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Dorothy Coyle's 10,000 Ribbons
By Tom Robertson
August 25, 2000
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Before the homemade bread-and-butter pickles, patchwork quilts, and gooseberry jams are exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair, some stiff competition has already taken place at the county level. For some county fair exhibitors, like northern Minnesota resident Dorothy Coyle, fair time is the time to harvest blue ribbons. Coyle has earned thousands of awards for her knitting and culinary skills.

Award-Winning Recipes
See Dorothy's recipes for sugar cookies, ginger snaps, and rhubarb jam.
RURAL CASS LAKE RESIDENT Dorothy Coyle is no slouch when it comes to impressing county fair judges with her handiwork. Ever since she got first prize for a sweater in 1966, Coyle's been hooked on county fair competition. She bakes, knits and crafts as many as 200 entries per fair, and usually enters three or four fairs each summer. Her entries have won her plenty of awards - grocery bags full of them.

"One day I counted ribbons. And I had, well, I didn't quite have 10,000, but then I remembered I had left a couple of bags in Florida, that I had taken to Florida," Coyle recalls with a laugh. "And so I'm sure I've won over 10,000. But that day - I counted 9,747 ribbons that day. But over 100 of those are grand champion ribbons."

Dorothy Coyle
Rural Cass Lake resident Dorothy Coyle sits among some of more than 10,000 ribbons she estimates she has won at Minnesota fairs. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Coyle is also a master in the kitchen. She's making sugar cookies for the Clearwater County Fair, using a recipe that's earned her first prize many times. But this batch will be her last for county fairs in Minnesota. Coyle's moving to Florida, where she's wintered for many years.

"Oh, I'll miss it terribly bad. And the thing of it is, it gives you an incentive to, you know, a lot of people, you start projects and you never finish them. And this gives you the incentive to finish what you start. And not only that, if you make a mistake... and you think, oh, I'm going to take that to the fair, I'd better make it better. So then you rip it out. You do it over, you do it perfect."

Coyle, a tall, chestnut-haired grandmother who likes to keep her age a secret, says there are hundreds of people out there like her - diligent craftsmen and craftswomen who spend their summers picking wild blueberries, chokecherries and high bush cranberries to prepare jams and jellies they hope will be called the best. She says the camaraderie with her fellow exhibitors is one of the best things about fair time.

"Oh yes, there's wonderful competition. That's what makes it fun. That's what makes it wonderful. And they're wonderful, fun people to see every year. You look forward to seeing them every year," Coyle says.

Dorothy Coyle's Poem
This is an excerpt of a poem Dorothy Coyle wrote several years ago.

This year Fritz and I went to the fair.
We had made things with infinite care.
I made bread and cake fluffy and light.
Canned pickles, jam, jelly and fruit,
Knit and crocheted things I thought would suit.
Then painted a bright picture or two,
And made baby quilts lovely and new.
I arranged flowers in vases bright,
And worked on crafts from morning 'til night.
To the fair we went hoping for fame,
As you can see the prizes came.
Purple and blue, red ribbons and white
Now you can see it made quite a sight.
Before the carnival rides are up and running at the Clearwater County Fair, before the big crowds arrive, Coyle and other exhibitors line up to register their entries. Coyle carries several boxes filled with coconut bars, butter cookies, juneberry jam and several knitted and crocheted garments.

When Coyle started entering things in county fairs nearly 35 years ago, she discovered that it was a way for her to make money - and to give it away. Though the typical monetary award for a grand champion cookie or jam is only about two dollars, Coyle says many years she's earned more than a thousand. Most she gives to her church or other charities. Her fair entries go to family and friends.

Coyle recently sold her home, and for now, she'll retire from fair competition. Next week, she'll pack up whatever fits in her car, and drive to Key West, Florida.

"But I don't go to the Key West Fair, because they give ribbons, that's all."

The grand champion awards Coyle will keep as mementos. But those bagfuls of thousands of blue ribbons will not go to waste. Coyle is donating them back to the county fairs, where they'll be recycled to other winners.