A Day at the Fair

George Sweeney has been coming to the fair for more than 40 of his 62 years on earth, the last 29 of them without his right arm. Back in 1976, George, who lives in South St. Paul, was trimming a tree 45 feet off the ground when he hit an 8,000-volt power line. "It burned my wrist off; burned all the veins shut," George says, holding up his prosthesis. "I burned my leg and half my butt off too. I got a bunch of grafts. They said it almost cooked my blood. If you have taken 8,000--and nobody I know has, and lived--it will make your ankles rattle." The sunburn is permanent too. "I don't get no redder; sit in the sun every day, it doesn't matter," he says happily. His son continues to operate the family tree-trimming business.

Ask George what's changed at the fair over the decades and he replies, "I miss the dirty guys who used to work on the rides. Now everybody has to have on clean shirts and uniforms. I come to the fair to eat and to watch the people; that's my favorite, watching the people," he says, scooting himself up higher on the bench.

Text by Britt Robson + Photo by Michael Dvorak

Alec Baumer watches as the Rambouillet sheep are led in for the first contest of the day. Baumer lives on a sheep farm in Mindoro, Wisconsin. "We raise them for wool and meat, different breeds," he says, tugging on his cowboy hat like a veteran farm hand. "The meat goes to the locker plant for people to eat. The wool is for jackets, if it's five or six inches thick." Baumer, 11 years old, is sleeping on a cot in the sheep stalls with his parents and sister. Earlier this morning the temporary living quarters got soaked when the barn roof leaked. "It's pretty fun," Baumer says. "The sheep aren't too loud. They bah every once in awhile."

Text by Paul Demko + Photo by Tony Nelson

Larry James endures his second Minnesota State Fair with an expression that matches the glum rain that's washing over "Kidway," the mini-Midway for toddlers. Friday morning's coming down. He doesn't even register a grunt when a family--two kids, two parents, and two grandparents--hand over tickets to ride. He flicks a console switch that runs the merry-go-round, and punches a red button marked "FWD." Grandpa and Kid One take a spin. "Nine or ten times, they'll go around," James says, noting that a timer allows for maybe two and a half minutes a ride. Has he ever actually counted? "Nah." James was raised on a farm in Shire, Iowa, and eventually left the "hay, milk-cows, and corn, because of the weather," for the carny life. It must've suited him, because Larry James is, in fact, the prototypical carny. The 55-year-old is clad in a denim shirt and black Dickies that boast a chain wallet. His curly hair and thick beard are a faded blond, complementing his ruddy complexion and a toothless half-smile that flashes exactly once. There are sores and worn-out tattoos on his forearms. If looks could kill, there'd be some kind of slaughter at the fair this year.

James has been working fairs for 30 years. He's on the road "all by myself" for nine months a year, and the rest of the time lives in San Antonio, not far from the headquarters of the Somerset, Texas, company that employs him. How did he come across this career? "I walked in and asked for a job," he says, matter-of-fact.

James doesn't say a word when Grandpa and Kid One give thanks and hustle out of the gate. He turns to another customer, an 18-month-old, carried by the sister of a pregnant woman waiting at the exit gate with a stroller. "Sometimes it's a beautiful world, overall," he says in a philosophical moment. "I'd rather be here than on the Midway because all you got is kids. I don't put up with teenagers too good. Here, the kids will always listen to you."

Text by G.R. Anderson Jr. + Photo by Nathan Grumdahl

At 6:30 a.m., this year's largest hog is still supine and snoring, a position he will maintain for the greater part of his life. As one pig farmer points out, the hog is useless for bacon, or any kind of meat, because he is all fat and no lean. Additionally, he's probably got arthritis, and he can't stand up because his heart won't take all that weight for very long. The farmer affects an air of puzzlement, pointing out the hog's knees, which are bloody from bearing all its slumberous tonnage. "I can't see why they would want to do that to an animal, make it so it can't stand up. Smallest, biggest... I guess we just like records."

Text by Emily Carter + Photo by Michael Dvorak

Pastor Greg Renstrom, although in his own words "no extrovert," is giving it a good shot, barking through the megaphone that "Breakfast is served" and occasionally brandishing a cinnamon roll to tempt the early, still soggy strollers to come inside for a dry seat and a hot cup. The dining hall, at 108 years of age, is the oldest site at the fair. Pastor Greg himself is like an amalgamation of Minnesotan Cultural History: with a Scandinavian surname and a gentle handshake, he's soft spoken, but progressive, speaking of his church as "reconciled", by which he means not anti-gay. He's also, in another Minnesotan tradition, in recovery, and not just from booze. He's lost 45 pounds in the last two years. The cinnamon roll has no power over him.

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