Three-hundred-sixty days a year, this hillside is an ordinary hillside. Full of unmown grass and unchecked groves of old growth trees. Five days out of the year though, Hennepin County descends on this place and turns it into something grand. The striped canvas canopies go up, the rides are erected, and the livestock are unloaded into their sawdust-floored tent. Funnel cakes and corn dogs are fried, and the air is filled with music, mud, and aromas of all kinds.
Twine goes up in horizontal lines to demark parking spaces. Signs appear on the two-lane county highways surrounding the grounds. The majority of people in the county, being city-dwellers, don’t notice. But the most talented bakers, quilters, musicians, and demolition drivers from Hennepin County converge on this park in Corcoran to show off their skills and wares, and to be judged by their peers. Teenagers come from far and wide around the area to preen, to parade, and to pretend they don’t know their whole world is watching them.
The county fair is a microcosm of Americana in the Midwest. By daylight, the respectable elders showcase their learned skills and crafts to the universal admiration of one and all, while the kids pet goats and eat mini-donuts. Then, once the sun goes down and the faux calliope on the carousel starts up, all of our progeny line up to be happily loaded into an iron cage by a mustachioed man and hurled into the night in every direction, against all the advice we’ve given them (and remember, this is in contrast to the demolition derby drivers). By night, there are all kinds of unsavory joys – mud, beer, rock and roll, cotton candy. There is an unspoken element of the unsafe in a county fair. Something that harkens back to ages ago, it may be a horticultural gathering place for the families of the county, but it still has an air that might just seduce your son to run away with the traveling circus.
I once met a girl who later ended up running away with a carny from the state fair midway. I never really understood why until I went to the Hennepin County Fair for the first time. There is in fact a romantic element to the fair (by which I refer to number 4a in the Merriam-Webster definition). The exhibitions and petting zoos are contrasted with the traveling people who turn it into a spectacle. Without the carnival aspect, it’s just a quilting bee. With them, it becomes an event. It is impressive to imagine that these people, these travelers, create this much awe and wonder from an ordinary hillside wherever they go, and to want to imagine we can become such catalysts for adventure ourselves.
I am old enough to know better. I have moved beyond the barking and preening, and I am comfortable not creating awe wherever I go. I am content to pet the goats and I am impressed by the ribbons on the jelly jars. My fiancée, as it turns out, makes the best corn relish in Hennepin County. We found this out last summer, when an impartial panel of judges bestowed a ribbon and a very proletarian $8 prize on her. The eight bucks I’m sure we spent on beer, or produce, or maybe a movie ticket, but the fact that the relish came in first is something we’ve yet to grow tired of. I myself entered some of my Swedish Rye Bread this year, and Octoberfest Mustard, and Maple Nut-Brown Ale, just because I can, and for zero dollars, it’s the best price for feedback.
But what I’m really going to the fair for is the demolition derby. It’s the mustachioed man loading kids into the “Kami-Kaze” ride. It’s the sitting under the big tent with a beer and a corn dog imagining how peaceful this hillside normally is, and what we degenerates have done with it. And yes, it’s for coming home with mud on every bit of my clothing and not being even the least bit sorry. Because I’m not one of the respectable elders yet, and I won’t act like one until I earn that blue ribbon.