Minnesotans love the fair, some more than others. I admit to being one of those people who still go as much as I can each year. I thought I knew everything about the fair until the year when I worked as an information service specialist at the main gate.
Working as an information service specialist is not an easy job. I was confronted by hundreds of people each day asking me all sorts of questions, such as, “Where is the bathroom?” Or, “Where can I find the alligator on a stick?” It was a fun but exhausting job. Fairgoers want to have fun and the people who work the information booths are there to make sure they do.
I interviewed three information service specialists who have been a part of the Great Minnesota Get-Together for many years. Here’s the inside scoop on why they do it.
Bill Nisbit and Vicki Meier have been working the early shift together at the AgHort Info booth, outside the Horticulture building, for the past five years.
You could say they know a lot about the fair, or at least their little corner of it. But they also get a little help from a laptop with internet service and an old fashioned notebook that lists such things as old and new vendors and other tidbits of knowledge that help them do their jobs just a little bit better.
Bill has been involved with the fair since he was a 4-H kid entering projects in electricity and woodworking.
“(The State Fair) It’s in my blood. I always liked it,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, he worked as a conductor on the backend of the steam propane cars that traveled through the grounds, picking up people at various stops. But Bill says his forte is really giving information.
As he likes to joke with his friends, “I like to tell people where to go.”
Vicki Meier, Bill’s coworker, has Fair blood in her as well. Her father managed a hot dog stand for 50 years and recruited his family to work with him. At 11 years old, Vicki’s first job was cutting buns for the hot dogs.
Vicki has been part of the fair for so long that she still knows some of the vendors who work there, including the family who owned the hot dog booths her father managed.
She remembered working her first year in the information business near the DNR building.
“I talked so much I almost lost my voice,” she said. “It was constant.”
“I like helping people. I am doing this and getting paid for it. Sometimes it’s a challenge. Some people have good questions but Bill and I are usually able to figure it out.”
Bill said, “We get all kinds of questions. People still ask us about the train ride. They still think there is one. They haven’t had it for years.”
Vicki recalled one year when two elderly women came up to the booth. They told her how much fun they had and that they were ready to go home. Then they asked, “Do you know where we parked?”
“They were serious,” Vicki recalled. “Some people are so excited that they forget to look around them. That’s the first time I got that question.”
Two years ago, Bill and Vicki were invited to be guests on the Garrison Keillor grandstand show. Garrison asked Vicki her about her days as a bun cutter. He wanted to know if she put that on her resume. Garrison stumped Bill when he asked him how deep the water was in Ye Old Mill. Bill guessed five feet. It turns out it is only knee deep.
Bill and Vicki like to hear about what is new for food each year. This year Vicki heard that there will be chocolate covered jalapeños. She said she doesn’t know if she will be trying that one.
“We’ve tried most of the new food,” Bill said. “The big fat bacon is good, not so healthy.”
When he’s not working at the booth, Bill enjoys watching all the entertainment, especially the amateur talent contest at the grandstand.
Vicki, who works at Health Partners, said, “I have been at the Fair close to 35 years. No matter what job I’ve had, I always took vacation, so everyone knew where I was.
“I can be a carnie for 12 days. I can be a different person if I want to be. All the people, all the shows. It’s exciting every year. You can be a kid again.”
Ron Jacobson, another information service specialist, has been hanging around the Fair since he was a kid, once taking on a job cleaning the cow barns, which he admits was not as much fun as working at the info booth.
This will be his fifth year working at the booth near the DNR building, but he has filled in at every booth in the fair except two. He says he is only at the mid to lower end of seniority for information specialists, indicating how many people return every year to work there.
Like Vicki, Ron also uses his vacation time, taking a break from his day job at Well Fargo.
“It’s so much fun to do. There are Fair nuts who are crazy about the place and I think I am one of those people,” he said.
Working at the info booth, Ron has been able to observe a few things about the State Fair experience that are both interesting and humorous. For instance, it always amazes him that people don’t wear sensible footwear. They come in flip-flops.
It also strikes him as funny that people will wait in line to ask him where the cash machine or the Miracle of Birth Center is, when all they have to do is turn around and look across the street.
During the two Senior Citizen Days of the fair, Ron will notice many seniors coming to the fair as couples.
“It’s like they are in high school on a date, looking for coffee, holding hands,” he said.
Ron even has regulars visit his booth each year. One elderly woman has come to his stand every morning of the Fair since he has worked there. “That’s every morning for all 12 days,” he explained. “That’s 48 times.”
One of the most nerve-wracking experiences is when a child gets lost or becomes separated from his/ her parents. And it seems to happen every year.
“It’s an emotional thing,” he said
The fair encourages parents to pick up the free wrist bands for their children that are available at all info stands. The bands provide identification information so children can be reunited quickly with their parents.
Ron has also heard his share of complaints, including some about the cost of admission. But he has an answer for that. “If you walk around at night and see all the trash all over and then come back at 6 a.m., it is immaculately clean,” he said. “It’s an incredibly large operation.”
He has also heard some strange and inaccurate things as well. One man told him that the Fair was moving to Arden Hills. They were planning on demolishing the whole area and rebuilding it. Another man informed him two guys from Florida owned the Fair.
“There is true passion at the Fair.” Ron said. Fairgoers get excited about changes that are made, even when those changes are for the better. When the Miracle of Birth Center was rebuilt, people told Ron they liked the old one better.
And when they moved the Deep Fried Pickle booth, Ron was surprised at how many people actually liked fried pickles.
Even more amusing, people are slightly embarrassed to ask where the bacon booth is.
Why should they be embarrassed at all? After all, this is the Minnesota State Fair.