Off the Record: Is the Great Minnesota Get-Together seeing too much togetherness?

It has been a few decades since I last visited the Minnesota State Fair. Back then the only food you could get on a stick was a Pronto Pup or a caramel apple. The Dairy Booth passed out brochures decrying the dangers of colored oleo, and the Minnesota Pork Producers Association auxiliary ladies still called themselves the Porkettes.

I remember taking the bus down Snelling Avenue on Kid’s Day with $2 in my pocket and having enough money for bus fare to get home. (My wife can’t believe we could do that back then without getting kidnapped or killed.) My brother and I would head to the Peter’s Weiner’s booth for 10¢ hot dogs and then hit the dairy booth for all the milk we could drink. We’d have money for a bag of mini doughnuts, a ride on Ye Olde Mill and spend the rest of the day looking at cows and pigs, listening to the spiel of the guys selling fancy cookware and heading over the the WCCO Radio booth to see our heros, Charlie Boone and Roger Erickson.

We thought the fair was kind of crowded then, but this year the State Fair set an attendance record, breaking 2 million visitors for the first time. That’s an average of nearly 167,000 people a day for the 12-day run. Attendance hit over 270,000 people on the second Saturday.

Now the fairgrounds are huge, but cramming over a quarter of a million people within the gates is bound to make things feel a little cramped.

I’m wondering if the State Fair is becoming like the restaurant in New York about which Yogi Berra once said, “No one goes there nowadays­, it’s too crowded.”

Of course, people-watching is one of the great attractions of the fair. You see people of all shapes and sizes, all creeds and colors, all united in the search for one goal — a bucket of Sweet Martha’s Cookies. In fact, the people-watching can best be accomplished standing in line at Sweet Martha’s for 45 minutes.

I can’t blame the State Fair for celebrating its record accomplishment. The people who enter the gate make it the commercial success that it is. Exhibitors and vendors love having huge lines of people wandering by, all primed and ready to fork over cash for whatever they are selling. That’s how Sweet Martha makes enough money to retire on each year in 12 days of frantic baking and selling.

Big crowds are also a good thing on the Midway. There is such a thing as safety in numbers as you walk past all the carnies trying to lure you in to try to win a stuffed bear at their rigged games. My brother has red hair, and he was always singled out — “Hey, Red! Hey, Red! C’mere! Knock over the bottles and win a prize! Only a dollar!” But if you are in the midst of a crowd you can glide on by unnoticed until you get to the rides.

I’m glad the fair is doing well. But I may not go back until I’m old enough to scoot around on one of those Rascals, beeping my horn and ramming people who get in my way. That’s the only way to deal with big crowds.

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Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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