FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. (WCCO) — Every year, the buzz surrounding the Minnesota State Fair focuses mainly on the new things — the new rides, the new attractions, the new booths, the new green technologies, the new things on a stick. Oh, and obviously, the dozens of new food items that seem to pop up with each passing year.
But if nostalgia is the main thing that keeps people coming back to the Great Minnesota Get-Together year in, year out (hint: it is), then it’s the old standbys that fair organizers have to thank for attracting record-breaking crowds.
Here is a list of five of our very favorite things that draw people to the fair even if they themselves couldn’t really give you a rational reason why, which is naturally part of the appeal. You do these things because you just do.
Ye Old Mill
If there’s anything whose appeal seems strictly based in tribute to the spirit of tradition, it’s Ye Old Mill. It’s spelled right out in a banner currently displayed on the broad side of the barn-shaped building: “A tradition in every ride.” And there have been plenty of them since 1913, when the giant wheel-churned river ride first debuted at the fair. Now residing at Carnes Avenue and Underwood Street, the owners now sell it as a piece of history the whole family can enjoy, though it clearly retains some of its “tunnel of love” aura. Listen closely on your dark ride and you might hear someone getting fresh. And then quickly slapped.
Space Tower / Skyride
The Mighty Midway gets all the teen thrill seekers. The Giant Slide attracts families with an urge to take out their latent aggressions on each other via potato sack race. But the two not-to-be-missed institutions for those who were weaned on the State Fair are the Space Tower (though some of us still insist on referring to it as the “Space Needle”) and the Skyride. Residing right next to each other at the intersection of Cooper and Cosgrove Streets, they debuted back-to-back — the Skyride in 1964 and the Space Tower the year after. Both remain endearing relics of the Space Age, even though any given ride in the Kidway probably offers a bigger adrenaline rush these days.
Alabama concerts at the Grandstand
Built in 1909 (the bleachers were razed and renovated 10 years ago), the Grandstand has hosted demolition derbies, horse races, beauty pageants, political stump speeches, staged train wrecks (!) and talent show finals. None of them can lay quite the claim on the building that country stalwarts Alabama can. In the span of only 13 years, the band rocked Minnesotans 18 times. Seems odd that the Great Minnesota Get-Together would be so enthralled by Alabama, but there it is. The closest runners up include Willie Nelson with 11 appearances between 1962 and 2011, the Oak Ridge Boys with 10, the Beach Boys with 9, and Ray Komischke’s State Fair Orchestra with 8 (not including the many appearances they’ve made at the Leinie Lodge).
Want to relive the really, reallyearly days of the State Fair? Want to see what generations of fairgoers who long ago passed away used to consider their favorite fair traditions? Head over to Heritage Square. Constructed in 1975, the hidden-away corner serves as a living museum for all things fair-related. Old train cars? Check. Moldy old marching band costumes? Check. Politically incorrect signs for the old freak show attractions? Check and check again.
For anyone who grew up going to the fair, the scariest, most thrilling rides have always served as a rite of passage. For many in my generations, there was nothing more daunting (but, ultimately, more gleefully surmountable) than the two-story Haunted House, which for decades now has beckoned shriek-happy children with its Jolly Roger flags, its incessant fog machine haze and those photogenic but sadly inanimate skeletons hanging from every window. (Though I have to admit, I personally haven’t recovered from the new paint job, switching ghastly white for mundane maroon.)