Fair superfan Doug Mack reflects on the loss of a singular event where entertainment and state pride collide and the biggest celebrities are carved out of butter.
When I was a kid, the Minnesota State Fair meant, more than anything else, the intersection of mini donuts and Christmas trees. I mean intersection in the literal, streetscape sense—in the middle of the fairgrounds, there’s a corner where a canary-yellow Tom Thumb Mini Donuts stand sits across the street from the display of award-winning Christmas trees at the Horticulture Building. And right there, where cinnamon sugar and fir mingle with the rest of the fair’s smellscape, my family would meet my friend Zach’s family on a weekend morning, once a year.
The trees were a convenient landmark, centrally located but removed from the crowds. We’d buy our mini donuts—there was a discount if you got three bags, so we would—and stand on the corner, planning the rest of our day while eating and wiping our sticky fingers on the stand’s flimsy napkins. The parents wanted to see the crafts, the kids wanted to go on some rides, everyone wanted to see the animal barns. Once us kids were old enough, we were allowed to go off on our own. Zach and I always made a point of watching the sports highlights videos at the University of Minnesota booth, not just for the athletic thrills but also for the air conditioning and quiet of the tiny theater. In those years before cell phones, we’d arrange a time and a place to meet up again; it was usually two or three hours later at the River Raft. This was our fair finale. We piled into one of the circular bumper-boat contraptions and zoomed down the river, water spraying everywhere, hands and feet instinctively dodging each splash while our seat-belted butts got thoroughly soaked, which inevitably led to mild embarrassment as we walked back to the bus.
Zach’s family moved to the suburbs when we were in elementary school and we both eventually went away to college. Our lives diverged and we didn’t see each other as often. But we always met up at the fair—Christmas trees, mini donuts, the rest TBD but guaranteed to be a highlight of our summer, filling some fundamental if unspoken need.
If life is a pathway—an original metaphor, I know—then its component events fall into three categories. There are the landscapes of our everyday routines, thick with familiar scenes and faces. There are the landmarks like weddings and funerals and graduations, the biggest highs and lows, spread out at irregular intervals. And then there are the guideposts, routine but not that frequent, things we anticipate well in advance, over and over and over.
The Minnesota State Fair is one of my guideposts, an essential annual rite spanning twelve days at the end of August and the beginning of September. My wife and I timed our wedding, in part, so that out-of-towners could attend it. I once delayed major surgery so that I could go without being too hobbled. In my entire life, I’ve missed it just once, when I was in Europe doing research for a book and I simply couldn’t make the timing work in any other way. My parents, fair loyalists themselves, printed photos of me and put them on sticks so that I could be included in the requisite group pics with family and friends.
This year, the year of the pandemic, the Minnesota State Fair is canceled. I’ve been thinking about it more than ever.
Here’s what I love about the Minnesota State Fair: everyone there is both a wide-eyed tourist and a jaded local, often in the course of just a few minutes. It’s equal parts familiar and entirely exotic, but the way that breaks down depends entirely on the person. It’s a universe unto itself—to go there is to take a journey, to travel, even if you live across the street—with a million different meanings.
I always make a point of visiting the animal barns, because while I’m familiar with the basic concept of farming, I’m a city-dweller through and through, and I don’t know many of the specifics beyond the stuff you learn as a toddler: sheep go “baa,” horses eat hay, corn grows tall. I watch the 4-H kids in grubby rubber boots washing their steers; I stop by the competition ring to see their peers in fresh-pressed polos showing their goats as dour judges examine every patch of fur with Sherlockian diligence. It conjures the same reactions as arriving in a new country halfway around the world: “Huh! That’s different! But cool! I wonder what those people are talking about!” Meanwhile, the other 4-H kids, the ones not actively working, play the part of the annoyed locals, rolling their eyes at the outsiders gawking at them. One person’s exotic is another person’s mundane, always.
I wonder, every time, what part of the fair is “exotic” to those teenagers, and how that feeling of being in an unfamiliar place differs even within their groups of peers making their way around the fair—which ones see the booth for the hip-hop radio station and instinctively rejoice or recoil, which ones seek out the unknown foods, which ones wait till dark and then get high and go to the Midway, which ones get up early on Sunday for church at the fair, which ones do all of that, or none.
Stand on a corner and watch the world pass by (the people-watching here is world-class). Consider: What makes the fair a guidepost for each person? What combination of foods and sights and activities make this experience complete? Tacos, Black Lives Matter booth, tractors, bunnies, crop art? Craft beer, PBS booth, GOP booth, rodeo, sustainable-living Eco Experience? It’s not entirely true that you’ll see every kind of Minnesotan here—it’s a gated community with an admission fee, which leaves out plenty of people—but I can’t think of anywhere else that comes as close to an idealized cross-section of the state. There’s a sense of egalitarianism, a taste of that ideal, which comes in part from the sheer amount of things on offer and the pitch-perfect blend of old-school traditions (hello, butter heads) and constant evolution (hello, much-anticipated annual list of the new foods), none of which takes center stage over the other. You can find nearly any pastime, cause, viewpoint, or Instagrammable novelty food here, and everyone’s eventually going to step in some cow poop. It’s kinda like the internet in that way.
In a nation where the term “real American” is too often defined in a narrow, constricting fashion, it’s refreshing to find a place where no single story dominates. A place where pretty much everyone understands, implicitly, that there are endless ways to be and things to appreciate, and that it’s just not that hard to view those differences as a joy, as essential. The fair defies curation or the best-laid plans—there are too many options, too many impromptu side trips you just have to make because something smells good or a parade gets in your way. The only way to appreciate it is to choose your own adventure, and this is one place in life where there’s no collectively-prescribed “right” way to do it. This is a place to both fill your longstanding interests and sample new ones. Pass the bucket of cookies and also is that a soukous band I hear? Let’s go check it out.
The fair has amusements, lots of them, but more than anything, it’s a celebration of Minnesota.
A key to all this is the fair is not an amusement park. It’s not Disney World, it’s not Universal Studios, it’s not built on a specific corporate brand or to synergize consumer interest in a cinematic universe. It has amusements, lots of them, but more than anything else, it’s a celebration of Minnesota, a showcase of its evolving cultures, industries, identities, and collective priorities. It’s easy to map yourself onto your surroundings, over and over. Here is the Education Building, with award-winning art and science projects from around the state, including a drawing by my friend’s middle-schooler. Here is the crop-art room, where you’ll often see my mom’s handiwork (true story; she usually wins a ribbon). Here is the food stand run by the Global Market, one of my favorite places to eat in Minneapolis. Here is the Fine Arts Building, which also hosts other events throughout the year, and where I sat on panel as part of the Twin Cities Book Festival. The lines between this fun-filled world and our lives beyond the gates are forever blurred. The fair is an accessible spectacle, a showcase of the workaday (butter heads, car dealerships) alongside the towering Ferris wheels and concerts by aging rock bands and B-list rap groups. By connecting with our lives, here and now, the fair transforms into something far more than the nostalgia zone that it can appear to be from the outside. It’s not just goofball summer fun. It’s a living record of who we are at this moment and where we’re going together, a mirror of our lives far more potent and accurate than the animatronic metaphors of It’s a Small World.
I have my own young kids now and we have our own routine. It still starts with mini donuts, but it also includes the little pretend farm (where my city kids ride a pedal tractor and feed real corn to fake chickens and get a bag of gummy candies at the end), and the old-school photo booth for a family picture (which we keep, in chronological order, on the refrigerator), and the Giant Slide (which the kids whoosh down with absolute glee; you have never seen smiles like that), after which my wife and I share an order of jalapeño cheese curds from the neighboring stand.
I think about that routine, and the fact that we won’t be doing it this year, and my heart aches. That guidepost would be especially useful this year, firmly closing the summer before my oldest daughter starts kindergarten. I miss the family photo, the shrieks on the slide, the new things we’d find and eat, the pages in my mental scrapbook that won’t be filled. (Maybe this would have been the year we finally made it to the llama costume contest?)
But what I miss about the State Fair in this year of pandemic isn’t just my personal story but the knowledge that so many others are being written around me in real time. I’ll miss looking around and seeing all those people—more than 200,000 attend on many weekend days—and thinking about how many different experiences they’re having, how many identity-defining checklists are being ticked off throughout the day. The absence of the fair creates more than just many solitary voids. It also leaves a gaping, collective hole made up of lives and experiences that rarely overlap aside outside of this specific place.
This year, while the fair is canceled, some elements will remain, in a revised form. The butter heads must go on (by video), of course, and fair officials have set up a drive-through event featuring sixteen food stands, although I didn’t even bother to try for tickets (which sold out in about two hours). While I appreciate the effort, it provides neither the routine nor the spontaneity that give the fair its essential energy.
To miss the Minnesota State Fair is to miss that funhouse-mirror world that is both entirely removed from reality and entirely part of it, where the various cultures and quirks of the state are on full display, not necessarily “in it together” in a platitude sense but, nonetheless, jammed together, forced into each other’s bubbles, lives colliding, for hours on end. We contain multitudes, and at the State Fair, that truism is not just manifest but obvious, unavoidable. We won’t get to see it for ourselves this year; that guidepost is gone. All we can do is press on to the one that lies beyond our view. It hurts to miss out this time, but I’m eager to see what’s in store—for me, for you, for everyone—next summer.