The State Fair

 

Big bucks in 10 days

If you’ve never seen or tried a rainbow ice cream cone, it looks like it sounds, a big swirl made of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Mixed together like that, rainbow ice cream tastes like bubble gum.

2,000,000 potential ice cream customers

It was my first year at the Minnesota State Fair. I worked for my mother’s cousins, Barney and Jim Davis, who had been concessionaires at the Fair since 1927. Originally they sold chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream. Each day they ran out of one flavor or another. So, they asked a friend at Northland Dairy if he could make an ice cream combining all three flavors together. “Rainbow Ice Cream” was born at the Minnesota State Fair.

In the 1950s the Davis brothers had 25 small stands like mine in prime locations throughout the State Fairgrounds. My little 7 by 7 foot emporium was on Carnes Avenue less than a block from the entrance to the Midway. The street was always mobbed. I was selling rainbow ice cream, but I had a lot of competition. You name it, not just the usual fair stuff like cold drinks, beer, hot dogs, pizzas and cotton candy, but local ethnic treats like melted cheese curds or beer battered onion rings.

Bacon-wrapped turkey legs? Meatballs in a cone? Glazed pig cheeks? Really?

That’s nothing compared with today’s State Fair specialties, which include such delicacies as bacon-wrapped turkey legs, meatballs in a cone or glazed pig cheeks. For dessert, how about beer flavored gelato, chocolate covered jalapenos or deep fried Snickers bars?

Beer flavored gelato? Chocolate covered jalapenos? Deep fried Snickers bars? Yeah, really.

Rainbow ice cream was delivered to my stand each morning in cardboard containers, and packed with chunks of dry ice. My job was to scoop the stuff out and load it into cones. Sounds easy? Not first thing in the morning.

The ice cream was frozen solid. If you were able to muscle out a scoop, getting it into a cone without breaking it was the real challenge. My batting average was not great. I’m sure I broke and therefore discarded 50% of the cones I sold between the hours of 8:00 and 10:00 am.

OOPS!

Because there was no way to measure and thereby keep track of the ice cream we scooped, the Davis brothers charged us by the cone… which meant that every cone that I busted cost me money. Maybe I should have brought my own cones to the Fair.

Actually, I tried to be a sport. If a little kid dropped his cone on the ground he could always come back for a freebie, assuming he could provide the evidence. I was tough to con.

Later in the day the ice cream became soft and runny. It was a mess. Mothers demanded their money back, because the stuff had run down their kids’ arms and all over their “Go to the Fair” clothes. They had to settle for a freebie.

I hated rainbow ice cream. To this day I refuse to eat rainbow ice cream, even when it’s not all mixed together.

The Minnesota Fair was similar, I’m sure, to most state fairs. The fairgrounds were quite large and located on the outskirts of town. There were exhibits and competitions of all kinds, a grandstand for auto and/ or harness racing, topped off with a big evening extravaganza with square dancers, popular music stars and of course fireworks.

Minnesota’s Annual Show of Shows

Minnesota, like most fairs, featured farm animal and household pet competitions, usually exhibited by healthy looking 4H kids. It was all about winning ribbons. Hopefully the buyer would breed the animals, but they often wound up on some restaurant’s menu as “Blue Plate Specials”.

Blue Ribbon Competitors

You can’t have a fair without a “Midway,” (A carnival). The Minnesota State Fair had a big one with all the traditional rides, games and of course the side shows. The “carnie” people, as they were called, traveled from fair to fair depending on the season.

Rip-off? Sure, but it ain’t a Fair without a Midway.

“You keep away from those ‘gypsies’,” my mother called them, “they carry all kinds of diseases.”

Not this gypsy.

Actually most of the young ‘gypsies’ I met were just college girls working for their midway concessionaire parents between semesters. What made some of them look cheap was the make-up and costumes they had to wear in their acts. One particular young “gypsy,” who looked sorta like Vanessa Hudgens, used to hang out at my stand during breaks that first year. She was good for business and maybe a little more. I understand she later graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Animal Husbandry.

My biggest problem that first year was my location. People going to the Midway are in a big hurry to get there. Mobs passed my stand without buying no matter how hard I hustled. On the way back they had either eaten more than their fair share of junk food or blown all their change on those impossible-to-win ‘carnie’ games.

My neighbors

The next season I convinced my cousins to let me move to what proved to be a great location. My stand was a block further up the street on the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) Park across from the Commissary and the Sheep and Poultry buildings. It was also only a block from the Grandstand. Exhausted fairgoers would come to the park to eat their lunches or just hang out after hours of Fairgrounds wandering.

That guy, Butsy, sure loves his job.

My brother Gary (Butsy to family and friends) got his first ice cream stand just up the street near the merry-go-round a couple of years later. His stand was always surrounded by high school girls which must have been good for business, because he sold a lot of ice cream.

Actually, the Fair meant long hours, and we were on our feet all day. But it was big bucks for us ice cream salesmen. We could make more money in 10 days at the Fair than we made as lifeguards on Minneapolis beaches in a month.

After my first season, I decided no more rainbow for me. I switched to Eskimo Pies and caramel apples, perfect for dessert or an afternoon snack. Sure I still had some inventory problems. Ice cream on a stick can be tough to bite into early in the day and melt and fall apart later in the afternoon.

It was a management problem, however I found an easy way to extend the life of my dry ice cooling system. Sure, I had to write off some losses due to spoilage, but my net with Eskimo Pies far exceeded what I earned scooping rainbow ice cream, and was certainly less labor intensive.

Quick, before it melts!… Braces beware.

Caramel apples presented other problems however. I could deal with the customer who found a worm in his “Johnathan”; that too I wrote off as “spoilage.” Sometimes however, the caramel melted and peeled off too soon, and more than once some mother came screaming that her child had lost his retainer. I could see braces and tried to discourage those customers. “How about a ‘freebee’?” I would suggest waving a mother toward my Eskimo Pies. However, kids with retainers and certainly adults with dental bridges often slipped by me.

Anyway, in the five years I worked at the fair I had a few arguments but never a fight, or a threatened lawsuit. I learned a lot about the sales business that paid off in later years. The customer was and always will be “right” in my book… Well, almost always.

The Challenge

Mine for 10 days a year… You betcha!

Helen Halvorsen was a nice girl from St. Paul. Her parents operated an open air restaurant across the way in the Commissary Building. She was cute and peppy and looked a lot like Deanna Durbin. We were a number, at least during the ten days we worked shouting distance from one another during “Fair Week.”

“Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun… “

We tried to time our half hour breaks to spend together. There wasn’t much to do but wander around the fairgrounds, maybe stopping in from time to time at the Beer Garden to watch Whoopee John and the Six Fat Dutchmen play Polka music. Helen loved to Polka, however I was never much of a dancer, and certainly never learned to Polka.

Apart from those walking breaks, our romance was pretty much confined to eye contact the first couple of years. Later, on the few occasions I could take a family car to the fair, her over-protective father let me drive her “straight home” to their place in St. Paul. Of course there was the time she saved my life…

One day late in my second season at my stand at the park, I was approached by a mean looking customer, claiming I had short-changed his child. He insisted that he had given his son a twenty dollar bill to pay for an Eskimo Pie, and I had only given the kid change for a five. It was early in the day, and I had taken in only small bills. A twenty dollar bill back then was like a hundred dollar bill today.

“Where’s my change?”

I showed him my paper money, everything I had with me. No twenty dollar bill. Nevertheless, he demanded the change he claimed he was due. I was new in the business, and he was big and loud and very insistent. Things were heating up, and a crowd was gathering. This being a fair and what with its ‘carnie’ associated reputation, I was perceived to be the villain in this brouhaha. Nevertheless I knew I was in the right, and the balance he was demanding would have to come out of my own pocket.

After what was becoming a really loud confrontation the big guy reached across and grabbed onto my shirt, literally pulling me up onto the counter. Sure, as a kid I had a few boyhood scrapes, but nothing like this.

Helen sent.

Then another voice, a loud one, asked “What’s the trouble here?” It was one of the men from Helen’s dad’s restaurant across the way, and he had a couple more guys in aprons with him. Helen must have seen what was going on. The crowd around the booth moved back anticipating a big confrontation.

“This man thinks I short-changed him. I didn’t.” I explained to Helen’s chef.

Turning back to my antagonist, Helen’s guy, recognizing a scam was in progress, suggested the man move on. After a prolonged stare-down and then with nothing more than a shrug of his shoulders, the guy turned and walked away.

The chef explained that I had come close to being the victim of an old dodge. He assured me that the word would get out to other such would-be-con-men to find their next “mark” elsewhere.

With that, he and his fellow cooks went back to work with a box of Eskimo Pies for the whole kitchen staff. I could have proposed to my love Helen right there on the spot. The word must have gotten around because I never again had a hassle of that sort at the Minnesota State Fair.

Mustard Gas Attack

Heaven sent?

Our bosses at the Fair, Barney and Jim Davis, ran a tight ship. My brother and I had our own free-standing units. We may have been relatives, but we played by the rules.

Minnesotans have been lucky. They seem to have picked the right time of year, late August, to have their State Fair. But one Sunday their luck ran out. The weather gods refused to play by the rules.

I will never forget that morning in August when the big thunder storm hit the Fairgrounds. The day started out clear and beautiful, and the attendance was predicted to be over 200,000. Sure there were a few clouds on the horizon, but nothing to get stressed over. By 10:00 however the clouds began to close in and thicken up. When that happens in Minnesota you can bet there’s a storm on its way.

Any place in a storm, but please not at the Fair.

It hit the Fairgrounds around noon, and poured heavily for what must have been three hours. Unprepared as most Fair visitors were, people were taking cover everywhere. They were not a happy crowd, having driven in from all over the state. The weather forecasters had given no warning. Very few visitors had thought to bring rain gear or even an umbrella.

“Not to worry,” said Jim Davis, “we have something that can save the day and perhaps make a dollar.”

Jim Davis look-alike?

As happens, the Davis brothers owned The Great Minneapolis War Supplies Store, which sold everything from government issue uniforms to boots, tents, duffles, backpacks, mess kits, canteens, you name it. Some of the inventory was new, some of it used. Most was left over from World War II and even some stuff from World War I.

Within an hour trucks drove out to the Fair from their warehouse, stopped at each stand and unloaded four or five olive colored cases containing small individual packages of World War I mustard gas protectors.

When unwrapped and unfolded they were actually giant baggies, designed to cover a soldier from head to foot. We were instructed to sell them for $1.00 each, of which our share was to be 50 cents.

I must have gone through 20 cases in an hour or two. Each case contained 24 gas protectors. My profit was $240, almost as much as I made in a whole State Fair Week selling ice cream and caramel apples. It seemed as though half the people at the Fair were running around in olive-drab baggies.

Great for gas, but a bust in a rain storm

The Davis brothers’ ice cream stands went through the Surplus Store’s entire gas protector inventory that morning. I could have sold 500 more. Good thing I didn’t.

There was a problem. The big plastic baggies were designed to protect our soldiers from mustard gas, not rain. After about twenty minutes the seams holding the bags together began to melt or dissolve or whatever. Not only that, but the olive-drab coating began to flake off.

The Fairgrounds were soon covered with discarded gas protectors, or what was left of them. Customers came back to our stands with soggy gas bags in hand demanding refunds and compensation for the mess the olive drab coating made on their clothes. Refunds I could handle, but cleaning bills, no.

Minnesotans are a hearty bunch. Most of our gas protector customers just shrugged the baggie incident off, being more concerned about enjoying the Fair for which they had waited a year.

I handed out a lot of refunds and/or free ice cream, but I still made a killing especially when the Davis brothers offered to eat their share of the loss. Actually, they had no idea what those mustard gas protectors originally cost them in the first place.

Epilogue: (click below)

The following day, the Minneapolis and St. Paul papers featured big before and after pictures of people wandering around the Fairgrounds in the rain wearing gas bags, and the next day when the place was littered with olive-drab remnants.

As I write this at least 60 plus years later, the Minnesota State Fair is still one of the nation’s largest. Actually, very little seems to have changed. Some of the old buildings have been replaced and they’ve added some newer more contemporary exhibits. There are still food concessions in the commissary and the Grand Stand shows continue to be a big draw.

Antacid challenge

Of course, the Davis brothers are long since gone, as is their surplus store. But if they were alive today… Who knows? Perhaps they would be selling some of the latest new State Fair delicacies, like maybe shrimp dogs, Idaho tacos, bacon cannoli, or would you believe, chocolate coated salami?

.

Drive down to Miami with Geoff Nate and his buddy. Fateful romance follows.   [open]

3 Comments

3 thoughts on “The State Fair

  1. Pat

    Hi Geoffrey – I especially enjoyed this one! I have always loved county and state fairs (especially the rides – and the food, of course), and your memories made me very nostalgic. I didn’t know Minnesota still had a state fair. I thought they were a thing of the past. I should make a point of going sometime. Unfortunately, I can’t find anyone to go on rides with me any more. I guess I’m the only 70-year-old who hasn’t outgrown them. And I would feel pretty silly going alone with all the little kids and teenagers. Ah, well – I still have my memories! By the way, I thought a combination of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream was called “Neapolitan,” not “rainbow.” I never heard of rainbow ice cream.

    Pat

    Like

  2. this year at the Fair the hot ticket was Carib lobster rolls, among the other items you mentioned…last year, alligator on a stick – this definitely ups the level of sophistication for Minnesotans whose image is usually based on an addiction to cheese curds and inevitable arteriosclerosis

    Like

    • Hummm…. Geoff Nate sold Eskimo Pies for ten cents at the State Fair. I’m very curious to know what the selling price was for a Carib lobster roll or (yuck) alligator on a stick?

      -Cousin Geoff

      Like

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