If this year’s Mille Lacs Fair is judged on quality more than attendance, several of the fair board directors would give the fair a blue ribbon.
The board estimates attendance at about 20,000, down by at least 5,000 since last year.
The 122nd annual four-day fair will be remembered by many as having some new entertainment and pleasant weather.
Among the new events were a truck pull, a University of Minnesota Raptor Center presentation, a bull riding contest, Animal Fest and new musical acts on stage. Those acts included Whiskey Tango, Ring of Kerry & Irish Stepdancers, and Good For Gary.
The bull riding, run by Rice Bull Riding Co. of Princeton, drew a crowd of 715. Bull riding, in which the contestants vie for points as they head toward finals later in the year, brought enthusiastic responses from the crowd.
Part of the action was watching how the bulls acted after being freed of their riders. Often, the bulls went after anyone in sight within the arena – including the fallen rider, the clown and the handlers – until a rider was able to lasso the bull and bring it back into the pens. Sometimes a bull managed to stay out in the arena for as much as 10 minutes as it evaded the lasso, pawing the earth and jumping, charging, and running around.
The show also included “mutton busting” (children riding sheep) and a game of children running to the center of the arena to locate their piled shoes. The object was to find them, put them on and run to the opposite end as fast as possible.
Brian Santema, manager of the 4-H food stand, said that the bull riding setup workers came to his food stand tired and thirsty and “slammed down Gatorades.”
The food stand did well at this year’s fair, selling a lot of sweet corn, Santema said. The crowd outside the food stand was smaller than some years, “but they ate,” he added.
Fair board member Pat Braun said she thought the people “didn’t linger” in any particular spots on the fairgrounds like she has sometimes seen at past fairs.
Fair board directors Terry Ash and Braun pulled out some statistics on where some people did stay for a while during the fair. Their figures showed 424 at the tractor pull this year – compared to 572 last year – 573 at the truck pull and 1,868 at the demolition derby, up from last year’s 1,604. Attendance at Stipe’s Shows was a little below last year, but the food vendors were happy, Braun said.
As several fair board directors discussed the lower attendance, director Marty Grimm suggested that the fact that Benton County was having its fair the same weekend was a factor. Grimm added that the Mille Lacs Fair was competition for the Benton fair.
Braun said she thought there has been a downturn at a lot of county fairs this year. The vendor who did the pedal tractor pull at this year’s Mille Lacs Fair, said he has seen attendance down at fairs “all over,” she said.
But the board members were satisfied with this year’s fair. Grimm, for example, noted that the 4-H animal auction had 60-plus animal sales, bringing in $22,000. It’s an auction where the buyer does not get the animal they bid for, they just contribute the money. The county 4-H Federation gets 20 percent of each of the sales and the 4-H’er gets the rest. Grimm said the federation uses the money to fund the cost of 4-H exhibitors advancing to the state fair. There are many more Mille Lacs 4-H’ers advancing this year, which will mean much more cost for the federation, he said.
Many things behind the scenes also help a fair, Braun and other fair board directors said. They pointed out the scores of volunteers spread across the fairgrounds, many of them having served for decades, like a number of them in the open class exhibit building. Marlene Trunk, one of the longtime volunteers in that building, noted that the amount of garden produce exhibited this year was down, but was still respectable, considering the late spring.
Grimm, who like other fair board members put in long days at the fair, reported that 55 dairy animals and 38 beef animals were exhibited in open class livestock.
Another behind-the-scenes job is the maintenance of the fairgrounds’ restrooms.
“People comment on our bathrooms, how clean they are,” Braun said. “It sounds stupid, but people judge us on the cleanliness of our bathrooms.”
The fair had a couple mishaps at the fair, though they were patched over. One was the judge for the goat show not showing up. The show was Thursday, and the scheduled judge thought it was Friday, according to Grimm and fair board chair Frank Hartmann. A local certified goat judge happened to be in the audience and was able to fill in so the goat show could go on.
The other mishap was someone driving over an electrical box on the north end of the fairgrounds Sunday afternoon. Hartmann said the damage caused a large ground wire to be exposed, and city utility workers came and remedied it. It was fortunate the box wasn’t damaged more because power could have been lost for a large part of the fairgrounds, including the bull riding arena, according to Hartmann.
“I was pleased with the general participation and attendance, even though we’re down somewhat,” Hartmann said. “The spirit of the fair seemed good.”