhibition, a serious business in Minnesota. From Senator Al Franken to Elvis Presley, the portraits are meticulously spelled out in corn, millet, and a zillion other seeds you’ve never seen before. Don’t miss the array of vintage seed and corn cloth sacks on display on the wall, as well as the scarecrows that dot this area.
Exit North. Look up! Want a space needle ride? Is the heat getting to you? Then make a detour to the oldest ride at the fair: Ye Old Mill. Expect nothing fancy, but, as a boat carries you through a tunnel of cool water, relax enough to laugh at the absurd tiny troll dioramas that have not been altered in decades.
Emerge refreshed, and then head to the Creative Arts Building to see the hand-knitted sweaters, stitched quilts, and slices of cakes and cookies missing tiny bites where the judges took their tastes. Pick up a free pencil at the Education Building, then head north to the home of Minnesota’s 4-H club members. (There are swarms of 4-H participants living upstairs for their overnights at the fair.) Find out how many tablespoons of sugar are in a can of soda amid the dozens of project displays. Don’t miss one of the showtimes for the original musical created by 4-H high school students each year. This is my favorite live act at the fair, and times are listed at the information desk.
Right across the street from the Education Building, step under the tall trees decorated with letters. This is the Alphabet Forest, my home at the fair! Need any more words on that game card? Spin the wheel and win a word, toss bags for a word, or ask a famous Minnesota children’s author to loan you a word. All authors are ready to make a project with you and give autographs. You might find a host of Minnesota Book Award winners such as David LaRochelle, Lauren Stringer, Laura Purdie Salas, or Nancy Carlson, winner of the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Award. Chris Monroe and her mischievous star, Monkey with a Tool Belt, has been seen swinging through the trees at the Alphabet Forest! Young adult readers might meet some of our state’s Newbery Honor Medal winners including Joyce Sidman or Margy Prieus.
Wait, there’s more! Stir up a word in the Word Kitchen, make an alphabet necklace, or color a Ferris wheel of letters—everything is free! When you are ready, present your A-to-Z-filled game card to the red-aproned volunteer on the log cabin’s porch and receive your own 2014 blue ribbon to take home from the Minnesota State Fair!! Now step around to the photo booth at the back of the cabin and spell out your name with the giant fair letters. Snap a photo to send to your friends and family.
Pick up another game card if you want, as we’ve barely begun. Go slowly, sit often, eat a lot, and watch the people. When you are ready, there is the Art Building to see, the Pet Show, the Eco Building—and don’t miss visiting the campers and tractors on display. Be sure to check out the Midway rides, both Kid Way and the wild Big Midway, where there are also games. Pick up a home-improvement gadget, see the hawks swoop at the DNR building, and try food on a stick. An entire alphabet of unbelievable foods and sights on sticks awaits: Alligator, Ostrich, Walleye, Key Lime Pie, Falafel. Tired of sticks? Go straight for the roasted corn on the cob, across from the grandstand. If you don’t want butter, you have to shout, “no butter!” and a steaming ear of corn will be peeled and handed to you.
During the State Fair, I can usually be found checking game cards at the Alphabet Forest. In 2014, we will be celebrating our fifth year of serving up words to fairgoers. Come find me before 8 p.m., because after that I head off to the Minnesota State Fair Camp-ground, where I actually live in a borrowed trailer for twelve days. At the campground, we shower in the restrooms built into the base of the giant water tower. At 10 p.m., when you might be watching the fireworks from the grandstand, a crowd of us stands in our pajamas, holding our toothbrushes and watching the sky sparkle with proof that another day at the fair has ended.
I hope to meet you at the Minnesota State Fair this year. Look for me somewhere between A and Z, and remember what we say at the Alphabet Forest: “Leave the fair with more words than you brought!”