The Evolution of the Minnesota State Fair

How 4-H kids run the show.

Minnesota State Fair performers

The milk at the Minnesota State Fair is ice cold with a thick mustache-forming layer of foam on top, and you can drink as much of it as you’d like for a dollar. It quenches thirst like water, especially after you’ve eaten a dozen warm, soft-centered cookies. My third and final glass is served to me by a beauty queen—one of the 12 finalists in the Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant. When they are not busy having their heads sculpted in 90-pound blocks of butter, these beauty queens are everywhere, reminding fair-goers of the wholesomeness of dairy with an evangelical fervor.

They represent just one of the many interests on the 320-acre fairground. The grounds are organized around a few large buildings—like the barns, the grandstand, and the education and agriculture buildings—and in between, like candies in a bowl, sit the vendors’ multicolored stands. They bear names as bright as their facades: Spaghetti Village, Bayou Bob’s Gator Shack, Wild Bill’s Curly Fries, Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, Monty’s Traveling Reptile Show, Deep Fried Cheese Curds, Flowering Onions, Custard’s Last Stand, and the AFL-CIO House of Labor.

The foods from these booths drip with grease or butter and sometimes both, and unless they are served on a stick, as 48 conveniently are, they are best consumed sitting down. This is more of a challenge than it may seem, since every seating area is already taken by the elderly and the obese. From their seats, over the tops of tents and trees, visitors can occasionally see the airborne victims of the fair’s two most expensive rides: the Slingshot, which is exactly what its name says—a bungee cord, stretched to the ground between two 142-foot posts, to which two riders are harnessed and released skyward at 100 miles per hour—and the Skyscraper, a 165-foot pinwheel with freely rotating seats at each end, which spins its riders at vomit-inducing speeds.

These two rides signal the entrance to the midway, the fair’s carnival grounds. With its offensive colors and overlapping carnival-ride soundtracks, strolling through the midway is like taking a walking tour of one’s own headache, and I avoid it, other than the obligatory journalistic walk-through. Its visitors are mostly small bands of tweens and tired parents dragging distracted children with one hand and toting oversized stuffed animals in the other. I take shelter in the barns out of earshot of the mangled carnie noises.

Urban types are often scared off by the barns’ prevalent odor—a mixture of unwashed flesh and soiled straw—but I admire the economy of creatures that make meal, bed, and toilet out of the same batch of hay. Least offensive of all the animals are the rabbits, who share their barn with the fussy and constantly clucking chickens. The rabbits lie quietly stretched across the backs of their cages or balled in corners, out of the reach of their viewers. They don’t respond to a finger wiggled between the bars of their cages.

This apathy is characteristic of the barnyard animals. Cows and swine hardly flinch at human touch. The sheep, adorned in Klan-like white robes and hoods that protect their wool, bottleneck in a corner whenever someone enters their enclosure. The goats are the only animals that regard their viewers with a canine curiosity, mounting the fronts of their pens to greet visitors. Goats are said to be intelligent, and perhaps this cockiness is due to their awareness that they, along with the horses, are just about the only animals exhibited at the fair whose future does not lie a few yards away, deep-fried on the end of a stick.

The fair, which makes such a glorious display of the source and the final form of our meals, is mum on the process that connects the two, and the event’s one glaring absence is a slaughterhouse. On the road beside the cow and swine barns, you can purchase a foot-long hot dog, a corn dog, a pork-chop sandwich, a cheeseburger, a taco, shredded pork, and ribs. The farm kids, to whom most of the animals belong and who show them in the fair’s 4-H competitions, hold no illusions about their animals’ fates. They go about tending their animals with an economical detachment and leave the oohing and the aahing to their nonrural visitors.

I am one of these suburban know-nothings, and I expose my ignorance to a helpful farm kid named Burch when I ask him the name of his speckle-faced sheep. Burch’s sheep doesn’t have a name, and neither do most of the other animals in the barn. A 9-year-old named Ryan, whose brother is showing a pig, explains to me the exception: “People only usually name boars, because they have the semen, and that’s how they make babies.”

Kids like Ryan and Burch are easily approachable and happy to chat. So are their elders—plainly handsome men and women who converse in twos and threes while grooming their animals. A farmer named Doug Pamp welcomes my approach, first providing all manner of information about the sheep he is shearing, before turning to his farm, the fair, the war in Iraq, illegal immigration, and the meaning of America. He releases me half an hour later with an aching hand and four notebook pages scribbled with illegible notes on the ideal shape of a sheep.

Pamp has attended the fair regularly since 1957, and it has evolved in those 50 years. “The old grizzled showmen like myself are gone,” he claims. The fair “used to be much more rural. This is a city fair, not a country or a farm fair anymore.” He points me toward Machinery Hill as an example of this change. In Pamp’s youth, the hill was the place to see the latest farm technologies. Today, the John Deeres and grain silos are still on display, but it is mostly a showcase for car dealers to display the latest models from Ford and Dodge and Chevy.

Pamp’s nostalgia isn’t a criticism of the present fair: Unlike the days of his youth, when most farmers were lucky to have finished the eighth grade, most of today’s are college-educated, and because of improvements in breeding, “the sheep we showed 50 years ago wouldn’t even show up today.” He sees the fair as an opportunity for nonrural Minnesotans to reconnect with the agricultural past that nearly all of them share. And, perhaps most important, it is an opportunity to educate and motivate Minnesota’s young farmers. “We need to make sure we’ve got the next generation,” he says.

Based on my observation of the 4-H kids, I think it is safe to venture that for them, the fair is still the farming exhibition that it was when Doug Pamp was a child. The carnies drift to whatever fair beckons next; the nonrural visitors leave with stomachaches. The farm kids eschew these temptations. They dabble in the fair food but also bring lunches from home. In years of attendance, many have never even been on a ride; the best review I can get from a farm kid is a shrug for the bumper boats from a 13-year-old steer-owning boy named Garrett. In their free time, which Ryan’s mother, Pam, assures me they have little of, the kids sit in circles in empty pens, playing cards or games like Farm-Opoly. Given the setting, with not one but two video arcades a short walk away, it is astonishing to see youngsters with the temperaments to shuffle and deal a deck of cards. In their appearance, they are barely distinguishable from the fair’s other attendees: They wear checkered Vans and Death Cab for Cutie T-shirts. Pamp says that “urban versus rural isn’t as different as it was 50 years ago.” What’s remarkable is not so much that the kids don’t pursue the deep-fried candy bars and the Slingshot, but rather that they choose not to.