In the Spotlight

News & Features
Let the fair begin
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
August 23, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

The 142nd Minnesota State Fair opens Thursday for its annual 12-day run. This year's fair features some old standards such as mini-donuts, crop judging, farm machinery and lots of livestock. But there are some new arrivals at this year's Great Minnesota Get-Together.

One of the robots which will appear at the State Fair's newest attraction - Robot Combat. It features robots with chains, saws and hammers, laying waste to whatever the organizers throw into the ring.
See more images from the fair.
THE FAIR STARTED IN 1859 AS AN EXPOSITION FOR AGRICULTURE and rural life. Over time the fair has changed. For instance, where Machinery Hill used to be home to a sprawling exhibition of farm implements, this year fairgoers will go there to see the newest addition to the fair - something called Robot Combat. Essentially, Robot Combat features remote-controlled robots with spinning chains, drills, hammers and saws laying waste to other robots, old computers and whatever else organizers throw in the ring.

At a machinery shop in Mound, Robot Combat organizer Jon Vandervelde describes one of the fair's newest exhibits as an exposition of "intelligent destruction."

"It seems to me that the smash-up derbies, the auto racing, the monster trucks, they're almost there - but not quite. People want to see purposely built things that are going to crash together and compete against each other. And this is it," says Vandervelde.

Robot Combat will join other recent additions to the state fair, like a new sky ride, a new entertainment fair for teens, and something called the Miracle of Birth center, where, with some luck, fairgoers can see farm animals give birth. Beyond these few additions, fairgoers will see much of what they've seen for the past decades.

One quintessential mainstay is the Tom Thumb mini-donut stand, which has been at the fair for 51 years. The mini-donut machine was invented just after World War II by aviation engineers looking for a niche in the peacetime economy. They cobbled together parts and motors and created a machine that makes doughnuts - 36 per minute to be exact. Bob Everett, president of the Tom Thumb Mini Donut Corp., has worked at the mini-donut stand every fair except one for the last 31 years.

"Nowadays you have to have something brand new somebody hasn't thought of. Because they don't like to have multiple things in here. They have a few to take care of the crowds, mini-donuts, corn dogs, pronto pups or whatever. They spread that out a little bit. But then after that, it gets quite unique," says Everett.

One year blooming onions made it into the fair, another year it was fried green tomatoes. This year there's a new food offering - deep-fried candy bars.

"It looks like a corn dog, acts like a corn dog, but it certainly doesn't taste like a corn dog," says Rodney Rose, one of the workers who runs the stand.

"There's a special batter, a sweet batter that we use. We put a stick through the candy bar first and then we dip it in the batter, and we deep fry it for about two minutes. Lo and behold, a deep fried candy bar is born!" says Rose.

For all those fairgoers who go to see and eat what's new, there are just as many who go to see the fair's traditional agricultural exhibits, such as crop competitions. Farmers from around the state send samples of their best produce to the fair for inspection by a team of judges. Ron Kelsey is superintendent of corn judging.

"In Minnesota we have a ten-ear sample of corn. The important thing is to try to find ten ears of corn that are uniform in length. Also uniformity in how well the ear is filled out on both ends, as far as the kernels are concerned. The straightness of the rows of kernels will be looked at, and general uniformity of color and maturity on these ears," says Kelsey.

For now, exhibitors are preparing their stands for 1.7 million people and 12 days of intense action, followed by another 353 of anticipation before the 2002 fair. The State Fair runs from August 23 through Labor Day.

And Robot Combat will run every day, at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.