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News & Features
The Fair's Urban Campground
By William Wilcoxen
August 24, 2000
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A swan song of summer gets underway today as the 2000 edition of the Minnesota State Fair opens at the grounds in Falcon Heights. The fair's popularity can make transportation and parking a challenge in the area for the 12 days of the fair. Some visitors and exhibitors avoid traffic headaches by camping at the fair.

ONE REASON MINNESOTANS love their state fair so much is because it's a treat for the senses. Visitors can bask in the sounds of clucking chickens, frying foods, midway barkers, and punchy polka bands.

But before they do that most of them will put up with the sounds and smells and heat of idling vehicles waiting to get to the fairgrounds. Whether they're riding a bus, waiting for a shuttle, or searching for a cheaper front-yard parking space, most fairgoers will find that getting to the fair is not one of the day's highlights. But some fair-lovers and fair workers beat the commute by walking to the festivities from the campground on the northeast end of the fairgrounds. Frank DeSleer of Marshall, who works as a ticket taker at the fair says he and his wife Helen wouldn't stay anywhere else.

"Oh, I wouldn't even attempt to do this if we couldn't camp here. We came two days early so we'd get a spot. We've been here since Monday monrning just so we'd have a spot for on Thursday," DeSleer said.

Campground Superintendent Virgil Karl says quite a few of the 420 campsites are occupied by visitors from small towns seeking to avoid the crowded and unfamiliar streetscape of the neighborhood. But he says there's no single type of camper.

"We've got anyplace from a little pup tent on up to big campers. We've got concessionaires here, we've got Mr. and Mrs. out-of-town people here for the state fair and their family. Some people bring in a motor home and Dad and Mom use it one weekend, the kids use it the next weekend. So we've got quite a cross-section of life here, actually."

Many campers come back year after year and recognize one another. Phil Gibson drives up from Scottsdale, Ariz. to sell his jewelry at a booth in Heritage Square.

"We know half the people in here. It's the same year after year. And a lot of people here are not here to work at the fair, they're here to see the fair. And they come every year. This guy next to me, he's here every year; there's another fellow two down from me. One fellow's been here 23 years. I shook hands with him last night. He's from way out. He's from way up in Dakota and he comes in," he said.

Gibson says the sense of community makes the fairgrounds a good place to camp and despite the proximity to the clamor of the fair, he says the campsites offer a valuable bit of peace and quiet during a hectic couple of weeks. He says his only concern is the fire risk of placing the various campers, trailers, motor homes, and tents so close together. But superintendent Karl says there's a fire marshall on the premises for safety.

As camping goes, the fairgrounds are a far cry from the Boundary Waters. These campers want it convenient, not rustic. Thelma Kasdor, who helps run two novelty stands near the haunted house, is with a party of six camped in two tents and a van. Taking in a talk show behind a mosquito net, Kasdor says she appreciates the laundry, showers, and electricity at the campground.

"It's not out there roughing it like everybody thinks camping is, because we have the microwave, we've got the cooker, the oven and the toaster. We've got pretty near everything at home. We're at home. This is our home on wheels," Kasdor said.

When they leave Falcon Heights, Kasdor and her group will hit fairs in Hutchinson, Kan., Oklahoma City and Dallas, before returning to their stationary home in Chicago. But there are also more spontaneous campers. Dan Walbridge is a first-timer who came down in his motor home from Mounds View on the spur of the moment in search of adventure.

"I saw it on the news yesterday and I said 'I've gotta go do that.' I didn't have nothing else to do and I like the state fair and I just wanted to come down and see the people and see what goes on and camp out," Walbridge said.

Walbridge said he planned on finding work at the fair, and said he already had two offers. He was undecided about whether to earn his next wages in a kitchen or on the midway. But for the next 12 days his residence will be one of the 420 campsites off of Snelling Avenue at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.